Hartford community members struggle to access local green space

Easily accessible green space open to the public at the University of Connecticut Storrs Campus.
Easily accessible green space open to the public at the University of Connecticut Storrs Campus.

Laura Augenbraun

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Climate, Green Living, Policy, Storyfest, Storyfest 2024

As forest makes up over half of the land area in Connecticut, it seems safe to assume that state residents can easily access green space relatively close to their homes. While this may be true for most towns in the state, there’s a handful of urban areas where it’s difficult for residents to connect with nature in this way. 

Valerie Dixon, a senior who has lived in Hartford her entire life, says she has witnessed an obvious change in the use of green space within the city. Growing up, Dixon said she spent a lot of her time outdoors, specifically in Colt Park, a 106-acre park located in the southeast part of Hartford. The park, Dixon explained, was always busy with people and full of trees. What she sees in Colt Park now, however, is drastically different than what it once was. 

“As a child, growing up in Colt park, people used to be there on a continual basis, you’d always see someone under a tree having a picnic. You don’t see that anymore,” Dixon said.

The issue Dixon has seen lately is that over the past few years, more severe weather events have knocked large amounts of trees down, but the city has not planted more in their wake.

“We all know that trees help you breathe, they’re good for the air quality. They’re also beautiful,” Dixon said. 

Dixon thinks that not only does the city need to address the loss of trees, but community members should be more educated on how to connect with nature and the benefits of it, as it’s been known to positively impact mental health. The American Psychological Association published a report in 2020 with findings that proved access to nature significantly helps an individual’s cognitive function and development. Moreover, the report asserted that interaction with nature helps to increase overall happiness and positivity and gives people “a sense of meaning and purpose in life.”

But researchers have also found evidence that people of color lag far behind white populations when it comes to getting their dose of nature. The claim that “people from racialised groups (e.g., African/Caribbean, South Asian) are twice as likely than as White individuals to live in areas of [green space] deprivation,” says a report published by the National Library of Medicine in 2022.

According to data published by CT Data Collaborative, people of color account for 85% of the population of Harford, but just 37% of the urban area is green space, a significantly low number when compared to other towns in the state. There’s only seven out of the 169 towns in Connecticut that have less than 40% green space, with four of these seven having a majority population of people of color. In Connecticut, minority groups are commonly found in areas with less access to green space, and Dixon explained that many community members aren’t aware of how they can connect with green space or the resources available to help them do so. 

While watching the loss of trees in her community unfold, Dixon began to garden as a way to spend time with nature and now stewards a community garden at her church in Hartford. She said more people were involved in the garden in the beginning, but many left because they were frustrated and didn’t know how to properly care for it. 

“I didn’t know what to do and it was pretty hard. As time went on I started learning myself. It’s been about ten years now, so I’m a pro,” Dixon said. 

Dixon credits her learning to Herb Virgo, founder and executive director of Keney Park Sustainability, a Hartford group that promotes greater community access to and educates students on the importance of connecting with nature. The group also gives families the tools to make their own greenspaces, such as small garden beds or pots, soil, fertilizer and seeds. 

Virgo says the biggest issues he’s encountered while working on the Keney Park program is not necessarily the amount of green space in Hartford, but the state that the green space is in. A lot of the parks and open areas are not well maintained or monitored, so residents don’t want to or feel safe going to these areas. 

Keney Park Sustainability was created in 2016 when Virgo built his first raised bed for gardening, grew fruits and vegetables, and decided to give the produce to the public. From there the organization turned into a program with many different activities, all with a focus on urban agriculture education and forestry education.  

 “Our main objective is to reconnect people to the healing power of nature, that’s the common denominator through all of our programming,” Virgo said. “The reason why that’s important is because it is what connects us all, as opposed to the things that commonly separate us,” whether that be something like politics, or more literally, like a highway separating certain neighborhoods from accessing a park in town. 

Virgo said that city officials in Hartford are aware of and want to fix the issues regarding green space in the community, but they don’t have the financial wherewithal to do so. Keney Park and other programs have instead begun working with the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection for help with their green space. 

Danica Doroski, the State Urban Forester, and Sarah Huang, the Director of the Office of Equity and Environmental Justice at DEEP, have been working extensively with Keney Park Sustainability and the city of Hartford to get funding for green space and educational programs for the community. 

“The real focus has been in Keney Park. We have a lot of really good partners there,” Doroski said. The program has applied and received grants and recommendations from Doroski’s group in DEEP about what they should do to keep the green space well maintained. 

Huang explained that her office has an advisory council made up of residents from Environmental Justice communities, or communities most negatively impacted by environmental factors, such as air pollution or contaminated water. This advisory council helps the state understand what communities are going through and what residents want. 

“The heart of environmental justice is making sure you’re talking to community residents to confirm what their needs are in the area and how to utilize greenspace to ensure those are at the center of developments,” Huang said. 

What DEEP and Huang’s office have recently seen within EJ communities is that decisions get made for the community, not by them. To overcome this issue, Huang said that DEEP is adopting an EJ screening tool, an online platform where EJ community members are able to report the problems they’ve been facing. 

“It’s a mapping tool meant to provide residents with a tool to identify the main impacts in their community. Whether it’s pollution, social vulnerability, these are all the things that happen in my community that make it an EJ community,” Huang said.

The hope is that this tool is able to highlight issues, give voice to community members, and pinpoint the problems they’re dealing with to fix them. Huang says the tool is just the beginning of her office’s work to change the idea of environmental justice from just a checkbox to mark, to instead a movement that works to center the power around individuals within these communities. 

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