University of Illinois at Chicago
GARRETT-PRIMARY-2024.pdf (3.67 MB)

Inequitable by Nature: Green Space and the Naturalization of Environmental Racism in the United States

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posted on 2024-05-01, 00:00 authored by Cal Lee Garrett
Parks and nature preserves are extremely valued for the material and symbolic health benefits associated with open space and nature, but they do not offer the same benefits to all communities. In cities like Chicago, even when parks and nature programs are present in Black and Latinx communities, the purported health benefits of these initiatives are less evident than for predominantly white communities. Using the case of natural areas programs and greening initiatives, where vegetation is intentionally cultivated in parks and nature preserves, this project seeks to better understand why white people appear to experience greater benefits of nature compared with other racialized groups in the United States. Building on the theoretical frameworks of biopolitics, access, and scientific expertise, I argue that access to nature and the persistence of environmental racism are facilitated by how nature is defined and produced by scientists and environmentalists. This study includes 80 in-depth interviews with experts and stakeholders, observations in 50 green spaces, and archival documents across two states where the distribution of environmental threats is profoundly unequal and racialized. In Illinois, the major urban area of Chicago is a dense metropolitan center. In North Carolina, several urban areas are interspersed with suburban and rural areas. I describe this research as a multi-sited policy ethnography. Ultimately, I argue that, by relying on scientific expertise to cultivate and manage nature in community spaces, greening initiatives tend to naturalize environmental racism by defining inequality as the absence of nature or its proper scientific management. My findings identify three ways that ecology is privileged in greening initiatives, reproducing the effects of environmental racism. (1) By privileging credentials and practices rooted in ecology and engaging a generic scientific public, greening initiatives marginalize the interests of neighborhood communities and community organizers. (2) By employing quantitative, spatial measures to illustrate racial disparities, greening initiatives treat racism as a static environmental fact and flatten the social, economic, and political dynamics that contribute to these disparities. (3) By emphasizing nature as a self-sustaining entity, greening initiatives minimize the economic value of labor required to maintain nature in communities.



Claire Decoteau



Degree Grantor

University of Illinois Chicago

Degree Level

  • Doctoral

Degree name

Doctor of Philosophy

Committee Member

P a t r i s i a M a c í a s - R o j a s , A n d y C l a r n o , Z s u z s a G i l l e , E l i z a b e t h P o v i n e l l i

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