For 19-year old Uriel Llanas, it was the starry, quiet night and clean air on a camping trip with Detroit Outdoors back in 2019 that continues to draw him into nature today.
“I felt very calm and very at peace when I first went there,” Llanas told Planet Detroit. “Living my entire life (in Detroit), I have never heard it completely silent. There was always something creating noise.”
Llanas, then 17, recalled how being in nature away from his Southwest Detroit home awakened him to a stark reality in his life: “I have become nose blind. I never knew what clean air was, obviously. When I got back (from camping) I was able to smell everything.” He lives two miles away from waste sewerage treatment and refinery plants that emit “that nauseous smell.”
“It is no coincidence that with our increasing urbanization, or at least the spread of denatured urbanization, we have increasingly common incidences of anxiety and depression,” said Richard Louv, author of several books, including the 2005 seminal book The Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. “If we are going to have meaningful experiences with nature, we are going to have to rethink nature within cities. To connect to that nature, we can walk in our neighborhoods, get to know these pockets of nature, find out how to protect them and then learn new ways to bring more nature to the urban areas.”
Llanas, like so many other urban Black and brown youths, getting that opportunity to experience nature beyond air pollution and asphalt is difficult. For them, campsites, mountains, forests and waterways are often inaccessible, unaffordable and deemed unsafe.
While health officials have encouraged people to get outdoors to enjoy the health benefits of nature during the COVID-19 pandemic, that remedy is another challenge for Black and Brown communities. According to the Centers for Disease Control, Black and Brown Americans have more cases and death from COVID-19 than white Americans, and they are three times more likely to be hospitalized for the disease.
Perhaps some have accepted these disparities as a way of life, but Detroit Inspiring Connections Outdoors is working to change them.
ICO is a Sierra Club outdoor adventure and environmental education program that aims to give urban youth positive outdoor experiences. One ICO initiative is Detroit Outdoors, a collaboration with the YMCA of Metropolitan Detroit and Detroit Parks and Recreation Department to reactivate Scout Hollow, Detroit’s only campground, located in Rouge Park. They hope to make camping, affordable, safe, and accessible for Detroiters.
“There are definitely barriers, both real and perceived,” said Garrett Dempsey, campaign manager with the Sierra Club and its Detroit Outdoors program director. “Transportation is always the really big challenge. That’s why we wanted to put energy into reactivating a campground in the City of Detroit;to embrace the nature that’s nearby so one doesn’t feel they have to go far and pay a lot of money to experience nature.”
Families have dropped off campers to Scout Hollow and some teachers have gotten grants to rent buses for transportation to the campsite. Detroit Outdoors is also investigating the viability of using the Bus for Outdoor Access and Teaching, a bus specifically designed to be an affordable and convenient transportation option for those providing outdoor programming.
“We have by no means tackled the transportation challenge, but it’s still cheaper to get a bus inside the city than outside of it,” Dempsey said.
Detroit Outdoors launched in 2018 to help youth serving organizations, primarily from Detroit and surrounding communities, to coordinate camping trips to Scout Hollow. Youth leaders must take the Camping Leadership Immersion Course Training before hosting a camping trip. This training is an overnight trip at Scout Hollow where Detroit Outdoors staff members teach them camping skills to equip them to serve their youth.
Once they complete the training, youth leaders can reserve the campsite and have access to training material and the Detroit Outdoors gear library, where they can borrow camping equipment for their trips, saving time and money.
“Detroit Outdoors eliminates the cost of accessing that gear and getting a place outside. It can all happen in Rouge Park,” Dempsey told Planet Detroit. Funding for gear and operating activities at Rouge Park are possible from Kresge Foundation, Ralph C. Wilson Foundation, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation grants and each organization contributing its staff and existing resources.
This partnership is essential in a time where nature is being promoted for its healing properties, and access to it has diminished in Detroit because of budget cuts and staff furloughs due to the pandemic, said Jac Kyle, a naturalist with the City of Detroit Parks and Recreation Department and the city’s point person for Detroit Outdoors. “Having partnerships has been crucial to us having programming,” Kyle told Planet Detroit. “The Sierra Club is the major fundraiser and fiduciary.”
Beyond camping at Scout Hollow, Detroit Outdoors works to reactivate other parks across the city, including Palmer Park where it began hosting physically distanced bonfire pits and having snow shoes available to attendees last winter. Though there was no camping at Scout Hollow last year and there are no plans this year because of the pandemic, Dempsey hopes COVID-19 conditions improve so Detroit Outdoors can offer engaging outdoor programming this summer. Plans for archery lessons in Detroit parks this fall are already in the works. Dempsey is working with the Detroit River International Wildlife Refuge to create short videos showing what visitors to the refuge can do there.
While the Sierra Club has for more than 100 years provided outdoor experiences and education, the recent Detroit Outdoors collaborative not only provides accessible, affordable and safe nature experiences but also seeks to change how urban Black and Brown youths imagine themselves among nature.
“Kids of color don’t see themselves reflected in stories about nature,” Dempsey noted, drawing on his experience working with youth and nature for more than a decade. Before taking on his role at the Sierra Club, Dempsey volunteered with the club and worked with the Boys and Girls Club of Highland Park.
“We just worked to create a bunch of activities to help those children connect with nature,” he said. “In my work I’m moved by what I see.”
Dempsey has seen young people move from being afraid to spend the night outdoors to engaging him in conversations about how they can connect with the past through nature. When he asked one boy what was the best part of a camping trip, the boy said, “The whole thing. To him it was this revelation of how you can be in this world.”
The experts bear out what Dempsey sees and Llanas feels. Studies show that nature positively impacts the body’s physiology, including lowering of heart rate and blood pressure, decreasing anxiety and promoting overall emotional well being.
More than 15 years ago, Louv coined the term Nature-Deficit Disorder to describe “the human costs of alienation from nature.
“Though we have created a world that is technological and disconnected from most of us, the land is where we come from and the inheritance of all of us,” Dempsey said. “It’s important to have folks to remind them, like the song says, this land is our land. It’s how we’re going to figure out the way forward as a people.”
This story was funded in part by the Solutions Journalism Network.
Correction 4/23/21 A previous version of this article misnamed the campground in Rouge Park. It is Scout Hollow, not Sleep Hollow, reflecting its long history as a campground used by scouts back in the 1930s. Thank you to Sally Petrella from Friends of Rouge Park for pointing out the error.