Brushwood Center report finds systemic inequities

Health outcomes for communities of color in Lake County impacted

RIVERWOODS – While Lake County is known for an abundance of nature, including Lake Michigan, forest preserves, parks and grassroots-created spaces, residents face significant race-based disparities and access to parks and open spaces, according to a report released by Brushwood Center at Ryerson Woods.

Analysis of 38 data sets from health, environmental quality, climate, transportation, green space and demographic data revealed Black and Hispanic communities in northeastern Lake County are the most overburdened by health and environmental injustices, according to the report from Brushwood, a leading organization dedicated to promoting equity and making nature accessible through community action.

The report, “Health, Equity, and Nature: A Changing Climate in Lake County, IL”, is the first of its kind in Lake County and is issued by Brushwood’s Health, Equity and Nature Accelerator.

The report comes at a pivotal moment with a growing post-pandemic awareness of the importance of the natural environment, according to the release. The report aims to equip Lake County community members and policymakers with the information to apply a climate justice lens to improve health equity, climate justice and access to nature – all in the interest of human health and well-being.

The report reveals that almost half of Black respondents and 31% of Hispanic respondents expressed concerns about access, safety or maintenance of open spaces compared with only 21% of white respondents. Key barriers to accessing nature included limited transportation options, lack of materials in Spanish and a need for more culturally relevant nature-based programs, providers and partnerships.

For example, only three of 23 park districts include programming in languages other than English. The disparities in access to nature, combined with historical housing discrimination and proximity to industrial development, has led to wide gaps in health outcomes, according to the report.

“The fight for environmental and racial justice and human health is not isolated. It is deeply interconnected,” Catherine Game, executive director of Brushwood Center, said in a news release. “To improve the environment and communities in Lake County, we must collectively support, empower and invest in community-driven, equitable solutions to address these challenges, particularly in the face of a changing climate.”

Brushwood Center began the project in response to growing community demand and momentum for systemic changes to address racial and ethnic inequities at the intersection of health, climate and environment. The report was created in collaboration with community organizations, Lake County land agencies, community members, artists, researchers and environmental justice groups, as well as a 16-member advisory board.

The report found community members and organizations in Lake County fighting for environmental justice are in a position of strength and noted recent successes, including the 2022 closure of the coal-fired power plant in Waukegan. Yet many toxic challenges remain, particularly in northeastern Lake County: five out of the eight Superfund sites in Lake County are located in and around the Waukegan area, a community that is predominantly Black and Hispanic. A series of maps show the proximity of communities to Superfund sites and coal-fired electric power plants and identifies high clusters of diabetes and asthma.

“With this report, we are determined to change the narrative that your ZIP code all too often determines your health outcome,” Natalia Ospina, director of the Health, Equity, and Nature Accelerator, said in the release. “While our recommendations focus primarily at the local level, we hope our new report will inspire at the state and national policy levels as well.”

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