New Data Reveals Lack of Outdoor Access Near New England Schools

September 7, 2021
MONTPELIER, Vt.

New data revealed today by The Trust for Public Land shows a lack of public access to the outdoors and open space near kindergarten-12th grade schools in Northern New England.  

According to analysis done by The Trust for Public Land, 34% of schools across Northern New England (Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine) lack public access to nature within a 10-minute walk of campus. Specifically broken down by state, 15% of schools in New Hampshire lack access, 41% in Vermont, and 43% in Maine. 

The Trust for Public Land also found disparities in access in low-income communities and those experiencing poor mental health. Regionally, low-income communities are 1.6 times less likely than average to have walkable park and open space access provided by local schools. Communities with poor mental health enjoy less walkable access to parks and open space from their schools than the regional average, 57% compared with 66%. 

“This spotlights how many students and communities throughout Northern New England lack public access to the outdoors. But it gives decision makers insight into how we can close these gaps for those communities that stand to benefit the most,” said Shelby Semmes, Northern New England Area Director for The Trust for Public Land. “The Trust for Public Land understands just how critical access to nature is and we are proud to continue our work with communities across the region to ensure all residents have equitable access to the benefits outdoor spaces bring.” 

To rectify these gaps, The Trust for Public Land developed the Nature Near Schools Discovery Map, an interactive mapping tool and resource directory showing what conserved open space is currently publicly accessible and within walking distance (less than or equal to ½-mile by surface roads and sidewalks) of every K-12 school in these three New England states. These resources can help educators, administrators, outdoor education programs, and other community-based organizations explore where outdoor assets currently lie, and pinpoint what schools in the region lack access to the outdoors and should be prioritized for outreach and new conservation opportunities, based on health and equity indicators, including: 

  • Percentage of students eligible for free and reduced lunch 
  • Percentage of people of color in the census block group 
  • School-level physical activity indicators 
  • Community-level mental health indicators 

“Unfortunately, proximity to nature does not always mean access to nature, but protecting open spaces near schools is a critical step to improving equitable access to the outdoors for our youth,” said Alicia Heyburn, Executive Director Teens to Trails and advisor to the Nature Near Schools Discovery Map. “Couple nearby nature with inclusive non-competitive school programs like Outdoor clubs and you’ve got a great resource for healthy, happy students who have a sense of comfort and belonging in the natural world.”  

The Trust for Public Land has been working for years to conserve special places, particularly ones that advance equitable access to the outdoors for children and other vulnerable populations– from the Forest at Crotched Mountain School in New Hampshire, the Eastern Promenade Trail in Portland Maine, most recently to the Huntington Community Forest in Huntington Vermont. Currently, we are partnering to form a new community forest in Wolcott, Vermont which lies next door to the Wolcott Elementary School,  working hand in hand with teachers, parents and community-based organizations to fulfill the dream of Nature Near Schools in Wolcott.  

“We are also initiating the creation of new parks and public land access near schools in Portland and other cities across Maine to ensure all students have outdoor spaces to learn and play,” said Betsy Cook, Maine State Director for The Trust for Public Land. “With this tool in hand, The Trust for Public Land is eager to explore new park, community forest, and public land projects near schools with communities throughout the region.” 

“Research shows that up to 80% of our health outcomes are determined by social and environmental factors that occur outside the boundaries of a traditional health care setting,” remarks Emmy Wollenburg, Program Design & Implementation Specialist for the RiseVT program at OneCare Vermont and advisor to the Nature Near Schools Discovery Map. “This is why we work in communities to invest in infrastructure that supports opportunities for Vermonters to be more active and enjoy the mental health benefits of spending time in our natural playground. Our advocacy efforts with our partners in the Huntington community made the Huntington Community Forest possible—now kids can easily work outdoor play time into their school day and the whole community can enjoy recreating in the area as well.” 

A special thanks to our partners for their guidance in creating the Nature Near Schools Discovery Map: Maine Math and Science Alliance, RiseVT, Shelburne Farms, and Teens to Trails

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About The Trust for Public Land   

The Trust for Public Land creates parks and protects land for people, ensuring healthy, livable communities for generations to come. Millions of people live within a 10-minute walk of a Trust for Public Land park, garden or natural area, and millions more visit these sites every year. To support The Trust for Public Land and share why nature matters to you, visit www.tpl.org.