It was recently reported that an Asian American man named Thai Tran bought a 10-acre island known as Owl Island near the Delta and Sacramento area for $1.195 million. Tran, a Vietnamese chain restaurant owner in Sacramento, has the vision to make Owl Island a family friendly destination where people can enjoy camping, fishing, barbecuing and swimming. It is intriguing to see this idea coming from an Asian American because the studies have shown that Asian Americans, like other communities of color, do not prefer outdoor recreation like camping or fishing.
In 2017, U.S. Forest Service conducted recreation visitor research that indicated that while the Asian Americans surveyed wanted to get away and enjoy outdoor recreation, they were not interested in areas that do not “feel safe,” nor would they allow their children to go to these areas. In addition, Asian American families wanted to visit outdoor areas that were accessible to the elder members of their families. The research also found historical and cultural differences leading to Asian American families preferring indoor activities, and cited a lack of access to information on outdoor recreation as a critical barrier for them.
For the Latino community, interestingly, the research, found that transportation is a major constraint on recreational opportunities, because driving to an outdoor recreation area can take more money than they can afford. And a separate study by USA Swimming Foundation in 2017 found that 64 percent of African-American children cannot swim. As a result, outdoor activities like fishing, sailing, or surfing are unlikely recreation choices for African American youth.
The same cultural and economic barriers to recreation for communities of color described in the Forest Service’s research likely exist for the communities of color living in San Francisco, especially the low-income and immigrant families living in Single Room Occupancy (SRO) buildings in Chinatown, or public housing in North Beach, the Mission, Bayview and Visitacion Valley. While San Francisco may be the first city in the nation where 100 percent of its residents live within a 10-minute walk from a park, there are still barriers for communities of color to visiting natural areas within and outside of the City.
Time and time again, studies have shown that experiences in nature greatly improve physical and mental health, so the lack of equitable access to natural areas for communities of color means the lack of equitable access to health and wellness as well. While San Francisco is in the midst of a housing affordability crisis, especially for working families, we cannot overlook the lack of affordability and access to outdoor recreation for the communities of color.
I am looking forward to seeing what the demographic actually visiting Owl Island will be, and if Thai Tran will identify ways to help Asian American families break through cultural and language barriers and enjoy outdoor recreation there. But while it will be operated by an Asian American, that’s not enough to ensure it is an inclusive, culturally friendly outdoor experience. Tran will be operating a commercial recreation area, after all, so those who cannot afford to visit now are unlikely to be able to afford it then.
Likewise, I would like to see our city and state find ways to break down the barriers for disfranchised families of color in San Francisco to get out to California’s green and open space and play. Will our state parks consider improving public transit options from cities to their parks? Or allocate funding for targeted outreach and outdoor recreation programming offered to low-income communities of color? It is only fair that all of us can get out and play.
Connie Chan has worked for more than a decade as a communications and policy advisor. In that time she has held positions with the District Attorney’s Office, Recreation and Parks and City College of San Francisco, and has served as a legislative aide to two city supervisors. She is a guest opinion columnist and her point of view is not necessarily that of The Examiner.