US Forest Service Grant to Explore Access, Use, and Environmental Justice Surrounding Local and National Forests and Green Spaces and Workshop on February 28th
Author: Randy Bluffstone and Sahan T.M. Dissanayake
Posted: January 31, 2020

It is well-known that urban forests and green spaces are important for urban residents, but surprisingly little is known about access issues and peoples’ views on the services such assets offer. Our project, which is implemented with support from and in conjunction with the US Forest Service, seeks to better understand access to urban forests and green spaces and the values diverse groups place on the services they offer.

Urban forests and green spaces provide people with a variety of important benefits, foster sustainability and represents critical environmental assets. These ecosystem services include heat island mitigation, air quality improvements, stormwater runoff mitigation, shading, and aesthetic values. There is also a growing evidence of important human health benefits from urban tree canopy and green space, including better respiratory health, reduced obesity, improved mental health and better social cohesion. As is typical for a variety of benefits, access and enjoyment of these valuable ecosystem services can vary across urban landscapes, leading to unequal distributions of benefits by income and socio-economic class. This recognition has led to concerns about environmental justice surrounding urban and suburban green space areas, including the distribution of benefits and barriers to use .

Portland, Oregon and the surrounding areas provides an ideal setting to analyze issues of access to urban forests and greenspace. Over 17,000 acres of park and urban natural areas exist within the city boundaries of Portland, including the 5,100+ acre Forest Park, one of the largest urban forests in the US. Portland residents also have the opportunity to access four large national forests, including Willamette, Mt Hood, Siuslaw and Gifford Pinchot national forests. 

Access to and value of forests and greenspace may vary by socio-demographic group, but relatively little is known about such important issues. It is not well documented how diverse communities value natural areas, or for that matter, what barriers to access exist. Better understanding how use and access vary may help policymakers identify information and recreation-management strategies to improve access for all Portland-area residents, including traditionally underprivileged groups.

 Building on a multi-year research partnership with the Institute for Sustainable Solutions, the Forest Park Conservancy and Portland State University, we received a grant from the US Forest Service to better explore these issues and potential solutions. This grant expands the analysis of data gathered through a large survey funded by the PSU Faculty Development Fund and ISS, to better understand how diverse groups in greater Portland interact with urban and regional forests and green spaces. The survey consists of a general questionnaire to examine the use of natural areas and barriers to access, and a choice experiment to quantify benefits by ecosystem service and population group. 

The project aligns closely with PSU’s focus on sustainability, the motto to Let Knowledge Serve and our important goal to improve student success. The funds will be used to support multiple student research assistants, to bring together organizations, researchers, advocates and policy makers responsible for managing and/or improving access to natural areas, and to share and disseminate results. 

The first workshop funded through this grant will take place on February 28th and will include partners from the US Forest Service, Institute for Sustainability at PSU, city and state agencies, organizations working on environmental conservation and improving access among underserved populations, PSU faculty members and students. The workshop will provide participants the opportunity to share information about their work and learn about the research effort. The event will also offer ways to provide input and explore collaborative ways to use the resulting data on access and valuation of urban forest/greenspace ecosystem services. For more information about the Workshop or participating, please contact Sahan Dissanayake at


Randy Bluffstone is Professor of Economics at Portland State University and the Director of PSU’s Institute for the Environment and Economics

Sahan T. M. Dissanayake is an Assistant Professor of Economics at PSU and Directs the Graduate Certificate in Sustainability.

Both are Fellows of PSU’s Institute for Sustainable Solution.