I grew up in the Los Angeles area, a 45-minute drive from the beach. The salt smell of the ocean, the sounds of seagulls and the cool ocean breeze will be forever associated with my childhood memories. I grew up under the assumption that visiting the coast was my right.
When I left California as an adult, I made Maryland my new home, trading the Pacific Ocean for the Chesapeake Bay — just as beloved. But living here has made me realize that coastal access is not enshrined in the law in the Chesapeake region, as it is in California. According to a report published by Hispanic Access Foundation and the Center for American Progress, How to Fix Americans’ Diminishing Access to the Coasts, of the 30 U.S. coastal states, including those on the Bay, Great Lakes and Gulf of Mexico, only six have strong public access laws. Maryland and Virginia are not among them.
Now, of course, I recognize that my childhood memories rest on a foundation of privilege. I grew up in a family with the time to make the trip, money for gas, an appreciation for time spent in nature and the internalized confidence that our whiteness would not present an obstacle to feeling like we belonged in that space.
While coastal access in California is by no means perfect (see again: privilege), fostering improved access to the coast is a goal to which Chesapeake lawmakers should aspire. Spending time in blue spaces like ocean and bay coastlines, lakesides, riversides and anywhere else with a view of the water — even urban water fixtures like canals and fountains — is associated with improved mental and physical health, including lowered stress, anxiety and cardiovascular disease.
A lack of public access to these spaces means the health benefits are reserved for those with the privilege of already living there: predominantly wealthier and whiter communities. Across the country, Latino, Black, Asian, Indigenous and other communities face what is called the “nature gap” — a disproportionate lack of green and blue space in neighborhoods of color, compared with predominantly white neighborhoods. This means that communities of color are less likely to have nature and coastal access, and therefore miss out on the benefits these spaces bring.
There is an immediate opportunity for Maryland and Virginia, and all of us who love the Bay, to help correct this injustice and increase public access to this treasured place.
In July, U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen and U.S. Rep. Paul Sarbanes released a bill that would designate the Chesapeake National Recreation Area. This would add parts of the Chesapeake to the National Park System, providing more resources to these scenic places and allowing more opportunities for recreation and to remember Bay history. It would also be a solid step forward to increase coastal access for Maryland and Virginia residents.
Unusual for Congress, Van Hollen published the draft legislation in November
2022, several months before introducing the bill in Congress. His team and Sarbanes’ then held a six-month public comment period on the bill’s text that allowed the public to provide comments. This feedback was used to improve the bill and address concerns and suggestions.
This process also gave underrepresented communities, like the Latino communities I serve in my work at the Hispanic Access Foundation, a fairer chance to weigh in on the legislation — an exciting step for democracy and civic engagement.
To bridge the nature gap and enable access to our coast, we must create more parks and protected nature areas. The Chesapeake National Recreation Area would do just that. The resources of the National Park system would be used to honor this beautiful landscape and its history as it deserves to be celebrated — and all of us would have more opportunities to experience it.