Eisenhower Institute student research uncovers environmental racism in beach access

Over the course of the year, students in the Eisenhower Institute’s Environmental Leadership program expanded their understanding of social science research by exploring marine policy issues in Southern Florida. The group studied water samples from the nearly 15 mile stretch of beaches from Lake Worth Inlet to the Jupiter Inlet in West Palm Beach and made an important discovery that changed the course of their research. In what the group called a serious case of environmental racism, they established a correlation between low water quality and minority access to beaches.

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In order to quantify their study, the team looked to examine barriers to public beach access by analyzing the number of parking spaces next to the ocean. Prof. Howard Ernst, Seiden-Levi Fellow at the Eisenhower Institute, explained that the vast majority of Palm Beach Spring’s minority residents live well outside walking distance to the ocean. “For almost all of Palm Beach County’s 300,000 minority residents, going to the beach means finding available parking.”

Ernst traveled with nine students to South Florida over spring break to conduct demographic surveys for five consecutive days, including two on weekends. According to Connor Heath 23, the group found a strong relationship between parking access and beach use, with minority representation hit the hardest in places with little or no public parking.

Micaylah Bowers ’23 surveyed a four mile stretch by walking the beach from John D. MacArthur State Park to Juno Beach, a section of ocean with virtually no public parking. As the first-year from Westminster, Md., explained, “While residents of Florida have a legal right to beach access, many residents are severely restricted by barriers put in place by gated communities.” These communities, the group found, consisted primarily of wealthier white residents with homes directly on, or close to, the water.

After conducting their surveys, the group cross-referenced their findings with the water quality data they had studied throughout the year. “What we are finding is that public parking access is funneling minority beachgoers into places with the lowest water quality,” said Corinna Kelly ’23. Duboise Beach, in Jupiter, and Phil Foster Park, in Singer Island, are two areas with a history of water quality problems and the highest rate of minority access, the group discovered.

According to Ernst, the most interesting finding “is that the racial composition of beachgoers changes with the tide at Phil Foster Park.” In a process researchers refer to as ‘daily gentrification’ the group found that the clear water of incoming tides bring crowds of mostly white snorkelers that push out minority residents from Riviera Beach.

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While in Florida, the group had the opportunity to share their findings with local officials to demonstrate that while legal segregation was no longer enforced, its lingering effects were still evident.The group also plans to publish a press release in the local newspaper to spread awareness to residents and local policy makers about the issues of environmental justice in their community.