Time and again I run into this word in the work I do as an advocate for open space in Duluth, Minnesota: gentrification.
Nearly every time I’ve heard it, it’s been used to describe the revitalization and restoration of communities and how such restoration is pushing out the lower and middle income folks to the benefit of those with more money. Increasingly, though, this same term can be applied to the outdoor culture.
In our case, maybe it should be called “bro-ification.”
Bro-ification describes the disconnect between how outdoor recreation activities are marketed and portrayed in the media–particularly sports like skiing, climbing, and off-road cycling–and the reality of who actually does those sports, and where.
I’ve observed how the outdoor industry and the media have portrayed getting outside for nearly my entire life, and what used to be a very “volkssport,” inclusive, hippy-like identity has transformed into a super-elitist and entitled one. The destinations presented in the media are generally so unattainable by most people that they might as well be on the moon–and don’t even bother going if you’re not wearing expensive, high-tech apparel and using modern, high-priced gear. Exotic and expensive are the norm.
Meanwhile, nearly everywhere here in the United States, we have incredible public lands that can deliver experiences on par with those in far-away locations that cost a fortune to get to. And you can walk out your door and have those experiences every day.
I have been a party to this bro-ification in the jobs I’ve held, the images I have created, and in promoting the places I worked. But I have to admit that even though I am a lifelong off-road cyclist, nordic skier, and backcountry wanderer, even I am intimidated by some of the people, images, places, and marketing campaigns thrust upon us today.
We are finally at the extreme edge of the bro-ification of outdoor recreation. The public images of the outdoor enthusiast, our playgrounds, and our experiences are those the entitled and elite. And that sense that outdoor adventure belongs to the wealthy and well-connected is pushing aside the common participant.
Who cares, right? The answer is, we all should. We need everyone to keep our outdoor playgrounds safe and accessible–people of diversity, at-risk youth, urbanites. When even the most mundane piece of equipment is marketed through expensive-to-get-to environments with a smiling, suffering-to-live-the-dream Caucasian person, the message is that these pursuits are not for everyone. Finding adventure outdoors is only for the jetset–for the young, white and rich. The places you need to go are beyond your reach.
Okay, I’m a white guy, born and bred into these activities. But even as part of the establishment, I can see this is a problem. My bet is that the young Latino, black, or native American kid hears this messaging even louder.
The more I dig into the access work I’m doing here in Duluth, Minnesota, the less I can deny the impact of this messaging on my ability to get things done. Bro-ification is cited as a reason for cities to not get involved in access projects that would pull more people across the community into outdoor recreation. These sports, I’m told, are not for the diverse populations we have in Duluth; rather, they offer value only to an elite, wealthy segment of the population. Meanwhile, on the ground, we are actually getting more millennials interested in the outdoors and in the quality of life it brings, and the demographics of that generation tend to be more diverse, more family-oriented, and include more female participation. These are the folks of the future and the people that communities like Duluth need to survive.
Outdoor recreation has traditionally been about being accessible and simple–about getting outside to enjoy nature. Sports like skiing and cycling were created because of a need for transportation and were enjoyed by a broad spectrum of people regardless of economic status. Climbing and camping started out as simple ways for folks to enjoy the outdoors, to commune with nature out the backdoor. Simple pleasures.
These activities could be a strong tool to help cities that are down on their knees economically to stand up and take advantage of long neglected open and natural spaces, to make the lives of their citizens healthier and happier.
Equity is the new buzz word on the leadership circuit. I believe in this concept and I believe that it will drive how future leaders work in their communities going forward. If we as outdoor advocates are positioned as elitist, our work will not be seen as creating equity at all; it will be seen as the opposite, as creating divides. I have to push back constantly on what my staff sees in the media and takes for granted as how users will act or look on the trails or outdoors.
I remember a lot of jeans and flannel shirts when I was nordic skiing as a kid, and I remember the sports I grew up with had both horrible athletes and amazing ones. The primary reason for doing them was literally to just have fun. It’s been an interesting arc to witness: outdoor sports apparel went from tattered, overly loved clothing used in passionate pursuit of a simple adventure to high-tech, high-priced modernity that–if you were to believe magazines and catalogs–are best paired with billion dollar ranches and restored wooden yachts and kitted-out Mercedes Sprinter vans in Jackson Hole or Aspen or other places that are unaffordable for the majority of the population.
We have arrived at this point not only in our industry but also in some of our conservation and advocacy groups. I recently sat through a presentation given by the group called Shift. I generally agree with the conversation Shift is trying to pursue, and support the main idea of their group. However the way it was presented and the space it addresses offers very little for the grass-roots outdoor advocate in the trenches. I found myself cringing not only at the language used in the presentation but also at the imagery and the lack of actual direct action Shift was taking on its own vision. I saw nothing but privileged people living the dream and talking a good game about changing society through base jumping in Yosemite. If I were to have made a similar case in a city council meeting here in Duluth, I would have been laughed out of the room. Unfortunately, Shift is not the only group making this mistake.
It’s time that the industry and the media to pull back from the current marketing trends and begin spreading a message of inclusion and finding unmitigated fun in our own backyards–not near-death experiences in remote locations and exotic resort towns. Otherwise, we risk alienating the very people we need to grow our numbers and keep our natural playground open–regardless whether they’re wilderness areas or a more urban-oriented park.
For outdoor brands, think of the opportunity. The industry has stepped so far beyond what’s real, the brand that embraces inclusion is going to differentiate itself. The question is, in an arms race that rewards helicopters and ends-of-the-earth travel, can anyone even remember what “real” is?
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