See how close your Utah neighborhood is to nature

Not all Utahns are close enough to nature-rich landscapes to reap the health benefits, and proximity is often linked with income and race or ethnicity.

When people think of Utah, often what comes to mind is the image of people out in nature — such as hiking in the “Mighty Five” national parks or skiing “The Greatest Snow on Earth.”

But the urban areas where most of Utah’s population lives are not rich in health-supporting nature, such as mountains and national parks, according to an analysis by NatureQuant, an Oregon-based company.

That’s particularly true in areas that are historically underprivileged — whether by way of their economic status, demographic diversity or both.

Decades of research have shown that proximity to nature — specifically biodiversity — is good for health outcomes, said Jared Hanley, NatureQuant’s founder and CEO.

The company uses a large, machine-learning process to generate “NatureScore” values between zero and 100 based on environmental conditions and other metrics to areas including neighborhoods (or “census tracts,” to use the government’s term for relatively permanent statistical areas).

Those scores then correlate with one of five “leaf” classifications — deficient, light, adequate, rich or utopia.

Find your own neighborhood’s NatureScore at naturequant.com/naturescore/.

Hanley added that proximity, not access, is key. It isn’t enough to be able to drive to a park within five minutes, he said, because the best benefits come when people are within 500 meters — a third of a mile — of nature.

NatureQuant’s analysis classifies about half of Utah’s census tracts as “nature rich” or “nature utopia.” That’s the ninth lowest of all 50 states and Washington, D.C. — and several points lower than the national rate of almost 70%.

All but one of the 10 states with the highest proportion of census tracts with at least a “nature rich” score are east of the Mississippi River. Those tend to have denser vegetation and a larger variety of it, Hanley said.

“One thing Utah doesn’t have going for it, frankly, is its desert,” he said.

However, many counties in southeastern Utah have scores indicating higher proximity to nature than its urban counties, though they also have fewer census tracts.

For example, less than 30% of the 251 census tracts in Salt Lake County are classified as “nature rich” or “nature utopia” — while all three of the census tracts in Grand County fall into those categories.

In Utah’s more populated counties, areas are more built-up areas and have less biodiversity. And where people living in cities are closer to nature, they tend to be in wealthier, less diverse areas.

Read more about disparities in proximity to nature and solutions in a longer version of this story at sltrib.com.

Megan Banta is The Salt Lake Tribune’s data enterprise reporter, a philanthropically supported position. The Tribune retains control over all editorial decisions. Jose Davila IV covers west-side communities.