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New study and interactive map show environmental justice disparities in land conservation.

New study and interactive map show environmental justice disparities in land conservation.

New study and interactive map point to environmental justice disparities (and solutions) in land conservation
New study and interactive map point to environmental justice disparities (and solutions) in land conservation
Credit: Harvard University

A new study has been published in Environmental Research LettersThe chart shows striking disparities between the distribution of conservable land across multiple dimensions in New England’s social marginalization. It also creates a tool that can be used to address these issues.


Researchers conducted a New England-wide study and found that communities with the lowest income quartile and communities with high proportions of people who are of color have access only half of the land protected near their homes. These disparities exist across all three generations, urban and rural, as well as across decades.

“This is consistent the very long history if exclusion and marginalization when conservation efforts,” says Neenah Esterella-Luna, a Boston-based social justice scholar. We know that protected open spaces provide positive opportunities for recreation and social activities, mental health, interactions with nature and food production, as well as resilience to heat waves. Redress is needed for access to these benefits to be equalized based on race or other characteristics of marginalization. This is a moral imperative.

The team, which included Lucy Lee and Jonathan Thompson from Harvard Forest, as well as Katharine Sims (’21) and Margot Lurie(’21), of Amherst College, didn’t stop at identifying problems. They also created tools that could be used to support community-led efforts in solving them.

The researchers looked at lands that meet the standard conservation criteria, such as wildlife habitat, drinking water and carbon sequestration. They also mapped their relationship to lands that meet the human environmental justice criteria, including communities with low incomes, high percentages people of color and high percentages English language learners. The researchers found that they sometimes overlap and that future land protection following the same patterns as the past could lead to further environmental justice gaps.

Lucy Lee, coauthor and Harvard Forest Research Associate, says that there are many reasons why land should be protected. “By looking at how conservation has been carried out with specific motivations, we can compare how prioritizing land differently would align with or not align with environmental justice.”

The team developed a new priority system to assist communities, state agencies and conservation organizations in identifying potential conservation opportunities based on environmental justice criteria. These opportunities were also highlighted on the landscape using an online mapping tool.

Jonathan Thompson, a Harvard Forest Senior Ecologist and co-author, said that until now there wasn’t an explicit way of showing how protected areas are distributed relative to environmental justice focus area. “Several regional conservation groups reached out to us to express interest in this tool as part their conservation prioritization process.”

The research team stresses that this tool is intended to inform and support local efforts that center marginalized communities, and their self-determined goals.

Estrella Moon explains that conservation, as we know, began with the explicit belief that the natural world was only “good” if it was free of humans, especially Indigenous peoples and poor people. Justice and equity must be central goals of resilience planning in order to end centuries of marginalization, neglect, exclusion and marginalization.

Margot Lurie, who did her academic internship at Amherst College, helped to catalyze this research. She also stressed the importance of community engagement and consent: “We hope this tool can both empower nearby communities interested in protecting their land and offer guidance for conservation organizations regarding who needs a seat at the table when land-use planning decisions are made.”

The study highlighted the many environmental burdens that marginalized communities face. Ninety-six per cent of the areas identified as environmental justice focus areas in the study contained at least one EPA listed brownfield siteland, where pollutants and contaminants can complicate redevelopment.

The team emphasizes the importance of restoring land that is already developed, such as improving the forest canopy in marginalized communities and building new partnerships that will increase access to open space.

Katharine Sims (Professor of Economics and Environmental Studies at Amherst College) is the lead author. She notes that there are many options to improve access, which go beyond new land conservation. These include better transportation to existing areas and park entry points that can be walked and connected to communities. There is also stronger support for urban food production space. Sims notes that conservation organizations are increasingly realizing that even though greenspace is available, many people have limited access due to personal experiences of racism and exclusion. “Changes in leadership structure and outreach can increase access by making open space truly welcoming for all.


A new collection of research highlights indigenous perspectives on conservation biology


More information:
Katharine Sims and colleagues, Environmental justice criteria for new land preservation can be used to help address access disparities to open space nearby. Environmental Research Letters (2022). DOI: 10.1088/1748-9326/ac6313

See Also
World Environment Center Elects 2022 Board Officers

Mapping tool harvard-cga.maps.arcgis.com/ap … 4918895b59de4e9842cb

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Harvard University

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New study and interactive map reveal environmental justice disparities and solutions in land conservation (2022 – April 13).
Retrieved 13 April 2022
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