Image: The lines that shape our cities (arcgis.com)

Maps and storymaps shaping conservation married with social concerns

“Maybe stories are just data with a soul.” 1

In our last Lightning Update, we covered some essential sources of data that many in the conservation, planning, and health fields are using to build tools that aid decision-making and help focus efforts to improve justice, equity, diversity and inclusion (JEDI). These sources — EJSCREEN, The American Community Survey, and the Social Vulnerability Index — are three of the key “ingredients” that are used as the basis of information. As noted last week, this is important to understanding where needs are, to target appropriate resources to meet them. The tools can be used to determine where we need more parks, the kinds of people who need them, or where areas are ripe for conservation or protection. Yet there’s more.

If the datasets are the ingredients, then the tools might be considered “main courses” that can be made from these ingredients. We still need the chefs (GIS specialists, for example) to help interpret what the data and maps mean. With that interpretation, we can create the “side dishes” and “sauce” to pull the whole meal together.

With technology at our fingertips, the data is accessible to more people to use for good. And — once the statistics and maps have been analyzed and processed by the pros and turned into user-friendly resources — it doesn’t require a degree in geospatial science to use the tools (perhaps, to stick with the analogy, to “digest the meal”). More and more scientists and analysts are making the foundational data available and creating interactive mapping resources for a multitude of purposes.

Let’s dive in a bit further and see what using the data looks like in action. Many of the entities working in conservation — sometimes it seems nearly all of them — are utilizing data and mapping in more public-facing ways to help increase public awareness and build support for certain conservation issues. Storymaps and other visual mapping tools are becoming a ubiquitous form of communication. If a picture is worth a thousand words, a map with pictures and maybe not quite so many words, is even more valuable for those who want a format for grabbing quick information.

Comparing current conditions and visualizing the future should elicit questions and drive more study, to understand why something is happening, its effects, and what can be done about it.

“A map, it is said, organizes wonder.”2

The CCP’s Conservation Atlas story map.

Traditional conservation integrated with social concerns:

The Chesapeake Conservation Partnership uses the Chesapeake Conservation Atlas as a hub for its work. It depicts priority habitats, farms, and forests for conservation. Conservation practitioners rely on such tools to help identify where to work based in part on what the data shows about gaps, needs for habitat, and species population success. When you overlay the science needs with human interests, you start to build a complete picture of the current status of conservation and how it overlays with social topics. Conservation partners can then plan a roadmap for moving forward to achieve multiple goals – such as biological integrity including biodiversity and support for key species, water quality, high value habitat, and climate resiliency; coupled with social concerns including human health and wellness, quality of life, protecting cultural and historical sites, sustainability, and economy. What are the layers important to all sectors, what does the data tell us when these layers are combined, and what does the blueprint for the future look like?

The Southeast Conservation Blueprint is an example, a “living, spatial plan that identifies important places for conservation and restoration across the Southeast and Caribbean.” The blueprint informs conservation decisions, looking at key species, habitat, and future threats such as sea level rise (which can be visualized with a tool such as this Sea Level Rise Viewer). It is helping partner organizations find funding to protect and restore thousands of acres. Such a tool can help to center collaboration around multiple environmental and social concerns.

Southeast Blueprint Version 2020 identifies high value areas for conservation and restoration across the Southeast and Caribbean.
Image/website: Southeast Conservation Adaptation Strategy (SECAS).

Data is playing a new role in forming policy, enabling new means to identify and analyze problems at the very local scale, especially in urban neighborhoods, where evidence-based policymaking can advance community change. We covered the Maryland Park Equity Mapper last week. It is an example of the inclusion of health data, which is the next wave of data layer especially for addressing JEDI considerations. The data is available through universities, health departments, and health care, and represents an increasing body of literature. The Mapping Inequality Project is a powerful tool for looking at the historical lines of disinvestment within cities across the U.S. that continue to manifest in health disparities in communities with fewer resources. For example, highly urbanized, poor neighborhoods experience greater heat island effect, caused by higher amounts of hard surfaces and fewer trees. Temperatures in these neighborhoods are 4.5 to 20 degrees F hotter in summer than areas with more tree canopy and green space. An additional storymap resource on this is: The lines that shape our cities: Connecting present-day environmental inequalities to redlining policies of the 1930s. Studying these maps and the alignments of practices can help to redirect resources to the interventions needed to make improvements and close disparities.

It’s worth mentioning here that several of these tools are beginning to be used in K-12 classrooms for student learning about technology, geography, the environment, local issues, and how to have a voice in making change. Students can look at community needs, environmental quality, and health matters, and develop ideas for stewardship projects to address stormwater, green space, habitat, and more.

Here’s a snapshot of examples from the growing list of resources, many with similar, overlapping, and complementary objectives and abilities. How can they be used together to enhance our work?

Cultural and historical treasures are mapped and translated through sites such as:

Connecting to greenspace:

  • Find Your Park/ Encuentra Tu Parque and Find Your Chesapeake
  • Get Kids Outside in Maryland is the state Department of Transportation’s storymap on parks and trails and connections by car, bus, bike, and foot. It’s used both for decision-makers and for the public, to help families, teachers, and others find places to go for recreation, exploration, and education, and how to get there. If it’s not readily accessible, it helps identify where improvements in connections are needed.
  • Park Serve, from the Trust for Public Land (TPL), scores parks based on access, investment, acreage, amenities and equity.

Where the funding and support is going:

One last piece is using all of these resources to tell the story of the field itself with various audiences. The Chesapeake Bay Program uses Chesapeake Progress to track achievement toward the Watershed Agreement goals in a public-facing format. It contributes to transparency in our work and adds a certain layer of accountability. Data and maps can only tell the truth.

“If you torture the data long enough, it will confess.”3

We want to assure that partners in CCP and CBP are aware of the many existing resources and those who provide them to encourage collaboration and efficiency, and prevent unnecessary duplication. CCP and various others are developing a suite of projects aimed at shaping how conservation happens, most of which are also emphasizing JEDI and community-focused needs, such as supporting public health. As we work on these efforts, we should look for how to build on the tools at hand and work together for greater lift.

1Brene Brown is an American professor, lecturer, author, and podcast host.
2Ellen Meloy (1946-2004) was an American nature writer.
3Ronald Coase (1910-2013) was a British economist, author and Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago Law School, who received the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 1991.

Don’t forget to send us your 2020 land conservation success stories as they develop. They’ll land in the new and growing collection at success.chesapeakeconservation.org, a tool we can all use to show collective impact. See the checklist below for easy-to-follow, simple guidelines.