Molly Burhans

Interview With

Molly Burhans of GoodLand Project

1) How has the Pope’s encyclical and work around the environment/climate change influenced your work?

The Pope’s encyclical was enormously influential in my decision to develop the GoodLand Project. After graduation, I had planned to live with various religious communities for a period of time, getting to know and understand their landscapes and communities and to work with them to develop sustainable land use strategies for their properties and the surrounding neighborhoods. This idea is still very interesting and exciting to me! However, when I was in graduate school, I discovered geographic information systems (GIS) technology, and I felt an urgent need for broad-scale planning work for land use within the Catholic Church. I decided that I first needed to identify the cartography or land use planning department in the Church. I felt as if I were running up a mountain and, when I reached the top, I would find people performing this fascinating and potentially enormously impactful work. But, when I reached the top, I discovered there was no one else at the summit. It was an odd feeling—on one hand I had this powerful idea that I felt could have a significant impact on ecosystems health and the quality of life in communities across the globe, but on the other hand there was the reality that I am quite verdant to disciplines of geodesign, planning, and cartography. When the Pope’s encyclical was released by the Catholic church I stopped debating with myself about whether I should pursue the GoodLand Project, which was an unnamed idea at the time, and I decided to go for it. I realized the timing could not be better, given the Pope’s ecological and ecumenical message.

In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis reiterated a Pastoral Statement on the Environmental Crisis released by the South African Bishop’s Conference in 1999; “Everyone’s talents and involvement are needed to redress the damage caused by human abuse of God’s creation.” This quote especially stood out—after reading the encyclical I realized that I had to honestly examine my talents and what I knew and where this project needed additional knowledge and support and then seek out individuals who could fill in the gaps to help build a movement for environmental land-stewardship within the Church – a movement that increases the ecological integrity of its lands, from small parcels to the global scale. Environmental degradation was not going to stop while I debated with myself whether I could make a difference or was the right person to move this project.

2) How do you work with Catholic communities to organize around responsible land management?

We are just settling the details on our first parcel-scale pilot project. We will work with the community to increase their landscape literacy—showing them how to read landscapes and ecosystems health based on local features, such as the location, distribution, quantity, and form of various flora and fauna. We also needed to learn from the community how much they already know about their lands (which is often quite an impressive amount!). We will use geographic information, such as satellite imagery, topography maps, or bedrock geology maps, combined with extant surveys of the landscape to reveal opportunities on-site for anything from photovoltaics to wetland restoration, and we will connect the community with the organizations in the area that can help them make changes. Some changes we might suggest in our final information products, like selective mowing regimes, will create vital habitat for creatures, such as pollinators, and increase the ecological integrity of the site passively without the need of professionals, by actually decreasing resources invested in maintaining the landscape. Throughout this whole process, community involvement will be vital—we will involve the communities through a page on our website built for communication with this specific community. We will also be on-site for the landscape-walkthrough and subsequent community meetings.

We are working to secure a diocesan planning project within the U.S. Most dioceses within the United States cover a few counties, or thousands square miles. One of our main outlets for communication and education with communities is the use of mapping applications. A web-based mapping application will be used to gather information from communities about their properties, land-use, and environmental programs. Media-narratives through social media, and information products, such as available maps and graphically presented analysis results, will be available to communities online. An example of what some of these results will include is a metric-based graphic representation of properties that can have the highest impact on watershed health by implementing green stormwater infrastructure, or that can contribute to ecosystems health  by implementing sustainable forest management strategies. Another example of what we can do is map, or use existing maps, of food-deserts and show which Catholic Properties could serve the local communities through programs that increase local food-security. There are a number of metrics we will be analyzing in a diocese. Some examples of what our metrics are measuring are alternative energy potential, strategic tree planting potential (related to air quality, cooling/heating cost savings and energy use reduction, and areas that lack any trees in general), forest management potential, stormwater management potential, underutilized buildings, food-security potential, selective lawn-maintenance potential, alternative transit accessibility, critical habitat value, conservation potential. This will determine where its best to place resources to make changes in the landscape and land-use and which changes should be made to help communities support a healthier environment on-site and in the surrounding ecosystem.

Our overall mapping system will serve to establish a Catholic GIS, or the central “hub” for mapping Catholic lands and the spatial data infrastructure needed to share this with other Church organizations, who can reap from the benefits of the information we gather and our mapping work.

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