The discovery of a foraging rusty patched bumble bee stalled construction on an expansion project at the Chicago Rockford International Airport — but only for a while. Environmental advocates want the delay to be permanent. They say the project would destroy one of the last remnants of the state’s original prairie.
Health Impact Assessments have been a tool mainly used by state and federal health agencies to review and avoid the adverse public health impacts of their plans and large-scale capital projects. Local land use officials are beginning to employ Health Impact Assessments (HIA) to review community design issues in formulating comprehensive plans and reviewing land use projects to prioritize public health.
I study Mexican community forests, and believe they are the world’s best model of local sustainable management. My research over 30 years has shown that when Indigenous and local communities control their forests for commercial timber production, both humans and the land benefit.
As a result of the 1911-1917 Mexican Revolution, ownership of around 60% of the nation’s forests, totaling some 104 million acres (42 million hectares), was transferred to local communities. Over the following decades, reformers subsidized equipment and provided training in logging and business for the people who took over these important resources. Community members seized the opportunity.
This decades-long experiment, with government support and market incentives, has produced surprising results. Today Mexican community forest enterprises administer their common property woodlands at a scale and current maturity unparalleled anywhere else in the world.
Cutting down trees may seem like a counterintuitive way to slow climate change and species loss, but in Mexico it works. Community forest businesses sell profitable products like timber and bottled spring water. Some 1,600 communities sustainably log over 17 million acres of forest. They carefully select only certain trees for harvesting so that forests will vigorously regrow.
In the Sierra Norte of Oaxaca, 23 communities with a total area of over 500,000 acres have zoned their territory so that 78% of it is forested for sustainable production and conservation, leaving the remainder for agriculture and other uses.
The Sierra Norte community of Pueblos Mancomunados manages its 78,000 acres mostly as a community park focused on ecotourism. Foresters cut trees only to control bark beetle outbreaks. Zapotec Indigenous people have lived here for over 1,000 years, and residents have practiced sustainable logging for decades.
Over a 20-year period, from 1993 to 2013, the thickly forested landscape of Sierra Norte has also produced 3 million metric tons of timber and carbon, mostly stored in furniture and construction materials. By storing carbon in long-lasting products, sustainably managed forests actually capture more carbon than strictly conserved forests
These operations also benefit local economies. In a 2019 study, Mexican researcher Juan Manuel Torres-Rojo and colleagues found that in a sample of over 5,000 Mexican forest communities, government support for forestry, particularly for investments in social and human capital, significantly reduced poverty.
The most serious challenges confronting community forests are the impacts of organized crime. Gangs charge communities in several states protection money and reportedly have physically taken over community forest businesses in some northern states.
Illegal logging is also a serious problem, but it is concentrated in communities that are not managing their forests. Mexican community forests are less vulnerable to stresses like the deforestation, fire and drought that threaten large swaths of the Amazon basin because neighboring communities depend on their forests for their livelihoods and constantly monitor them.
Giving communities control helps land
Governments of developing countries often have little money to manage protected land. Giving communities control over valuable forests and the resources to manage them is an affordable alternative.
Mexico’s community forests sustain themselves and generate profits. They do not depend on government subsidies, although they have received them over the years, as a pro-community forest public policy initiative. In my view, mobilizing community collective action around timber – a product that, unlike most small farmer crops, virtually always has a good price – is a market-oriented way to stop deforestation and conserve biodiversity.
However, many governments don’t have the political will to give this kind of ownership, management authority, training and equipment to local communities. I believe that if the results achieved in Mexico were more widely known, they could help convince other governments that promoting community forestry can deliver political stability, poverty reduction and a more livable climate.
Spending time in nature can have mental, physical and social benefits for children. While schools offer a chance for students of all backgrounds to get outside in nature, researchers from North Carolina State University found natural spaces like woods or gardens were relatively rare in a small sample of elementary and middle schools in Wake County.
Published in the journal Urban Forestry & Urban Greening, the study found that for schools that did have green natural spaces, teachers played a key role in helping kids experience and enjoy those natural areas.
A new study suggests that microparticle concentrations in lakes are higher than previously reported, and that human activity and surrounding land use may be a strong predictor of microplastics and anthropogenic fiber pollution.
The disinvestment in lower-income neighborhoods caused by redlining, racial covenants, and zoning provisions prevented property improvement, resulted in dilapidated buildings, lowered real estate prices fueling development of manufacturing and industrial uses, and lowered the cost of polluting infrastructure, such as highways and public works facilities. The legacy of these effects is the exposure of the residents of such neighborhoods to toxins and pollution not found in moderate- or higher-income residential neighborhoods. (See Segregation by Law and the Racial Inequity Pandemic, this paper, and this study). For example, Black Americans are 75% more likely to live in communities where they are exposed to soil, air, and water pollution and experience a higher risk of cancer, asthma, and other life-threatening illnesses.
Using their state-delegated land use regulatory authority, local governments can reverse this historical trend.
Julia Davies had one only goal in mind when she sold her share of the outdoor equipment company Osprey Europe a few years ago. The entrepreneur decided she was going to spend her millions turning back the clock – by returning swathes of the British farmland to wilderness. Nature is in crisis in the UK, she argues, and its threatened wildlife needs all the protection it can get.
The US$1.2 trillion infrastructure bill now moving through Congress will bring money to cities for much-needed investments in roads, bridges, public transit networks, water infrastructure, electric power grids, broadband networks and traffic safety.
Many urban highways built in the 1950s and 1960s were deliberately run through neighborhoods occupied by Black families and other people of color, walling these communities off from jobs and opportunity. Although President Joe Biden proposed $20 billion for reconnecting neighborhoods isolated by historical federal highway construction, the bill currently provides only $1 billion for these efforts – enough to help just a few places.
As scholars in urban planning and public policy, we are interested in how urban planning has been used to classify, segregate and compromise people’s opportunities based on race. In our view, more support for highway removal and related improvements in marginalized neighborhoods is essential.
As we see it, this funding represents a down payment on restorative justice: remedying deliberate discriminatory policies that created polluted and transit-poor neighborhoods like West Bellfort in Houston, Westside in San Antonio, and West Oakland, California.
Policies of separation
Many policies have combined over time to isolate urban Black neighborhoods. Racialized rental and sales covenants began appearing in U.S. cities in the early 1900s. They changed cityscapes by restricting certain neighborhoods to whites only, which concentrated Black people in other areas. Racialized zoning, outlawed by the Supreme Court in 1917, was followed by single-family or exclusionary zoning, which restricted residents by socioeconomic class – a proxy for race in the U.S.
Next came redlining, a classification process that started in 1933 when the federal government rated neighborhoods for its loan programs. Working with real estate agents, the federal Home Owners Loan Corp. created color-coded neighborhood maps to inform decisions by mortgage lenders at the Federal Housing Administration.
Beginning with the first federal highway law in 1956, transportation planners used highways to isolate or destroy Black neighborhoods by cutting them off from adjoining areas. Once the highways were built, the social and economic fabric of these neighborhoods began to deteriorate. Distinguished environmental justice scholar Robert Bullard calls this transportation racism, alluding to the way in which isolation limited employment and other opportunities.
Formerly redlined neighborhoods also have less tree cover and green space today than white neighborhoods. This makes them hotter during heat waves.
One outcome is that life expectancy in the nation’s cities is compromised, varying considerably between the lowest- and highest-income ZIP codes. The worst cities have gaps as high as 30 years.
As one example, Delmar Boulevard in St. Louis is a socioeconomic and racial dividing line. North of Delmar, 99% of residents are Black. South of Delmar, 73% are white. Only 10% of residents to the north have a bachelor’s degree, and people who live in this zone are more likely to have heart disease or cancer. In 2014, these disparities led Harvard University researchers, based on their work on the “Delmar Divide,” to conclude that ZIP code is a better predictor of health than genetic code.
Many highways built in the 1950s are now deteriorating. At least 28 cities have begun or are planning to partly or fully remove highways that have isolated Black neighborhoods rather than rebuilding them.
For example, in 2014 Rochester, New York, buried nearly a mile of the Inner Loop East, which served as a moat isolating the city’s downtown. Since then, the city has reconnected streets that were divided by the highway, making the neighborhood whole again.
Walking and biking in the neighborhood have increased by 50% and 60%, respectively. Now developers are building commercial space and 534 new housing units, more than half of which will be considered affordable. The $22 million in public funds that supported the project generated $229 million in economic development.
Simply removing highways won’t transform historically disadvantaged neighborhoods. But it can be a key element of equitable urban planning, along with housing stabilization and affordability, carefully planned new green spaces and transit improvements. For an administration that has pledged to prioritize racial and environmental justice, removing divisive highways is a good place to start.
The Biden administration plans to make federal lands cheaper to access for solar and wind power developers after the clean power industry argued in a lobbying push this year that lease rates and fees are too high to draw investment and could torpedo the president’s climate change agenda.