February 12, 2013

Built Green Space: The Future of Land Trusts?

The lapse in time from my last post is not due to lack of inspiration. On the contrary, the post that I started over a week ago just won’t end. There has also been a town-wide Nemo-induced lack of power… As I continue working on it in its fleshed out form, I want to give a shortened version here. Since it is an on-going and evolving project, I welcome your input and critiques.

The United States is projected to be a minority-majority population by the year 2042, meaning that there will be as many minorities as non-hispanic whites. This, along with changes in socio-economic demographics and increased urbanization create a dynamic and ever-changing nation. What will these changes mean for the future of the land trust movement that traditionally has been lead by and served white, fairly well off, educated, middle-aged, land owning populations?

It is important to note that segregation in the land trust movement has been more a function of form and default practices rather than a systematic elitist approach to improving quality of life for the privileged. Maybe it was easy and even acceptable to work in and with a small slice of the population in the past, but today it is counter-productive and irresponsible for the land trust movement not to involve and serve a wider audience.

Considering demographic shifts and the changing priorities of land trusts, eventually moving towards decreased acquisition responsibilities and increased stewardship responsibilities, how will trusts remain effective and meaningful? Who will fill the shoes of today’s conservationists and stewards? Who will care for the ever-growing acreage protected in perpetuity? If we do not evolve our methods today, can we rely on individuals who have been left out of the conversation to take up the cause or even care?

One strategy to diversifying the movement is to get involved in built green space. Built green space is the combination of land conservation, urban open-space, and roof-top gardens. The concept is that land trusts become involved in the multi-faceted work of conserving “built land” or “created land”, bringing land conservation into the urban environment in a new way to serve and engage a more diverse population.

Built green space is essentially green roofs, land that is anthropogenically constructed on a structure or building including gardens, parks, sports fields, and outdoor meeting areas. The “land” could be treated similar to real land in that: its protection could initiate tax breaks; it could be subject to conservation easements; it would benefit biodiversity and help create wildlife corridors; it would lessen the heat island effect and increase permeable surface area in urban settings; it would improve the quality of life for local communities by increasing access to green space, urban garden space, and outdoor recreation opportunities; and it would increase exposure to, and benefits of, land conservation to a more diverse population.

Critics may be quick to point out what they consider insurmountable challenges to a built green space initiative. They might site issues like the legal limitations of our current system to conserve and place an easement on built green space; that it is not true land, and therefore should not concern land trusts; the new set of management and stewardship strategies needed would be cumbersome; etcetera. It is true that new initiatives often come with new challenges and issues to be addressed, but there is so much more to gain than loose from the inclusion of built green space in the land trust movement and our portfolios.

As a system designed and expected to last in perpetuity, the land trust movement must evolve to remain financially and functionally strong, relevant, and meaningful. Built green space embodies many of the values that trusts generally uphold and work for: preservation of green space for the benefit of humans, wildlife; improving ecological functions such as water flow and climate systems; connecting people to the land and creating opportunities for environmental education; and encouraging sustainable and healthy agriculture. With a dynamic future in mind, let’s take the initiative to serve, benefit, and connect to a wider slice of society, benefiting citizens of all kinds, trusts, and the environment.