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Q&A: Beyond buzzwords: putting people at the heart of environmental work

Natural Capital Project scholars create new justice-focused framework to guide work on increasing urban access to nature
Latino Outdoors, a Latinx outdoor excursion group, seeks to create community in the outdoors, as well as highlight Latinx, Chicanx, and Hispanic voices and their ways of relating to nature. Photo courtesy of Modesta McGrath-Martinez.

Latino Outdoors, a Latinx outdoor excursion group, seeks to create community in the outdoors, as well as highlight Latinx, Chicanx, and Hispanic voices and their ways of relating to nature. Photo courtesy of Modesta McGrath-Martinez.

In March 2020, led by Kelley Langhans and Alejandra Echeverri, many Natural Capital Project researchers began thinking about how people were going to benefit differently from access to nature – now considered a human right – during the pandemic lockdown. They eventually turned this discussion into a paper, recently published in People & Nature. The paper provides both academics and practitioners, such as city planners, with concrete guidance for integrating justice into both theoretical and applied work on improving access to nature. In addition to a framework, they include three case studies that model this approach in their efforts to improve nature access for Latinx/Chicanx/Hispanic, Indigenous, and Incarcerated communities. These approaches may be useful to policymakers to achieve both equity and biodiversity conservation goals through efforts like the U.S. Justice40 Initiative and California’s 30x30 Initiative.

Kelley Langhans recently earned her PhD from Stanford’s Department of Biology and the Center for Conservation Biology, both part of the Stanford School of Humanities & Sciences. She studies conservation in human-impacted landscapes, from farms to cities, and how preserving ecosystems can benefit both people and biodiversity.

Alejandra Echeverri is a senior scientist with Stanford’s Natural Capital Project. She researches ways to better integrate biodiversity and ecosystem services into national development policies of Colombia and Costa Rica. Echeverri obtained her Ph.D. in Resources, Environment and Sustainability at the University of British Columbia, Canada.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Tell me about this work: can you summarize what you did?

Langhans: Accessing nature, especially in cities, is a key human right that provides people with a lot of benefits, from things that are easy to measure, like physical health and air quality, to mental health and wellbeing, which are hard to quantify but ultimately make life worth living. But access to nature is not evenly distributed. We wanted to first define this problem by asking: what does access to nature mean beyond just access to green space, especially in an urban setting?. Then, we wanted to provide a practical way to increase access to nature in cities that centers the communities who have historically been deprived of nature. We came up with a framework, based in the design thinking methods championed by Stanford’s d.school, and highlighted case studies where people have used this type of approach. We want to codify processes that community organizations have been using for decades in an academic way for people who might not have thought about the justice aspect otherwise.

How did you come up with the framework?

Framework for centering justice in increasing urban access to nature
Framework for centering justice in increasing urban access to nature

Echeverri: We started with design thinking, which is a cyclical process of defining, ideating, prototyping, and evaluating, and asked how increasing urban access to nature would look in that context. We adapted the different phases of design thinking to the types of justice. Understanding the unique values and needs of people lacking adequate access to nature in the defining phase, for example, is an act of recognitional justice. Thinking about who should be part of the process during the ideation phase, is procedural justice. After we prototype an intervention, we evaluate who gets to benefit as an act of distributional justice. And we merged all this with our work on human-nature relationships, since we are 15 ecosystem service scholars.

Langhans: We want people, in a very practical sense, to be able to look at this process and see what they can do to bring these dimensions of justice to their work. We even provide questions you can ask yourself in each stage of the process (see Figure 2 in the paper).

Echeverri: We also did something unusual in a paper written by mostly natural scientists, which was to include a positionality statement talking about our identities, power dynamics, and worldview as the authors of this paper. These are the kinds of things we want people to reflect on in any partnership and also as authors of papers.

Who would you like to see using or building on this work?

Langhans: Anybody working to increase access to nature could bring the framework along with them, such as a city planner making a new park, or an academic being consulted on the design of a wetland restoration project. Even if you aren't the convener or the person holding the decision-making power, you can ask these questions and prompt critical reflection. Bringing this framework is a key way academics could contribute to the applied work many of us are doing, and move it in a more just direction. This changes the way we are thinking about ecology in a human-dominated environment. I actually built my next research project, studying human/nature relationships in urban gardens in San Francisco, off of this framework!

Echeverri: The framework is easy to adapt to any context. It forces us to question what we are doing for people when we design new interventions. For whom are these interventions designed? Who is benefiting and where/how? I think justice is no longer a trending buzzword we can write about and not look at in ecological studies. Everyone working on environmental issues has to now think about justice and equity. I think we have shown how you can do that for work in environmental science.

Echeverri: And at the level of policy, I would like to see the U.S. Justice 40 initiative, which commits that 40 percent of the benefits of certain federal investments will go to disadvantaged communities who are marginalized, underserved, and overburdened by pollution, also address access to nature. If we help improve these communities’ access to nature, we are going to also improve climate and all these other things – and it is community building.

Langhans: The framework also ties into the 30x30 federal and state initiatives, bringing together goals of equity and biodiversity conservation. Environmental and social issues are intimately intertwined, and if we want to address the biodiversity and climate crises, we need holistic solutions that bring people along and center justice.

Paper co-authors from left to right: Caroline Daws, Sydney Moss, Christopher Anderson, Lisa Mandle , Nicholas Hendershot, Rebecca Chaplin-Kramer , Alejandra Echeverri, Kelley Langhans, Gretchen Daily, Oliver Nguyen, Suzanne Ou, Roy Remme, Lingling Liu, Adrian Vogl, Rafael Schmitt
Paper co-authors from left to right: Caroline Daws, Sydney Moss, Christopher Anderson, Lisa Mandle , Nicholas Hendershot, Rebecca Chaplin-Kramer , Alejandra Echeverri, Kelley Langhans, Gretchen Daily, Oliver Nguyen, Suzanne Ou, Roy Remme, Lingling Liu, Adrian Vogl, Rafael Schmitt

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