Creating a sustainable future: the revealing power of maps
Ever since the first humans painted stories on cave walls, languages that transcend written words have brought people closer together. Cartography, the science of creating maps, is one such language. As a visual language of geography, maps tell us how interdependent everything is in the world and how interdependent we are with each other – something we understand all the more in the wake of the pandemic of coronavirus. Geography integrates disciplines like sociology, biology, economics and even psychology by uniting them in the context of location.
We need this level of integration into our thinking and problem solving as our planet faces serious and complex sustainability challenges, related to environmental sustainability, social equity and economic prosperity. To address any of these concerns requires a holistic view of the others, as they depend on each other. The language of maps, powered by technology and alive with data, can help us create solutions. Maps produced by geographic information system (GIS) software serve as a framework for understanding and identifying where problems need to be resolved and how they relate.
We have long known the importance of environmental conservation, but knowing the location of critical ecosystems is also crucial. With calls for the preservation of 30% of American land by 2030 under President Biden’s 30×30 initiative, precision conservation to identify the lands to be protected will be decisive. This precision comes from extensive data collection and the technology to produce smart maps showing the size, composition and scale of land that needs to be preserved. Across the largest estuary in the United States, the Chesapeake Bay, for example, maps in a geographic information system provide a way to communicate and share effective strategies between jurisdictions and states that contribute to water quality. Conservation maps can also illustrate the potential impact on indigenous people or an underserved community, ensuring that initiatives are socially equitable.
The ripple effects of systemic racism involve geography. Banks in the United States, for example, instituted discriminatory redlining policies decades ago to determine eligibility for home loans, creating massive disparities in the quality of life for entire communities and generations of residents. Maps rich in data and analysis can identify impacted communities. In King County, Washington, this approach helped elected leaders decide where to build new neighborhood amenities such as parks and trails and where to focus efforts on bridging the digital divide. Business leaders who have pledged large donations over the past year to securing a racially equitable future can also use mapping technology to determine where their money will be most useful and monitor the results. This same geospatial technology can help industries find new clients who may have been overlooked before or seek new talent from communities of color.
Business is often driven by the question of location – where to do business. This desire can also be to protect resources and the natural environment, not only for the good of the planet, but because sustainable resources have a longer lifespan. Nova Scotia seafood company uses GIS extensively in pre-trip planning to select fishing spots accurately. This work improves its harvests of clams, crabs, shrimp, scallops and lobster off the Canadian coast, which are labor intensive and costly, and disturb the seabed less. Reducing fishing trips also reduces the carbon footprint and costs of the business. By visualizing the data on smart maps, the company makes more accurate predictions for harvest results. It’s a long-term investment that has turned out to be good business and also good environmental stewardship.
Sustainability is at the heart of this year’s Esri User Conference. Sustainability is driven by the mindset that everything is interconnected – the understanding that we must balance man-made systems and the natural world.
Imagine if the business leader, the mayor, the farmer, the environmental activist, the people of a city gathered around a detailed digital map – the kind that can tell a story – to understand how everything connects and connects. This map can help each stakeholder decide how to improve their place of life and work. The same approach can extend to counties, states, countries and even coalitions of nations.
In the future, modern geographic information systems software will help governments, nonprofits, and businesses do more than just find solutions to the challenges they face individually. They can use it to plan for a sustainable future that ensures a thriving global economy, thriving global ecosystem, and broader social equity.
To find out more, see the virtual Esri User Conference or watch the plenary session.