In 2018, The Nature Conservancy in Missouri launched its first Cities Program with a goal to reduce local stormwater and flooding challenges, improve water and air quality, and enhance habitat for both people and nature through equity-centered green infrastructure and nature-based solutions in the St. Louis region.
Recently, TNC collaborated with local partners to create the St. Louis EcoUrban Assessment – an ArcGIS StoryMap and interactive tool that visualizes several social, economic, ecological and public health factors in the four-county study region of St. Louis County and City in Missouri, and St. Clair and Madison counties in Illinois. The tool also identifies which communities are most impacted by local challenges.
“As an environmental justice organizer in St. Louis, my role involves many things but mainly working with all stakeholders in amplifying public health concerns related to environmental injustices,” says Leah Clyburn, Beyond Coal organizer with Sierra Club Missouri. “I believe this tool will help support my work and strengthen partnerships in coalition to best support community.”
The Assessment aims to make the data included in the study more readily accessible and user-friendly to the public, increase awareness and visibility of local challenges to prioritize action, and drive resources to the frontline communities being impacted.
“In order to be successful, our conservation work must be intersectional,” says Rebecca Weaver, TNC’s cities program manager in Missouri.
Creation of the St. Louis EcoUrban Assessment
The Assessment was partially inspired and informed by the findings from the Environmental Racism in St. Louis report. Tara Rocque, assistant director at the Washington University School of Law's Interdisciplinary Environmental Clinic was a partner on the creation of that report. Tara says when she found out her report was going to be expanded through the St. Louis EcoUrban Assessment it made her a ‘bit giddy.’
Since the release of the Environmental Racism in St. Louis Report, Tara says the most common change has been in awareness – a recognition that environmental racial disparities truly do exist – and a determination to do something about it.
“A large number of organizations have reached out to the Clinic and its clients wanting to find out more about the disparate impact imposed on BIPOC residents in the region, and thankfully, wanting to find out what they can do to reduce these disparities and improve the quality of life in this City,” she says.
Tara says the Assessment Tool brings the data to life, in a malleable and usable format. “I know I will be using this tool frequently, as will many others focused on environmental justice in this region. I cannot wait to incorporate the tool into my research, teaching, and advocacy.”
Tara also suggests that governmental and non-governmental agencies review this tool as part of their policy and funding decision-making process. “The ability to assess—on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood level—the specific issues facing different parts of this City, allow for hyper-targeted policy decisions,” she says. “Instead of painting City policy with a broad brush, this tool allows decision-makers to see what help is needed and where.”
If used appropriately, Tara believes this would ultimately result in a more efficient allocation of resources and ensure that those who need help are the ones who actually receive it.
How the Tool Works
The St. Louis EcoUrban Assessment includes an ArcGIS StoryMap and interactive tool with GIS data on air quality, asthma rates, flooding and stormwater issues, food access, tree canopy coverage and other environmental and socioeconomic factors.
“Oftentimes, this data is only visible to the organizations that have the financial resources and access to ArcGIS and other mapping systems,” says Rebecca. Since this tool is made public, users can access the map and turn on data layers to see which locations in the study area have, for example, the least amount of tree canopy, or are which communities are most vulnerable to flooding. “Seeing the data can inform and prioritize the work happening on the ground,” says Rebecca.
During the tool’s development, the group had a core set of questions to help guide them:
- Where are frontline communities (low-income communities and communities of color) facing the highest risks of flooding?
- Which areas and which populations are best served by parks?
- Where are frontline communities facing the heaviest burdens of air pollution?
- Where are frontline communities lacking access to healthy food?
- How do challenges posed by hyper-vacancy inform other risks and solutions?
- And where will nature-based solutions and collaborations be most impactful at addressing these issues?
“We are very grateful to our community partners who contributed to the creation of this resource—lending their data, expertise and feedback throughout the process.,” says Rebecca. “The St. Louis EcoUrban Assessment could not have been created had it not been for previous studies and reports, and the contribution of many community stakeholders.”
The Tool in Action
The St. Louis EcoUrban Assessment not only lends itself to TNC’s work but can be used by partners and other community stakeholders to build power for change.
Partners like Forest ReLeaf of Missouri are ready to put the tool to work. “Our Forest ReLeaf team has eagerly awaited the official launch of the St. Louis EcoUrban Assessment Tool,” says Meridith Perkins, executive director for Forest ReLeaf of Missouri. “The streamlined, open access platform will serve not only as a great way for us to identify projects but will also easily demonstrate why priority projects have been selected with our community partners and funders.”
Meridith adds that the tool will help improve both project efficiency and effectiveness, ensuring more meaningful and coordinated efforts.
Additionally, the tool aims to move beyond challenge-mapping and includes community asset mapping, such as the InvestSTL Neighborhood Organization Map, to point to where there are organizations and initiatives working in these areas, and where collaborations can be built to co-create solutions.
Jenny Connelly-Bowen, executive director for Community Builders Network of Metro St. Louis (CBN) says one of the most important features of the tool is the way it maps place-based assets like schools, faith-based institutions, and community-based organizations alongside the data on environmental challenges, since these local partners are critical for creating community-driven solutions.
“CBN recognizes that environmental justice issues intersect with place-based community development work on many levels,” says Jenny. “This new tool will help all of us better understand the unique challenges that each neighborhood in our region is facing and serves as a sobering reminder that communities of color remain on the front lines of the climate crisis.”