Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Esnard Speaks twice: Disaster Planning and Environmental Justice

By Tina Notas and Cheng-Yi Pu

            Dr. Ann-Margaret Esnard, Associate Professor of City and Regional Planning and Director, GEDDes Computer Lab, Cornell University, presented her research on The Nexus of Disaster Planning, Geospatial Technologies and Local Land Use Planning Strategies on Tuesday, March 22, 2005 as part of the SUNY-ESF’s Women in Scientific and Environmental Professions Spring Seminar Series. The seminar was sponsored by SUNY College of Environmental Science and Foresty, and its Graduate Student Association, Women’s Caucus, Council of Geospatial Management and Analysis (CGMA), and Diversity-Council/Office of Multicultural Affairs.
Dr. Esnard discussed the issues of zoning and controlling population densities when considering land planning, and asked the audience to consider whether an area being developed is concentrated in a hazardous area or one that is vulnerable to natural disaster. She stressed the importance of creating dialogue with the people affected by the plan, and establishing decision support systems or alternative public policies at the watershed level. She also explained that it is important to understand the weight vacant land holds. A land planner needs to consider if vacant land is currently zoned as open space and whether there is potential for development.  For further inquiry into land use planning, Esnard recommended the books Disasters by Design by Dennis S. Mileti (Director of Natural Disasters Center in Boulder, Colorado); Cooperating with Nature by Raymond Burby; and Disaster Resistance by Donald Geis. Esnard stated that the NYS GIS Clearinghouse is a good source of data for land planners.
            Esnard also presented her experience with Environmental Justice in Real and Virtual Communities on Wednesday, March 23. She stressed that, as a GIS user, one cannot be in front of the computer all the time, but instead needs to learn to receive and use feedback constructively from the community the planning affects. When reflecting on GIS in this way, the user ensures the community’s quality of life. On the other hand, if GIS users stay behind the computer screen, they create assumptions that influence policy in the mapping program being used.
Esnard discussed her work with the Community University Consortium for Regional Environmental Justice that includes New York, New Jersey and Puerto Rico, the Iron Bound Community Corporation (Newark, New Jersey), and West Harlem Environmental Action. According to Esnard, land planning needs to be democratic, and Community Based Organizations (CBO’s) need to shape appropriate planning data. Land planners need to ask the community how useful the data being collected is. Another crucial point made by Esnard was that GIS planners need to make sure that maps are easily understood by the audience. Esnard and her students accomplished just that by helping the Ironbound community in Newark, New Jersey set up a map of their community on the Internet. In this way, the GIS users handed off the project to be continued by the community. Environmental Justice websites that should be taken into consideration are www.epa.gov/enviro/ej and the Toxic Release Inventory found at www.epa.gov/tri.
Dr. Esnard received her B.S. in Agricultural Engineering from University of the West Indies, and her M.S. in Agronomy and Soils in University of Puerto Rico. She got her Ph.D. in Regional Planning from the University of Massachusetts. Dr. Esnard’s most recent projects have focused on hazard mitigation planning, and decision tools for post-disaster planning. She directed the natural hazards and vulnerability-mapping project for eleven counties in New York State and for the Tompkins County Chapter of the American Red Cross. She is the co-author of the Hypothetical City workbook and has written on other topics that include quality of life and holistic disaster recovery, spatial analysis of New York metropolitan urban expansion, vulnerability assessments of coastal and flood hazards, public participation GIS, environmental justice, GIS education, and ethics.

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