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This Earth Day, Let’s Talk About Crowdsourcing the Future

By Eric W. Sanderson

For too long the environmental movement has emphasized what we are against:  killing whales, polluting the air, cutting down the rainforest. This Earth Day let’s declare what we stand for. Let’s come together to crowdsource the future.

In 2015, we have smart phones and social-media tools to help us communicate in ways that transcend space and time. For years, social marketers have used these to their advantage to sell us the diverse products of the global economy.

Nearly half of the Manhattan High Line’s plants are native to the United States. Located in the city’s West Side, the public park once was once a freight rail line.   Joshua Bousel ©WCS
Nearly half of the Manhattan High Line’s plants are native to the United States. Located in the city’s West Side, the public park once was once a freight rail line. Joshua Bousel ©WCS

With over 2.8 billion people on the Internet, it’s time for the environmental community to get everyone on board to collaboratively imagine the future. Two applications from New York City give us a glimpse of what’s possible:  the Brooklyn-based HabitatMap and the Manhattan-focused Visionmaker.

HabitatMap.org allows users to flag, measure, and discuss aspects of their local environment on web-based maps.  People identify aspects of the environment that enhance quality of life and human health, like local farmers markets or public parks, and then can share their maps with others.

Visionmaker.nyc, created by WCS (the Wildlife Conservation Society), gives users tools to develop and share alternate futures. One can choose a neighborhood in Manhattan, then “paint” ecosystems to create new configurations of buildings, streets, and natural ecosystems.

People can re-shape any neighborhood in Manhattan using Visionmaker.nyc. ©WCS
People can re-shape any neighborhood in Manhattan using Visionmaker.nyc. Photo ©WCS

One can also choose the lifestyle of the people living in their futurescape – are they more like average Americans or more like average New Yorkers? Finally a user can choose a climate scenario to plan for (the current climate or a future one) and include projections about future sea level rise.

One idea generated using Visionmaker shows 14th Street in Manhattan with a 93 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. How to do we get there? Alter lifestyles to emphasize non-polluting renewable energy and swap the cars and trucks on the street for a light-rail train line instead. The Visionmaker program predicts that, amazingly, the population and the number of jobs go slightly up while at the same time the environmental impact goes way down.

In fact, other benefits of eschewing cars include a slowdown of habitat destruction and climate change and a reduction of carbon pollution as well.

The Harrison, N.Y. Metro-North Railroad station in March 2015. Photo © Kristen Avery
The Harrison, N.Y. Metro-North Railroad station in March 2015. Photo © Kristen Avery

If we collectively work on shifting our focus from personal vehicles to support the construction of cheaper public transportation options or opt to walk or ride our bikes, many of the places currently used as garages and parking lots could be replaced with open spaces and green housing.

Visionmaker and HabitatMap make the same point: the quality of the environment is not only about how we design our neighborhoods, but it is also a matter of how we live there and how the world is changing around us.

More importantly though, tools like these open up new ways to collaboratively create better environments in a positive, local, and reinforcing fashion. In the best case, they allow us to work together to find new solutions that no one of us could come up with alone.

Large reforms, more than incremental examples, are needed to move the needle on the environment. A green roof on a building is good. But how many green roofs do we need?   Visions rooted in science and grown from the bottom up in neighborhoods will help define meaningful environmental reform in cities like New York.

That’s an important lesson on an Earth Day dedicated to the idea that average citizens across the globe must become active participants in bringing the change we need to protect our planet today and into the future. It’s got to start somewhere. If we get New York right, maybe that will help us out with the whales, air, and rainforest too.

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Dr. Eric W. Sanderson is a senior conservation ecologist for WCS (the Wildlife Conservation Society) at the Bronx Zoo.