Young woman sees mapping Catholic lands as an environmental blessing

St. Thomas Seminary in Bloomfield

Tom Condon / CTMirror.org

St. Thomas Seminary in Bloomfield

Though she considered herself a “conservative Catholic,” the great activist Dorothy Day would chide her church on occasion. More than once, from her Catholic Worker mission in Manhattan’s Bowery, she urged the church to use its landholdings in the Hudson Valley to grow food and provide housing for the poor.

The notion of how the church should use its lands didn’t remain long in the public eye after Day raised it many decades ago. But it could see life again, in ways Dorothy Day couldn’t have imagined.

A young Hartford resident, Molly Burhans, 26, has formed a nonprofit called the GoodLand Project, which, she hopes, will help the church map its lands using modern, multi-dimensional geographic information systems (GIS) technology, and then use the information for better stewardship of the land. 

She’s trying to, if not change the world, nudge a good bit of it in the right direction. The Catholic Church is one of — if not the — largest nongovernmental landowners on the planet, with holdings in virtually every country.  By one published estimate, from The New Statesman in 2011, the church and its affiliate institutions own 177 million acres of the planet. (No one knows for sure because it’s never been measured; that is part of the reason Burhans undertook the project.)

If these lands can be managed in environmentally sustainable ways, she thinks the planet and its inhabitants will benefit from a cleaner, healthier and more just global environment. “Maps are incredibly powerful tools, and have been throughout history,” she said.

With the introduction of GIS technology, maps got more powerful. Most of us think of a map as a flat, two-dimensional representation of land. GIS maps make that notion almost quaint.

The new technology can overlay information about economics, social and health conditions, demographics, transportation, weather patterns and other data. So instead of just an image of land, modern mapping can provide its ecological and social context, she said.

To make this point, her organization did a preliminary, prototypical map of the large San Diego diocese, home to 1 million Catholics, which shows how many people live within walking distance of churches, areas in danger from wildfires, and wildlife habitat areas, among other things. 

Mapping a single church property — and then connecting the church with the appropriate land use planner, engineer or designer — can help the congregation with everything from stormwater runoff to tree plantings to preventing soil erosion and saving heating and cooling energy.

If a religious order were selling off some of its lands, as many have in recent years, mapping could tell them which lands should be preserved for farming or open space and which could be sold without adding to suburban sprawl. (In Connecticut, the church or its affiliates, such as the Catholic Cemeteries Association of the Archdiocese of Hartford, have sold off a number of properties over the years, perhaps most notably, in 2000, the 232-acre parcel, for $14 million, that became the Evergreen Walk mall in South Windsor.)

“The idea behind the GoodLand Project is simple,” she wrote in her vision plan. “Build a map, locate where small changes can have a big impact, and connect communities with appropriate resources to make those changes.”

To make the vision a reality, Burhans faces the major challenges of raising money and selling the idea to the church. It would be a daunting challenge for someone twice Burhans’ age, but she is an unusual young woman, and is making progress.

Interest In Land

Bright, focused, quietly energetic and engaging, a practicing Catholic, Burhans grew up in Buffalo, N.Y., the daughter of a biologist and a computer scientist, and attended Jesuit-run Canisius College in her hometown. She appears to have wrung almost everything out of the college opportunity. She majored in philosophy and minored in dance, did a service project in Nicaragua, started an indoor farming co-op, worked in a science lab, graduated with honors.

Molly Burhans

Tom Condon / CTMirror.org

Molly Burhans

In her junior year she went to a monastery of Benedictine nuns to think about what she would do with her life, and got interested in the land, and how religious communities use their lands. This led her to pursue a graduate degree in ecological design at the Conway School in Conway, Mass., which specializes in ecological landscape planning and design.

She completed the program, which included community landscape projects in Portland, Maine, and Springfield, as well as one in the African country of Mali, threatened by the advancing Sahara desert – all the while keeping in mind the thought of working with Catholic lands. She said she considered becoming an itinerant consultant, living with religious communities and helping them plan their landscapes.

But two things happened. First, Pope Francis issued his powerful and eloquent environmental encyclical “Laudato Si” that urged attention to the environmental crisis in “our common home.”

Then she learned, to her surprise, that the Vatican wasn’t doing GIS mapping, and that some of the Vatican maps “went back to the Holy Roman Empire.” There is, she found, limited mapping of church properties. She said the U.S. has better maps than most other countries — its diocesan boundaries and some diocesan landholdings are mapped, but not with the multi-level, local and regional GIS information that Burhans envisions.

So she decided to do it, and formed the GoodLand Project. 

The Hard Part

She started the nonprofit last fall on a proverbial shoestring — she’s living in Hartford because a friend offered her a place to live. She has done a vast amount of work, including authoring an extensive vision/business plan.

Perhaps the biggest breakthrough thus far is that ESRI Inc., one of the world’s largest producers of mapping software — it does mapping for the UN and many major corporations —  has agreed to provide its software to the GoodLand Project and work with Burhans on her long-term initiative, establishing a Catholic Communities Spatial Data Infrastructure to collect and securely share the mapping information with others in the church. (For an example of a metropolitan ESRI project that illustrates how a diocesan map might look, see Los Angeles GeoHub.

As importantly, her work is being taken seriously by serious people; her advisory board includes Yale GIS expert Dana Tomlin, Stephen Ervin of the Harvard School of Design and nationally known housing and community development expert Rosanne Haggerty. 

She is now writing grant applications and developing materials to pitch to dioceses and religious orders. She is mapping properties for the Vincentian orders and has a pilot project beginning this summer at a Catholic shrine in upstate New York. Her project has gotten coverage in Landscape Architecture magazine and other media. 

This month she travels to Nairobi, where she has been invited to speak at an international conference on the use of technology in development, and then on to Rome to meet with key Vatican officials about her project.

Her timing is propitious. As climate change drives famines and wars, and an estimated 50 million refugees walk the earth, proper stewardship of private as well as public lands is drawing increased attention as vital for the protection of water and soil and the conservation of energy. Burhans would like to help her church lead the way. One easily imagines Dorothy Day’s approval.

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