Mapping the Way to Racial Equity

By: Clayton Fosterweber

Clayton explores fields of environmental science with a focus on resource distribution and environmental justice.

When I started my career as a college student, my first Environmental Science professor was a professional cartographer. Not sure if you know what that is but I certainly had to google it to find out it refers to the study of maps. I remember thinking to myself, “How can a man that makes maps for a living teach students about the complex, interdisciplinary field of Environmental Science?” I failed to see the connection between the creation of maps and issues that plague the field of Environmental Science. My naive view of map making was an image of an elderly gentleman placing mountain ranges onto a dusty old scroll. This ridiculous mental picture of map making has since been refreshed. I found a valuable connection with the fields of mapping and Environmental Science through another course at Drexel University: GIS and Environmental Modeling. GIS is an acronym that stands for Geographic Information Systems and ArcGIS is an online mapping software which allows its user to analyze data spatially. Yes, those words were boring to read, but the impacts GIS can have are infinite. Many people in the Environmental Science field utilize GIS to synthesize and visual spatial data, or more simply put, make a map.

Under my co-op with professor Dr. Dane Ward, I have been using ArcGIS to analyze spatial data in the lens of environmental justice. Environmental justice is defined as the equitable and just treatment of all peoples with respect to race, gender, color, nationality, and wealth when dealing with the distribution of beneficial environmental resources and the burdens of environmental pollutants. Visualizing spatial                                                                                              data has impactful connections to geographic areas and societal factors. More specifically, my co-op has been focused on analyzing people’s access to green spaces, in particular, with children in the Philadelphia school system.

It certainly doesn’t surprise me when I read articles about children with access to green space doing better in school, being more likely to pursue STEM careers in higher education, and developing stronger coping mechanisms that lead to improved mental health. The presence of curated green space often ties in with a variety of socioeconomic factors such as wealth. Green space isn’t often thought about when considering wealth and well being, but the healing presence of nature cannot be overlooked. When I was in third grade, we had a teacher named Judah who used to take his class into the forest behind our school. It was one of the most memorable moments from my education, mostly because another kid stepped on an underground bee hive which resulted in the stinging of 20 third grades as we scattered in fear. Other than traumatic bee-induced tragedies, green spaces can be a healing amenity to aid against health and income disparities. 

 My team and I have been working in ArcGIS to analyze access to green space by mapping out public, private, and charter schools. We aim to identify school locations with low access to green space in Philadelphia for the equitable distributions of resources. Areas lacking curated green spaces often have high levels of poverty and are composed of minority groups such as Black and Brown people. Urban and impoverished areas have far less access to green spaces as compared to wealthier and whiter suburban areas. This systematic injustice in American society needs to be brought to light by individuals, corporations, institutions, and our government. This is being done by the company that creates the tools for analysis. 

The ESRI corporation, which creates software like ArcGIS, recently dedicated a large section of their company’s web page to how individuals and corporations can use their software to map and solve issues of racial inequality. The Webpage highlights how location intelligence can aid in the fight for racial equity for government, non-profit, and business purposes. ESRI sells their software to individuals and institutions as a for profit company. There exists other options when wanting to create impactful maps in the field of Environmental Science. QGIS is an alternative software that provides a free and open source for geographic information systems and is a mapping tool that is available to all. This accessibility provides all of those who are interested with the software needed to succeed.

ESRI goes into further detail on the methods in which GIS software can engage communities and partners, map and analyze inequalities, operationalize best practices, and manage performance. This webpage also provides resources such as a racial equity hub and access to relevant spatial data on race, wealth, and pollution. Having large companies such as ESRI dedicating resources and bringing attention to racial issues can have a great impact on their user base. This helps to spread awareness for justice, creating a catalyst for change. A section of the ESRI page specifically highlights scientific studies that utilized GIS software to tackle issues of racial inequity.

One highlighted study, “Helping Los Angeles Tackle the Need for Park Equity” written by Matt Ball, related urban ecology and the inequity of the public’s access to outdoor spaces. The article explores how the Public Land Trust non-profit utilized GIS software to create parks for Southern California that are accessible to areas of low income and high poverty. By analyzing and identifying communities with low access to green spaces, the Public Land Trust can help conserve and transform specific areas to benefit those without access to outdoor resources.

The town of focus in the article is home of the Watts riots that occurred 50 years ago, but evidence of the protests are still present today. The Watts riots took place just outside of Los Angeles in Watts, California. These protests centered around police brutality after the unjust treatment of Marquette Frye and subsequent injustices against Black and Brown community members (Queally, 2015).  Does this sound familiar? It probably should. Almost sounds like history shaking its head. Watts, being mainly composed of minority populations, was denied governmental services and funding that lead to fewer curated green space projects. With recent momentum gaining for the Black Lives Matter movement, our civilization needs to look to the past and correct the subsequent outcomes. Protests and riots much like that of the Watts Revolution have occurred in large cities around the United States and Countries around the world. It is now up to the United States to make sure the adversities faced by the town of Watts do not reoccur. 

 This paper looked at how towns like Watts can start to build equity by means of green space installment. There are striking similarities of the Watts revolution that mirror the current state of the United States of American and the plague of police brutality. Every history teacher has preached learning about our past, it would be an ironic tragedy to let the same issues that occurred in Watts to reoccur in our communities today. To help combat this, local governments need to instate similar tactics of utilizing spatial software to identify areas of need and create specialized green spaces to fit the needs of communities without furthering the far reaching spread of gentrification. What can be deemed as ‘good’ and ‘helpful’ greenspace to a community ranges based on several factors. Curated greenspace is defined as being installed with a purpose, however, the purpose of these spaces can vary greatly based on the community’s needs. Areas with high volume of children could use a curated play space for recreation or areas of food desert could use a community garden. It is important when creating these spaces to understand what benefits can be offered to most greatly benefit the needs of the community using the space. Letting members of the neighborhoods that are not receiving the green space choose amenities provides the opportunity for communities to raise themselves with the tools that green spaces can offer. 

Spatial information has long been a tool of the oppressor to instate racist and classist structures in society such as redlining, which is the systematic denial of governmental services based on geographic location, and other discriminatory practices. When was the last time you have actually seen a map in person? Who do you think created it? When was the last time you used a map? (No, the Uber map does not count) Map making and property lines have historically been used by the majority group to suppress the minority. Reclaiming map making as a tool for the oppressed will combat the systematic discrimination put into place by colonization. Map making no longer looks like an old man and his collection of dusty scrolls, it will look like researchers restoring justice and lifting communities towards a brighter future. ESRI amplifying the ways that their software can help identify and alleviate racial inequities demonstrates how location intelligence can be used as a tool for justice. I used to not see the connection between maps and social, environmental injustices. I now see that the path towards equity and justice has to be mapped out. 


Queally, J. (2015, August 08). Watts Riots: Traffic stop was the spark that ignited days of destruction in L.A. Retrieved July 01, 2020, from

Ball, M., 2020. GIS Helps Los Angeles Tackle The Need For Park Equity. [online] Esri. Available at: <> [Accessed 16 July 2020].

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