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Service and Community

New Just Communities Lab Advocates for Environmental Justice

Students with Professor Boone as part of the Just Communities Lab

Kofi Boone, Joseph D. Moore Distinguished Professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning, has recently formed the Just Communities Lab, aiming to support the impact of environmental justice strategies by co-creating with communities.

The new lab explores how we can use landscape architecture, design, and planning to rethink how we protect people, ecosystems, and environments. Their work emphasizes the importance of education by finding ways to help people who live in those areas discover the beauty and value of their own local communities and habitats. 

Just Communities follows a Community-Based Participatory Research (CBPR) model, working in communities to effect change. All of the work is done directly in communities and in partnership with other entities. 

Image of the CBPR model process by Cacari-Stone, Garcia, Wallerstein, et al.

One of the lab’s first partners was the Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association, a nonprofit in Durham working to protect water quality. 

“A lot of our cities— in North Carolina in particular— have rivers and streams running through them. All of them suffer from pollution and other impacts that harm us all,” Professor Boone said. “We’re wrapping up an action plan for the Lower Ellerbe Creek watershed that had a lot of community participation—  lots of ways to help people discover the nature in their own backyards.”

According to Professor Boone, the most sensational part of this particular project is a great blue heron rookery, situated in the middle of the ecosystem. Great blue herons are the largest herons in North America, and this rookery is one of only a few in the region. The lab’s environmental work has helped ensure the protection of this species in North Carolina.

Image of a great blue heron by Brenda Johima.

Professor Boone was inspired to find a way to link environmental justice and landscape architecture after taking electives during his master’s program at the University of Michigan. He was interested in exploring this further, in a larger scope and with a larger time frame. 

Boone was interested in this correlation even before coming to North Carolina. “Nationally, North Carolina is very, very important to the history of environmental justice,” he said. “The PCB landfill protests in Warren County, North Carolina are considered the birth of the modern environmental justice movement.”

The PCB landfill protests took place in 1982 and lasted over six weeks. The protests were led by a coalition of citizens, civil rights advocates, and environmental activists who fought against devastating, ultimately-successful state plans to move thousands of tons of carcinogenic soil to a primarily Black community in the town of Afton. 

Being awarded the Joseph D. Moore Distinguished Professorship has played an essential role in making Professor Boone’s vision for his work and research in North Carolina a reality through his founding of the Just Communities Lab. 

The lab received over $300,000 in grants as a result of Dr. Boone’s success, giving him the ability to truly establish and expand the reach and effect of the lab throughout North Carolina. 

“It provided a really important catalyst to allow us to move forward,” Boone said.

“It was a real blessing, and it’s allowed me to support graduate students. It has allowed us to work on several projects without requiring any resources from that community in return, while leveraging additional resources through that work.” 

The Just Communities Lab consists of Dr. Boone, two GSSP (Graduate Student Support Plan) graduate students, and four graduate research assistants. GSSP positions provide waived tuition and fees for a semester in exchange for research assistance. Removing this economic barrier gives students the freedom to consider pursuing work in communities facing environmental justice issues. 

“When I graduated from the University of Michigan, there were only 51 licensed Black landscape architects in the country. Today, it’s somewhere between 170 and 200 out of 15,000 total landscape architects. So part of [the vision] was wanting to help people feel welcome through our work, and eventually pursue a career in landscape architecture,” Boone said.

GSSP positions are often used as recruitment and retention tools for Black and BIPOC designers. “We try to attract and retain students to help make the profession more representative of the people we serve,” said Boone. 

Currently, the lab is working alongside partners including Urban Community AgriNomics, Partnership for Southern Equity/EcoDistricts, and the Design Workshop Foundation. Recently, Just Communities worked with Design Workshop Foundation on The Hive Park, a future community park marking the very first park and public green space in Lewiston-Woodville, NC. 

The Just Communities Lab works alongside Urban Community AgriNomics (UCAN) in a community workshop. Image courtesy of Kofi Boone.

Another ongoing project, UPLIFT NC, is a collaboration with Appalachian State University and Naturescapes that strives to promote economic development through tourism in rural counties across the state. 

The Just Communities Lab is also working alongside the North Carolina Department of Transportation to assess the historical and environmental justice impacts and consequences of transportation infrastructure— especially freeways. 

“There was an era in the mid-20th century when freeways were designed and implemented in the middle of communities, many Black communities, disrupting areas all over the country. Places that used to have thriving business districts and healthy places to live were completely bisected and destroyed by freeway construction, so there are a lot of federal resources out there now to repair that harm,” Boone said. 

“We are doing a lot of geospatial analysis, we’re looking at trends of how those communities have changed over time; we’re even going into those communities and talking to people who lived through that period to capture some of their own histories and traditions. We’re hopeful that as a member of the team, we can contribute a way of learning lessons from those past decisions so that when they move forward, they don’t repeat those same mistakes.”

This research is in partnership with an on-campus organization called Integrated Transportation Research and Education, located on Centennial Campus. 

“We hope the work helps NCDOT and the state reinvest in those communities, reconnecting them, kind of overcoming the barriers that those freeways presented,” Boone said. 

Professor Boone is excited to see tangible benefits in the communities the lab is working with, and hopes working with counties across the state will increase the awareness of design and planning as a vehicle and a tool to achieve environmental justice and social equity.

This post was originally published in College of Design Blog.