On Saving Land & People: Why Conservation Needs New Guiding Principles

By: and

New ideas for connecting land and people through conservation

How can we make conservation more effective, not only for preserving land but also for nurturing community?  While we have saved millions of acres, Americans seem less connected to the land than ever before.  In America today, some 365 acres of farms and forests are bulldozed into malls and subdivisions and parking lots every hour.  Even with our most strenuous efforts, conservationists cannot protect land at this rate.  Our best hope is to work for a shift in American culture.  By inviting citizens to imagine their lives differently, by offering them new ways of dwelling in the land, we can help replace the culture of exploitation with a culture of conservation.  Every project that saves land can also become a compelling story about people living in a more hopeful and durable way.

For example, Five Star Garden in Central Harlem of New York is only a quarter acre, but for the people of 121st Street—many of whom never leave Harlem—the garden is their own piece of paradise.  Those who frequent this patch of ground have developed a fierce attachment to the place.  These are the words of Classie Parker, the woman who created a thriving garden out of vacant lots:

Once I started working with the earth, the love in people started coming out. And they started telling me their life stories. They were telling me things that they didn’t even tell their own people. So it was like a healing for them, too. When they left they seemed changed. We think of ourselves as farmers, city farmers. Never environmentalists. There is something here in this garden for everyone. And any race, creed, or color . . . now, can you explain that? This is one of the few places in Harlem where they can be free to be themselves.  There is a difference here. You come in here and sit down, don’t you feel comfortable with us? Don’t you feel you’re free to be you? That we’re not going to judge you because you’re a different color or because you’re a male? Do you feel happy here? Do you feel intimidated? Don’t you feel like my dad’s your dad?

What Classie is asking about the Five Star Garden should be asked about every place we seek to conserve:  Has being here in this place helped you feel closer to your neighbors, to one another, to the earth?  Has it nourished you?  Has it restored your hope, renewed your purpose, given you joy? 

The asking of such questions is at the heart of our work in the Center for Land and People.  By linking changes in the land with changes in people, we seek to enlarge the impact of conservation, carrying it beyond the measure of acres and dollars, important as those are, to the measure of social and individual well being.  The Center works to create a greater understanding of the many benefits that flow from a respectful relationship with the land: human health, ecological health, economic sustainability, enriched community life, companionship and fairness between humans and other species, and the renewal of the human spirit.

We conserve land because of core values that are often left unspoken, including respect, gratitude, generosity, forbearance, compassion, the desire for belonging, and love. Land conservationists can expand these values into culture by revealing them more courageously and explicitly in each project.  The Center seeks to advance land conservation projects that teach such values and that demonstrate more responsible and conserving ways of living.  

The Center for Land and People is advancing these themes for land conservation:

Protecting what people love.  Conservation should highlight people’s shared values and local passion for what they know and love because this brings people together and helps people to be less fearful of one another. By protecting what people love, we offer a positive vision of the world we want to live in.

Working toward healthy land and healthy people.   Conservation is about economic, mental, physical, and spiritual well being. It’s often about healing ourselves and other life. Through this view of life as one healthy whole, restoration of land and oneself becomes the same.

Striving for fairness.  Conservation’s impact becomes more profound as it serves all people, regardless of income, color, or where one lives.  Everyone needs and deserves a relationship with the land.  Similarly, it is fair and moral for conservation to honor the gift of all life, not just human life, and to respect that many ecosystems must be allowed to be self-willed.

Honoring home.   By focusing on where people live, work and play, conservation protects the places that enable us to think about who we are and where we belong.  It roots us, and helps us to better value and appreciate the places immediately around us. The work of local conservation provides the daily reminders that what we do to the land we do to ourselves.

Thinking about the whole.  When conservation takes responsibility for the whole, from inner city to wilderness, it speaks biological truths, serves to connect landscapes, and educates people about critical interdependencies. A whole natural system, including humans, is what conservation ought to protect.

We are actively leading the re-creation of land conservation through five program areas:  Redefining Success, Mission Exploration, Publishing New Voices, The Story Project, and Rethinking the Promise.   Specifically, we :

  • Create and pilot new ways of measuring the social impacts of conservation to a healthy society, leading conservationists to redefine success for the movement. 
  • Convene retreats, sponsor discussions and make available resources that help TPL and the larger conservation movement to more intentionally link the conservation of land with the restoration of healthy human and natural communities.
  • Collaborate with a council of writers, artists, social critics, academics and conservation activists to determine how best to create this new practice of “land and people” conservation.
  • Catalyze the telling of better stories – within both the conservation movement and the diverse communities where we work – that bring home the meaning of land in people’s lives. We produce story-telling books and other media to make people’s stories of their love of the land widely available, popular and accessible.


Ten Benefits of Land Conservation

  1. A safe and healthy world: maintaining broad environmental health, air and water quality, hazard prevention, biological diversity, and land remediation.
  2. A sense of belonging: fostering a cultural, historical and spiritual relationship with the land
  3. A sense of human joy
  4. Individual human health: recreation, bike paths, hiking
  5. Increasing the human experience of nature: providing places for experiencing inspiration, beauty, humility, connection
  6. Learning: providing opportunities for the study and understanding of the earth sciences, biological sciences, environmental education
  7. A process of civic engagement: changing power structures, bringing people together, getting people out of their private lives
  8. Fostering multi-cultural interactions in public places: bringing diverse people together to experience one another and the natural world.
  9. A sense of responsibility beyond oneself and one’s place:  taking responsibility for the whole landscape, from inner city to wilderness, fosters bioregionalism and understanding the connection between the city and the wild
  10. Positive community economics

Protecting what people love.  Conservation should highlight people’s shared values and local passion for what they know and love because this brings people together and helps people to be less fearful of one another. By protecting what people love, we offer a positive vision of the world we want to live in.

Working toward healthy land and healthy people.   Conservation is about economic, mental, physical, and spiritual well being. It’s often about healing ourselves and other life. Through this view of life as one healthy whole, restoration of land and oneself becomes the same.

Striving for fairness.  Conservation’s impact becomes more profound as it serves all people, regardless of income, color, or where one lives.  Everyone needs and deserves a relationship with the land.  Similarly, it is fair and moral for conservation to honor the gift of all life, not just human life, and to respect that many ecosystems must allowed to be self-willed.

Honoring home.   By focusing on where people live, work and play, conservation protects the places that enable us to think about who we are and where we belong.  It roots us, and helps us to better value and appreciate the places immediately around us. The work of local conservation provides the daily reminders that what we do to the land we do to ourselves.

Thinking about the whole.  When conservation takes responsibility for the whole, from inner city to wilderness, it speaks biological truths, serves to connect landscapes, and educates people about critical interdependencies. A whole natural system, including humans, is what conservation ought to protect.