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OPINION

Mapping environmental injustice

An exhibition at the Boston Public Library wades into some of today’s most contentious issues of power, money, and race.

Detail of plate 28, Atlas of the City of Boston: Charlestown and East Boston. G. W. Bromley & Co., 1922Leventhal Map & Education Center

You might think that maps have become obsolete in the age of GPS. Like phone booths and darkrooms, they seem like dusty relics of a pre-digital era, of little use to anyone beyond antiquarians or tech-averse Luddites. But if you think that, a trip to the Boston Public Library will make you think again.

The BPL’s challenging exhibition “More or Less in Common: Environment and Justice in the Human Landscape” is a visual argument, wading into some of today’s most contentious issues of power, money, and race. Culled mostly from the collection of the late developer Norman B. Leventhal, and interpreted by the library’s Leventhal Map and Education Center, the maps tell the story of industrial development’s burdens and benefits — and the unequal distribution of each.

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“Maps are deeply complicated documents,” said Garrett Dash Nelson, president and head curator of the Leventhal Center, as we toured the exhibit. Far from static records trapped in time, they have “political and narrative power” that people can use as tools for social activism.

Here at the start of the exhibition is a map of the globe showing the countries that emit the most carbon, superimposed on world population. You can see at a glance the unequal burden: With the exception of China, the countries producing the greatest environmental impact are not the places with the most people. Climate change knows no geopolitical boundaries, but this map draws a sharp line between those who are creating the problem and those who are living with the consequences.

Here are maps of “tree equity scores” for Boston’s neighborhoods; insurance maps showing the risk of floods or fire; early 20th-century maps outlining land that would later be seized for highways. A large floor map takes open data from the city’s Climate Ready Boston project and relates climate risks to seven characteristics of social vulnerability. It’s no surprise that some of the worst environmental impacts overlay communities with high poverty rates, language barriers, little green space, and racial segregation.

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One exception is the Seaport District, which is extremely vulnerable to sea level rise but barely registers on the list of social vulnerabilities. That’s why environmental justice conversations need to focus on the intersection, Nelson says, of “the raw geographic forces at play” and the resources a community has to confront them.

Looking at the maps, you can see the vaguely academic term “marginalized” come into focus. Marginalization is the practice of pushing people literally to the edges, and it’s evident in a map of Chelsea from 1867. Even back then, the rail lines and shipping infrastructure along the Mystic River were starting to choke the community, forcing it into physical and social isolation. Today Chelsea shoulders more environmental burdens than nearly any place in the state.

Now here is the 1877 map Frederick Law Olmsted would have used to plan the Back Bay Fens, deciding which areas would remain parklike and which would be gridded out for residential streets. Is it a coincidence that the one part of Olmsted’s Emerald Necklace that was never completed is a stretch of Columbia Road, or that his lovely design for Wood Island Park in East Boston was wantonly discarded to make way for runway expansion at Logan Airport?

Like much of Chelsea, the South Bay, and other industrialized neighborhoods, the precincts abutting Logan are “sacrifice zones” — environmentally degraded areas set aside for industries that support the lifestyles of people who often live far away from them.

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Olmsted, whose 200th birthday is being celebrated this year, was part of a social movement to redesign stagnant urban waterways that were harming public health. “He had not just an aesthetic vision but a powerful social vision of what nature does in a city,” said Nelson. But these 19th-century social reforms often were mixed up with efforts to “cleanse” the city of what was considered immigrant riffraff. Indeed, another map, from the 1960s shows, how affordable housing developments were (and sometimes still are) resisted on environmental grounds.

A lover of physical maps, Nelson concedes that the way we interact with them today is mostly on screens. But that opens other opportunities to interact with, interpret, and even create these tools. “Everyone has a powerful map-making machine in their pocket,” he said. A community’s resources aren’t just financial. Armed with the evidence embedded in maps, overburdened communities may find that they are not just educational documents, but motivating ones.


Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.