Zoe Wong-VanHaren

Rewiring Society’s View of the Environment

Pitzer’s sustainability research efforts are thriving—and one reason is the Robert Redford Conservancy

Pitzer’s sustainability research efforts are thriving—and one reason is the Robert

Redford Conservancy

By Lisa Butterworth

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ucked into a quiet Claremont neighborhood just north of Foothill Boulevard is a nondescript chain link fence set among the houses. The winding driveway it secures leads to a veritable oasis—a recently renovated LEED-certified and zero-energy building on grounds teeming with native plants abuzz with pollinators, the home of the Robert Redford Conservancy for Southern California Sustainability.

“I always say we’re the environmental center of Pitzer,” said Susan A. Phillips, a professor of environmental analysis and the Conservancy’s director since 2020.

Yet much like the fungi studied in the on-site mycology lab, the beneficial impacts of the Conservancy are proliferating throughout the region thanks to strategic collaborations with students, faculty, and community partners.

Warehouses: A Billion-Foot Problem

“The first thing I wanted to do as director was create an animated map of warehouse growth in the Inland Empire, because the 20 years I’ve been at Pitzer College have been absolutely pivotal in terms of the footprint of this industry on the region, just swallowing up land,” Phillips said.

With the help of a student fellow, Graham Brady ’21, the Conservancy created a rudimentary map, published in the Los Angeles Times, which showed warehouses counting for more than a billion square feet in the Inland Empire. The exponentially increasing sprawl has an immense environmental impact in terms of air, noise, and light pollution, disproportionately affecting disadvantaged communities.

Mike McCarthy, an atmospheric scientist fighting a proposed development in his own backyard as a member of Riverside Neighbors Opposing Warehouses, contacted Phillips after seeing the map and partnered with the Conservancy to create a user-friendly app, Warehouse CITY, that visualizes and quantifies the data, making it easily accessible.

a teacher speaking with her students

Outdoor classrooms at the Redford Conservancy offer spaces for faculty, including Adjunct Assistant Professor of Environmental Analysis Monica Mahoney (center), to discuss environmental challenges and solutions with students.

“Communities have lived experience that [warehouses are] degrading their quality of life, but they can’t put that into technical language,” McCarthy said. “My goal was to try to enable conversations that include and facilitate community engagement with the public planning process in a way that is not available right now just because of the asymmetry in information and knowledge that’s inherent in the process.”

A new app tracking warehouse sprawl encourages more “community engagement with the public planning process in a way that is not available right now.”

–Mike McCarthy, atmospheric scientist

Now used by the South Coast Air Quality Management District, the tool has helped in litigation cases in both Riverside and Inland Empire counties and supports the work of local groups addressing environmental injustice. It continues to gain traction, and the Conservancy recently applied for a California Environmental Protection Agency grant to create a version for the state’s Central Valley.

An Appeal to the Governor

Phillips, along with representatives from the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice and the Sierra Club, used the data as a springboard to write a comprehensive report, “A Region in Crisis: The Rationale for a Public Health State of Emergency in the Inland Empire.”

In addition to coverage by numerous media outlets, including the L.A. Times and the Guardian, the report was sent to California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office. The report was accompanied by a letter asking the governor to declare a halt on the construction of new warehouse space until the full environmental impact could be ascertained.

As of publication, that construction continues, but Phillips said the effort has earned the Conservancy a seat at the table, including invitations to discussions with developers, city council members, and an upcoming meeting with Rob Bonta, California’s attorney general.

“We did this thing that I like to teach and do,” said Phillips, “which is a blend of activism and scholarship.”

students outside on laptops at the bernard field station

The conservancy is located on land adjacent to the Bernard Field Station, where Pitzer students go into the field to examine thriving local habitats just a few blocks from campus.

Making Farming More Attractive

That ethos guides much of the Conservancy’s work, including its interest in regenerative agriculture. San Bernardino and Riverside counties are losing farmland faster than any other area in California and are in the top 12 counties of the nation in terms of farmland acreage loss, according to a recent report by American Farmland Trust.

“This farmland is this precious asset, it’s part of food security, it’s part of climate resilience, it’s part of ecosystem support and stewardship and we’re paving it over,” said Arthur Levine ’14, a Pitzer grad and a Fellow in Applied Research with the Conservancy who is focused on sustainable agriculture.

One way to address this issue is to make farming more appealing, economically viable, and multibeneficial. The Conservancy was recently awarded a $1.8 million grant from the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research to study agrivoltaics—the practice of installing solar panels on farmland over crops. This gives the crops (and farmworkers) shade while preserving water and producing energy.

The three-year project, which will include three quarter-acre research plots, is the first of its kind in Southern California and will employ the expertise of soil geochemists and microbiologists, crop and climate scientists, as well as students who will be involved in the research.

solar panels in a field with susan phillips portrait superimposed on top

Dual-use farming—also known as agrivoltaics—pairs regenerative farming with solar energy production on the same land. The Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research awarded Pitzer College $1.8 million to study its impact in a project led by Director Susan A. Phillips (pictured, inset) and Conservancy Fellow Arthur Levine ’14.

Under Threat: Local Habitats

Students are playing a large role in another of the Conservancy’s major projects: an interactive dashboard that looks at the impact of pollution on animals and ecosystems in Southern California funded by a gift from Pitzer trustee Harold A. Brown (learn more about the gift).

“The dashboard is drawing everything together,” Phillips said. “We have an incredible data set to share and [the dashboard’s] not just giving people access to the data, it’s giving people a taste of what a liberal arts college can do in terms of thinking and situating data in real-world ways that matter for real-world, everyday people.”

“[The dashboard’s] not just giving people access to the data, it’s giving people a taste of what a liberal arts college can do in terms of thinking and situating data in real-world ways that matter for real-world, everyday people.”

–Susan A. Phillips, director, Robert Redford Conservancy for Southern California Sustainability

She sees the dashboard being used in advocacy efforts by environmental groups, in planning and development, in an educational capacity for students from kindergarten through college, and by the average person looking to make informed decisions.

“We’re also creating a lot of interactivities to engage people in a learning process that we hope will create a paradigm shift in terms of how people view this problem and the urgency of making change,” Phillips said.

For Levine, such efforts demonstrate how even small organizations can produce a larger beneficial effect.

“The Redford Conservancy is small but mighty,” he said. “We have a very ambitious portfolio of things we’re working on. We’re excited to share it, and we’re excited for people who want to be involved.”

With a small staff and 15 student fellows a year, the Conservancy is working to move mountains, or, more specifically, preserve them, while ushering in a change of consciousness in Southern California and beyond.

“What we need is a fundamental rewiring of society, and that’s what we’re interested in at the Conservancy,” Phillips said. “We’re really interested in that big picture.”

Read more about the new Conservancy interactive dashboard and Trustee Brown’s support.