GoodLands could help Catholic leaders work together on problems, including poverty, hunger, climate change, and gross inequity

August 10, 2017

Cross-posted from the Boston Globe.

Molly Burhans used cutting-edge GIS software to map the global Catholic church.


Molly Burhans used cutting-edge GIS software to map the global Catholic church.

As a priest ushered Molly Burhans into the Apostolic Palace in May 2016, she strode past famous 16th-century maps painted for the papal residence. Maybe, she thought, prelates would see merit in her big idea.

Only 26 years old, running a startup out of a borrowed house in Hartford, she had paid her way to Rome and stayed in a youth hostel bunk bed in pursuit of her goal: to secure Vatican permission to map the global Catholic Church.

Using cutting-edge geographic information system software — GIS — she sought to make the first known map of the Roman Catholic Church across the world, beginning with diocesan boundaries and adding layer upon layer of data about the church and its social and environmental contexts. She would have to draw from hundreds of sources, from old books to hand-drawn maps on diocesan websites.

The questions she hopes to answer are contemporary — and urgent: Which dioceses are likely to experience famine in the next quarter-century, and how can they prepare? Which will be inundated by rising sea levels, and how can they share ideas for what to do? How might the church channel its resources to fight deforestation or human trafficking?

“We’re just bringing in something that’s been forgotten for a couple centuries,” Burhans said recently. “There is such a rich history of cartography in the church, and an understanding of its value.”

Burhans believes her startup, GoodLands, can help harness the potential of the vast landholdings associated with the Catholic Church to advance Pope Francis’ agenda on social justice and the environment — maybe, even, to slow down climate change.

It is a matter, she said, of “waking [the hierarchy] up a little bit to the enormous potential they have to really change the world and do good through careful and thoughtful property management.”

It’s not at all certain the church can or will take full advantage of the possibilities. Most Catholic lands outside Rome are not owned by the Vatican, but by dioceses, parishes, religious orders, and organizations. The church is more a collection of wayward fiefdoms than an absolute monarchy.

Even so, GoodLands’ supporters think better information could help Catholic leaders work together on problems, including “poverty, hunger, climate change, gross inequity,” said Kerry Alys Robinson, founding executive director of the National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management.

A Vatican official — who asked not to be named because the church does not endorse private initiatives — called GoodLands “a wonderful mix of high tech and Catholic social teaching.”

Although she has received millions of dollars worth of donations of technology and expertise, Burhans has raised only about $70,000 cash for the project, mostly from private individuals and a few small grants; last year, Burhans said, she lived on $7,000, not including health insurance, Social Security, or her couch-surfing-heavy travel budget. She said she’s now focused on raising money to launch GoodLands’ first pilot projects.

GIS mapping has most often been applied to local or regional projects, such as locating a highway or saving a wetland, said C. Dana Tomlin, an adviser to GoodLands, who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania and Yale University.

“What the GoodLands project brings is the prospect of a much broader gesture that will affect all of Western Africa, or a gesture that will affect a wide swath of the earth,” he said.

Many of the world’s poorest people will be most affected by climate change, said Stephen Ervin, assistant dean for information technology at the Harvard Design School and another GoodLands adviser.

The church “is going to be an important player in that imperiled landscape in the next century,” he said. “Let’s give them all the tools we can.”

Burhans, the daughter of a computer scientist and a cancer researcher, published her first scientific illustration at age 14. In college, she found a spiritual home in the Catholic Church, admiring the simple communal life of nuns and even thinking of becoming one (she’s still considering it).

While studying ecological design at the Conway School in Western Massachusetts, Burhans discovered GIS software and resolved to use it to help the Catholic Church become a better steward of its lands. Her timing, as she set about starting her own nonprofit, was propitious: Pope Francis issued Laudato Si, his encyclical calling the church to conscience on the environment and social justice.

She began assembling a network of mentors, including Rosanne Haggerty, a MacArthur Fellow who in the 1980s had worked on repurposing empty Catholic buildings in Brooklyn for affordable housing. Haggerty invited Burhans to live and work for free in her house in Hartford.

A big break came when Esri, the leading global maker of GIS software, not only offered her use of its technology at negligible cost but invited her to visit its headquarters in Redlands, Calif., last year to brief its executives on her project.

ESRI cofounder, Jack Dangermond, encouraged Burhans to think beyond environmental stewardship, suggesting she consider developing a central hub of spatial data on a wider array of Catholic sectors — including health, development, and education — that would let others share information. He invited her to embed with one of Esri’s special projects teams in Redlands to get the project off the ground.

First, though, Haggerty helped set up meetings at the Vatican by buttonholing two key prelates at a Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship meeting.

“I didn’t want to just show up in Rome one day with a comprehensive map of the church, like, ‘Surprise!’ ” Burhans said.

She also wanted to “make sure there wasn’t a monk somewhere in a basement carving copper plates, making maps I had just missed.”

The Vatican did not give her money or formal approval, but Burhans said the churchmen she met with seemed to understand what she was trying to do and offered encouragement.

Over the summer, a GoodLands intern began working with Burhans and the Esri team to draw the first global GIS map of the Catholic world, showing boundaries of some 3,000 dioceses.

They used hundreds of maps, images, and other information from around the Web, and built upon the work of a dedicated hobbyist who maintains a database of Catholic statistics on his website,

Burhans spent four months in Redlands working with the Esri team, adding layers of environmental and social data to the base map, and creating systems that would let others contribute data and securely share it.

The GoodLands “Catholic Geographic System” now includes hundreds of maps — of the priest shortage around the world, sea level rise in relation to Catholic-affiliated properties in the United States, Catholic communications networks in Africa.

The system is not publicly accessible, because of safety concerns and because GoodLands’ business model is based on selling its research, maps, and analysis. But just as Burhans wants to serve large Catholic entities, including the Vatican, she also hopes to provide cheap or free information and assistance to individuals and groups with few resources.

To help subsidize that work, GoodLands will soon begin selling maps to Catholic schools and may also reach beyond the church to help businesses with environmental stewardship or humanitarian efforts.

John Straub, chancellor of the Archdiocese of Boston, said GoodLands seemed to offer information that would be useful for dioceses — including, potentially, Boston.

Much of this information is available in a variety of places and formats, but it can be very time-consuming and difficult to find — especially given that we are spread out in over 100 towns in Massachusetts,” he said.

Burhans has already undertaken a mapping project for a religious order, the Congregation of the Mission, and displayed some of her maps at a Vatican Youth Symposium in Rome last year. She’s also assisting an outside advisory group that is working with the Vatican on arts and technology initiatives.

Barry Threw, program director for the Vatican advisory group, said the church has a massive network of resources around the world, but no way to visualize that network.

“It will be impossible to make the kind of change the church has asked for without tools like Molly is developing,” he said.

For more information about GoodLands and its maps, click here for a story map about the project created by Burhans.

Making Land Work for Good

As one of the largest networks of landholdings in the world, if the Catholic Church thoughtfully manages its lands it has the potential to make a significant positive impact on global community and ecosystems health. Maps provide the insights and implementation tools needed for the Church manage her land with a vision for integral development.

In June 2015, Pope Francis issued an encyclical, Laudato Si’. In it Pope Francis calls for a vision of stewardship that integrates caring for creation with caring for the poor. Persistent disregard for the earth, he warned, will have dramatic consequences for humankind, and it is the responsibility of every person to practice a sustainable lifestyle and reject the throw away culture in order to avert, or at least forestall, further environmental damages.

The urgent challenge to protect our common home includes a concern to bring the whole human family together, to seek a sustainable and integral development, for we know that things can change. –Pope Francis

The Catholic Church is one of the largest networks of landholdings in the world. Given its global reach and influence, the Church has the power and the responsibility to help implement sensible, environmentally and socially conscious property-use and management in the United States and beyond.

Catholic Church + Green Infrastructure in the United States

The Church’s properties in the U.S. are distributed throughout the country, often mirroring human population patterns, but also appearing in remote regions.

On the map below, each point on this map corresponds to a Catholic-affiliate property. This map includes approximately 92% of listed Catholic-affiliate properties in the Official Catholic Directory (2015) in the U.S.C.C.B.. Many of these properties are individual buildings, located in America’s dense urban centers. Others span vast tracts of untamed land.

You can learn about each property and its surrounding land-use and habitat by clicking on each point in the map below.

Catholic Properties in Relation to Green Infrastructure

GoodLands’ use of mapping technologies allows us to help the Catholic community manage its land assets in ways that have a regenerative impact on social and environmental systems while helping communities increase their financial sustainability. We use geographic information systems (GIS) to analyze and predict the impacts of property use and management, facilitate community-driven design and planning and to ultimately to help Catholics make careful, informed decisions about where and how they develop, conserve, lease or buy land.

We believe that there is a moral dimension to the ways that we manage our landholdings and that thoughtful property stewardship can help the Church can take an active role in making the world a better place.

Climate Concerns

Climate Change

“Climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political, and for the distribution of goods.” –Pope Francis

One of the most foreboding environmental issue facing future generations is the changing climate. The consequences of climate change range from rising sea levels, to shorter growing seasons, habitat migration, mass extinctions, and oppressive heat waves.

Developing countries are especially vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, as their economies and inhabitants are often dependent on healthy local ecosystems. Communities that rely on agriculture, fishing, and forestry are especially at risk. To compound the problem, these communities often lack the means to anticipate, or recover from, catastrophic climate-related events.

Use this story map to explore how Climate Change will impact Catholic Communities in the “Climate Change” tab. Learn more about the demographics around the world within Ecclesiastical Jurisdictions who may be impacted by climate change interacting with the maps included in this tap (side bar) and others (tabs located at top of map).

All maps are currently presented as non-interactive videos demos for privacy purposes.

Climate Change

“Many things have to change course, but it is we human beings above all who need to change. We lack an awareness of our common origin, of our mutual belonging, and of a future to be shared with everyone.” –Pope Francis

While the poorest populations of the world will generally experience the impacts of climate change with greater intensity, developed countries, including the United States, are not immune to impacts of climate change.

If global warming proceeds unabated, the entire country could experience severe temperature increases within 50 years.

This map shows expected temperature increases by 2050. Darker colors correspond to greater temperature changes. One of the areas most affected is the Midwest, the breadbasket of America.

The changing climate will have profound implications for agriculture and food supply in the United States. Higher temperatures, along with reduced precipitation (shown here) will likely lead to a decline in crop yields.

The changing climate will also impact animal populations throughout the world. We’ve already witnessed the effects of climate change on bird populations in the United States; in recent years, dozens of avian species have exhibited unexpected migration patterns.

(The National Audubon Society has found that many species that winter in the U.S.’s habitat range is moving north.)

One of the most severe results of climate change is global sea level rise. Many of the world’s megacities are located within 100 miles from the coast. In the U.S., a five-meter rise in sea levels (shown here)—which is unlikely in the next century, but not implausible—would inundate many of the nation’s coastal communities, potentially triggering a forced human migration of historical proportions.

The Church has an opportunity to plan ahead and make its properties more resilient to climate change. Climate risk planning is essential for the future of Catholic property management. Risk management plans can help Catholics build more resilient communities.

Habitat and Biodiversity Loss

“Each year sees the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species which we will never know, which our children will never see, because they have been lost forever” –Pope Francis

Over the past two centuries, human activity—and in particular, the destruction or disruption of pristine habitats—has erased thousands of plant and animal species from the face of the earth. Many more are under existential threat.

Some of the Church’s largest landholdings are located in or near these wilderness areas. This map shows Church properties of at least 25,000 hectares, located within 10km of a pristine habitat cores.

Catholic properties, especially larger retreat centers, monasteries, convents, abbeys, and camps may be playing a key role in landscape connectivity and habitat health. If these properties are not properly evaluated before they are sold or leased there is a risk that their future development will damage local ecosystems. However, best management practices and conservation planning can ensure that community properties leave a legacy of stewardship for generations to come.

Here we can zoom in to find the Catholic-affiliate properties in the North East that we have identified as having a high probability for significantly contributing to nation-wide green infrastructure due to the landscape context of these properties.

Catholic healthcare comprises the largest nongovernmental network of health care in the world, accounting for 26% of health care facilities. Catholic education is the largest nongovernmental network of education with over 95,000 elementary schools around the world.

In the future we hope to see Catholic conservation and regenerative land management on-scale with Catholic healthcare and education as the largest nongovernmental global network of its kind.

Water Quality

Fresh drinking water is an issue of primary importance, since it is indispensable for human life and for supporting terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. –Pope Francis

Humans generate a vast amount of waste, including hazardous chemical byproducts, non-biodegradable plastics, artificial fertilizers that overload watersheads with nitrogen and phosphorous, and other materials that are damaging to ecosystems and human health. Well managed landscapes and infrastructure along with supporting enforced policies that promote water cleanliness can help protect our planet’s delicate aquatic ecosystems.

The most polluted river in the United States is also  its longest: the Mississippi River, aptly nicknamed the ‘Big Muddy.’ Draining 40% of the continental U.S., the Mississippi carries large volumes of agricultural urban runoff from the American heartland straight into the Gulf of Mexico.

This fouled water has created an aquatic dead zone of almost 10,000 square miles. Here, the water is so low in oxygen that no sea creatures can survive.

While chemical-rich agricultural runoff is the primary culprit for the Mississippi’s pollution, untreated urban runoff is a major contributor as well.

The Path Forward

GoodLands equips the Church to lead in regenerative property solutions by providing a comprehensive understanding of property and how to leverage its potential for good. GoodLands provides an implementation strategy for Laudato Si’ that give our clients clear direction, keeps stakeholders accountable, tracks implementation and impact, and adjust plans over time for maximum impact. Our use of a cloud-based system makes real estate and finance planning alongside environmental and social stewardship strategies simpler to comprehend, manage, and track at every scale for stakeholders involved with a plan and its implementation.

GoodLands represents an implementation strategy for Laudato Si’ that can measurably contribute to creating a more verdant and just future for all humanity. The path to a brighter and more sustainable future can easily be found–what we need to help locate it is a map!

GoodLands, Esri APL and Story Maps, Catholic Directory (2015) — GoodLands geolocated Catholic Directory data with permission, 8% of data could was not matched with initial programs. All photos are public domain.