Do green-mapping projects increase sustainability in Latin America? Alex Purdy, ’12, sought to answer that question during her summer internship with New York City-based Green Map System, a nonprofit dedicated to participatory mapping of green living, nature, and culture in communities throughout the world. The internship served as the perfect vehicle for Purdy to link her academic training in geography and international studies with a Latin American concentration to a working environment.

A series of experiences throughout her time at the University of Richmond led Purdy to her Green Map System internship. In particular, Purdy acknowledged the support of faculty mentor Dr. David Salisbury and the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement (CCE).

In fall 2008, Purdy entered Richmond interested in majoring in geography. Salisbury had joined the geography and environmental studies faculty a year earlier. “I was his first advisee,” Purdy said. Since then, Salisbury has shared his knowledge of geography with Purdy in several classes, during her summer internship, and in an independent study.

Purdy also connected with the CCE her first year on campus through a service-learning trip to the Guatemalan Highlands coordinated by the CCE and a local nonprofit. Purdy and other Richmond students worked in one-room houses building stoves to replace open fires that caused respiratory problems for villagers.

“The trip affirmed my desire to learn about other cultures and the Spanish language,” Purdy said. It also served as the catalyst for Purdy to pursue a second major in international studies.

That summer Purdy participated in a six-week program in Seville, Spain, taking two classes and travelling throughout Spain and Morocco.

She loved the experience but felt a stronger connection to Latin America than to Spain and decided to study in Santiago, Chile, during the fall of her junior year.

“Ever since I did a project on Chile in fourth grade, I have wanted to go there,” Purdy said. “Latin America is less developed than Europe and has more outdoor activities. Chile offers great variety in its geography and people. I liked the proximity of the ocean, the Andes Mountains, the lakes region, and the Atacama Desert, one of the driest deserts in the world.”

Even while exploring the geographic marvels of Chile, Purdy was planning for her next experiential-learning opportunity: an internship with Green Map System. 

Purdy asked Salisbury to serve as her academic mentor during the internship. The CCE awarded Purdy a Burhans Civic Fellowship totaling $4,000 (with another $1,000 going to Salisbury) to undertake her internship with Green Map System during summer 2011.

“I updated the New York Bicycle Green Map, conducted research for a revised version of the Energy Green Map of New York City, led guided tours to sustainable sites in the East Village, and attended meetings throughout the city as a representative of Green Map System,” Purdy said.

But her most exciting work lay in the extensive research she did on the impact of 47 Green Map projects on sustainability in Latin America. “Green Map System defines sustainability as achieving a balance between social equity, economic integrity, and environmental vitality within a community,” Purdy said.

Purdy gathered data through a survey she created in English, Spanish, and Portuguese and then sent to mapmakers in a dozen Latin American countries.

Green Map System plans to publish her findings. Purdy is also submitting her work to Gamma Theta Upsilon, the International Geographic Honor Society. Finally, with the help of Salisbury, she is perfecting a paper that she will present at the annual meeting of the American Association of Geographers in New York City in February.

This semester Purdy is continuing to expand her knowledge of mapping as a student in Salisbury’s Mapping Sustainability class. She and other students in this community-based learning course are mapping a bicycle and pedestrian route from campus to several sections of the James River Park System, with the aim of influencing local and regional sustainability of transportation, hydrology, and recreation in a floodplain ecosystem.

“Her Green Map experience prepared Alex for a leadership role in this class,” Salisbury said. “I’ve been lucky to see Alex’s growth. She’s not afraid to take risks. This is a testament to her as a person and to the types of opportunities she’s taken advantage of during her four years at UR.”