Cornell Experience Draws Alumni to 'Perfect Fit' with Land Conservation Group

9 Cornell alumni help lead the The Trust for Public Land

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By Krishna Ramanujan via Ezra Magazine, July Issue

When Anthony Cucchi '93 returned to campus after 20 years for Reunion Weekend this past June, he was struck by the many new buildings and other changes to Cornell's campus. But he also noticed the well-planned outdoor spaces that create a natural aesthetic and openness, qualities that he values in his job as The Trust for Public Land's director of New Jersey and Pennsylvania state offices.

He is, in fact, one of nine Cornell graduates in prominent positions at The Trust for Public Land, a nonprofit that is a national leader in conserving land with more than 30 offices around the country.

"Unlike many other conservation organizations, we protect public landscapes, but we do it for the benefit of people, who mostly live in urban areas," Cucchi says, adding that such foci largely overlap with the coursework and urban emphasis taught at Cornell in departments like architecture and urban planning.

In addition to courses on the art of designing and conserving public spaces, many alumni at The Trust for Public Land say that Cornell's lush and gorge-lined Ithaca campus also fostered an appreciation for natural beauty that ultimately led them to work at the Trust.

"Cornell is a beautiful campus, even in bad weather, and it taught me how nature can be beautiful 365 days a year," says Mary Alice Lee '95, who directs the organization's playgrounds program in New York City.

Lee had wanted to be an environmental lawyer until she took a city planning class her freshman year. "I didn't realize there was a career to help plan cities," says Lee, who majored in policy analysis and management. "I wanted to create more park space in New York City, and my education at Cornell prepared me for the job I do every day."

At the Trust, Lee partners with the city to design and renovate schoolyards in neighborhoods most in need of recreational space but that have enough undeveloped space to build a new park. The nonprofit helps orchestrate the design and building of new playgrounds with soccer fields, basketball courts, chess and checkers tables, gardens, gazebos, and fitness and play equipment as well as elements for storm water management.

Research has found that such spaces impact well-being. A preliminary 2012 report by The Trust for Public Land, the RAND Corp. and the San Francisco Department of Public Health, for example, found that after rebuilding a high-impact park in an underserved San Francisco neighborhood, park users increased sixfold -- from 156 per week to 1,015 per week; the new park design supported more moderate-to-vigorous levels of physical activity; and park users and nearby residents indicated that the park felt safer.

The Trust, which celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2012, also houses the Land and Water Initiative to balance community demands for growth with the need to protect key habitats and water resources and to mitigate climate changes; and the Working Lands Initiative to preserve the environmental benefits of lands that people rely on for sustenance, such as farms, ranches and forests.

"Our mission at The Trust for Public Land is to conserve land for people," says Jessica Ingram-Bellamy '92, the Trust's East Coast associate director of marketing. "For me, that interest was nurtured at Cornell by the beautiful campus with all the green places to roam and connect to nature and the environment."

Ingram-Bellamy also attributes coursework in her major, Africana studies and research, and sociology classes, with helping her develop an ethic for improving the quality of life in urban communities that mirrors the Trust's ethic.

"At Cornell, I learned about how the lives of people in urban communities, especially people of color, can be improved with social and economic investments," she says. "I learned about giving these marginalized communities a voice."

The Trust has protected more than 3 million acres in urban and wilderness locales, affecting the lives of more than 10 million people by establishing public parks within a 10-minute walk of their homes. The organization also has raised more than $34 billion in public funds for conservation.

This year, four alumni in the Trust's Parks for People initiative -- Lee, Cucchi, Simone Mangili, M.A. '06, and Scott Dvorak, M.A. '95, representing the organization's New York City, Newark and Philadelphia offices -- will together reach a milestone of rebuilding 100 playgrounds with "green" infrastructure design features.

"Cornell creates citizens of the world, hard workers who are adept about problem solving and who are engaged with the environment," Lee says.

Views expressed in News posts may not be those of Cornell University. No endorsement is implied.