Exploring the gospel principles of earth stewardship

Stewardship in Action: Mike and Brooke Lowry

Mike Lowry

Civil Engineering Professor, University of Idaho

Brooke Lowry

Safe Routes to School Coordinator, Moscow, Idaho

Mike and Brooke, can you tell us about the work you do to promote biking and walking?

2013-08-22 Lowrys

Mike: I do research and teach courses about transportation planning. My research examines how the built environment influences our daily travel choices. For example, I study how neighborhood layout and street connectivity effect a person’s decision about when, where, and how to travel. Because I’m an engineer, my research often involves invention. I invent tools to evaluate and prioritize transportation projects. Primarily, my tools concern “sustainable” methods of transportation, such as walking, biking, and public transportation. For example, I created a GIS tool that planners can use to predict how many bicyclists and pedestrians will travel throughout a community under different scenarios.

Brooke: I am the local coordinator for the Safe Routes to School program in my home town. I work with school administrators, teachers, parents, students, the police department, city engineers, elected officials, businesses, and other interested organizations to encourage and improve opportunities for walking and biking to school. Much of my time is spent working with our six elementary schools and one middle school to organize special events for education and encouragement. We organize activities for the International Walk to School Day in October, the Polar Walk in February, and National Bicycle Month for the entire month of May. I also help organize community events to get people thinking about what they like about walking and biking, like our Active Travel Art Exhibit in May and the Bike Rodeo in June.

Your work seems to overlap.  Have you ever worked together on projects?   

Mike: Yes, quite a lot.  Brooke’s work has provided me opportunities to address real-world engineering and planning problems. For example, once Brooke asked me to create a child-friendly map showing the location of existing sidewalks around the elementary schools. This project led me to create a GIS tool that cities can use to prioritize new sidewalk construction. Another time, I was assigned to teach a “service-learning” course and I arranged to have my university students work with Brooke to provide engineering and planning recommendations for improving dangerous walking and biking conditions around the middle school. A few months later, the city and school district used my students’ report to apply for a $500,000 grant that will improve pedestrian safety.

How did you become interested in this kind of work?

Mike: I always wanted a career focused on protecting the environment. I grew up in a small town in Ohio and loved walking down the railroad tracks with my friends to explore the creeks and forests at the edge of town. I felt complete and utterly satisfied when I was immersed in nature. Throughout my life, my happiest times have been camping and hiking with friends and family. While on my mission in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania I realized that the best way to protect the natural environment is to improve our cities so that they are more efficient and more livable through green space. As I walked Philly’s urban streets and rode public transportation, I saw how good city planning can provide opportunities to connect people with nature and bad city planning results in sprawling strip malls, polluted and congested streets, and vast concrete landscapes. I remember one day waiting for the subway with my companion when someone we had met told us civil engineers design cities, or in other words, they engineer civilization. So I returned to BYU excited to become a civil engineer. I soon discovered that there are a lot of unanswered questions about how to design cities sustainably and in harmony with nature, so that is when I decided to become a researcher.

Brooke: I feel fortunate that my current job brings together many of my interests and convictions that I have had since I was young.  Growing up I biked often with my family and riding my bike continues to be my preferred mode of travel. As I rode my bike to and from school and social activities I felt satisfaction and independence (important for youth) as I learned to navigate my surroundings.  During my degree in Fitness and Wellness Management at BYU, I learned that personal wellness is largely dependent on our ability to get ourselves around and navigate our world. As the SR2S coordinator, I love the opportunity to teach children the myriad of benefits from active modes of travel, including: environmental benefits (less vehicle emissions), community benefits (more intimate connection to the people and places around me), health and fitness benefits (fresh air and exercise), geopolitical benefits (energy independence), financial benefits (no gas and parking costs), and safety benefits (walking and biking is a lot safer than driving!).  My job is challenging, but also, very rewarding. I love helping everyone in my community, especially children, to have better opportunities for safe and enjoyable walking and biking.

How does what you do relate to earth stewardship?

Mike: Without question, walking, biking, and public transportation produce less pollution and require less fossil fuels. Unfortunately, in some cities these methods of travel are horribly inconvenient or even infeasible. Researchers have found that cities differ in terms of 3 “D’s”: density, diversity, and design. For non-leisure travel, walking, biking, and public transportation are often more convenient in cities with higher density (not necessarily everywhere, but at least in key corridors), with a more diverse mix of land uses (i.e. with office space, shopping, and public parks intermixed with residential), and with street design that is safe and comfortable. My work seeks to better understand the 3 “D’s” of the built environment and provide tools for engineers and planners to accommodate more opportunities for sustainable methods of travel.

Brooke: The number of children walking and biking to school declined dramatically from 1960 to 2000. However, SR2S programs across the country have successfully begun to reverse the trend. In my community, rates of walking and biking to school have begun to increase. These results certainly have direct positive impacts on the environment in terms of reduced vehicle emissions. I believe another important impact is that we are teaching our children to experience their communities more intimately. Students who walk or bike to school interact with their environment and community more closely than when traveling in a car. For example, during a SR2S event I remember seeing a young student pick up some trash as she walked into the school parking lot. I believe that when students use public space more frequently and more interactively, then they begin to feel ownership, and in turn develop concern and stewardship.

How does the Gospel affect how you think about earth stewardship?

Mike: I believe the purpose of life is to learn. We are to learn about God—his greatness and his love. We are to learn about ourselves—to develop self-mastery, integrity, and other virtues. We are to learn about our fellow humans—through meaningful relationships as husbands, wives, sons, daughters, friends, etc. And we are to learn about the natural world—through physics, biology, chemistry, and through our day-to-day experience as earth stewards. The gospel or “good news” is that Jesus overcame death and sin to redeem us from our various mistakes along life’s journey of learning. His charge to us is to ever strive to be more perfect in our learning—and in our doing.

Brooke: The gospel teaches us that God has given us this earth for our benefit and enjoyment. I am grateful for the earth’s beauty and I feel we all have a responsibility to care for His gift and creation. When we are given a prized gift, we show gratitude when we take good care of that gift. I feel it is our absolute responsibility to learn about the earth and take good care of it. I also believe that it is our responsibility to teach our children these important lessons. I don’t actually think the church has done much to encourage me to be a better steward of the earth, that lesson has come from my family. The Gospel has given me the knowledge of the gift and my family has taught me how to care for it.

What message do you have for Church members about earth stewardship?

Mike: As latter day saints, we know that our body is a temple and we should treat it with respect and sanctity. Our earth is equally divine and deserves the same devotion. One way in which we can become better earth stewards is to attend public meetings about transportation and land use planning in our communities. Your voice will help determine how your community will grow and develop.

Brooke: Our society is increasingly less interactive with the earth and I believe it is to our detriment.  I would like to remind everyone, especially parents, the importance of teaching our kids about earth and how to actively enjoy it. When children and families spend more time interacting with their urban parks and pathways, playgrounds, civic centers, forests, mountains, rivers, lakes, and grasslands I believe they will inherently learn to care more for this amazing earth God has given us.  I also believe when children (and adults) get outside and learn to care for the earth, they experience greater feelings of wellbeing and greater mental peace through those interactions and hopefully, because of this, they will desire to be better stewards than their parents have been.

To find out more about Mike’s work, click here, and for more information on Brooke’s work, click here.

This is the sixth of a series of profiles of Church members that exemplify stewardship in some aspect of their lives.  We hope to show the diverse and wonderful ways that Church members show respect and wise use of the earth’s resources.  If you would like to suggest someone to highlight in the future, let us know