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Brian Lainoff ′12

Hometown: McLean, VA
Major: English/Environmental Studies

When Brian Lainoff ’12 began researching the value of Overton Park to the city of Memphis, he had little idea that a year later his work would lead him to a dream job at the Global Crop Diversity Trust headquartered in Rome, Italy. While his research project, conducted with Dr. Jennifer Sciubba of the International Studies department, was a glimpse at how our environment can affect us on a socioeconomic level, Lainoff hopes that his time at the Trust, which operates the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway, will allow him to see more of the scientific side of environmental studies.

“The research project and my new position have exposed me to two sides of the environmental studies story, and I get to see where those two intersect,” Lainoff says. “The common thread is the effect the environment can have on the surrounding area. Whether it’s with people, animals or agriculture.”

In 1901, Memphis paid $110,000 for the 342 acres that became Overton Park. Lainoff and Sciubba’s research aimed to determine if an urban green space like the park added to the socioeconomic value of the city or detracted. What they learned necessitated a look at the relationship between crime rates and property values, based on more than 14,000 data points for crime and 3,000 data points for property values in the Overton Park area.

“I was in California when we started talking about writing a paper,” says Lainoff. “I was taking classes at UCLA’s Institute of Sustainability when mid-summer, Dr. Sciubba approached me about the possibility of presenting a paper at the Constructed Environment Conference. For some strange reason, I had been thinking about Overton Park. So I asked Dr. Sciubba, ‘Is the park worth it? Especially with the socioeconomic problems that the City of Memphis already faces?’ Neither of us could really answer the question and thus began our research.”

When it comes to the creation of green spaces, cities strapped for fiscal resources must weigh the value of investing in parks against the value of investing in other needy areas with more tangible or immediate benefits, such as education or poverty reduction. “In cities like Memphis that struggle fiscally,” says Sciubba, “it can seem that choosing between a child and a tree is zero-sum game.”

“It wasn’t easy to figure out the best way to study the problem,” Lainoff says. “We read dozens of articles to decide which social and economic indicators to focus on and the appropriate method to display these indicators.”

In the end, Sciubba and Lainoff decided to look at crime and property value statistics mapped onto the neighborhoods surrounding the park, which includes Rhodes College.

“Looking at the data and visualizing it on a map is much easier to understand than statistical regressions or other economic models,” says Lainoff. “That’s a huge problem with a lot of academic research: accessibility. You have to be able to explain in such a way that people understand it, and there’s almost no easier way to show how an area is impacted by the park than through a spatial image, a map. Maps are self-explanatory and very telling.”

Lainoff and Sciubba discovered that median property values were higher and crime lower the closer areas were in proximity to the park. “For example,” says Lainoff, “the median value of homes within a half mile of the park was about $110,000, while the median value of homes half to one mile away was about $89,000: a $20,000 difference.”

Now that Lainoff has devoted time determining how the environment impacts our lives, he plans to turn his efforts to looking at how we impact our environment. Working with alumnus Cary Fowler, executive director of the Trust, Lainoff will be working in a communications role for the seed bank, maintaining contact with other seed banks around the world and guiding various social media roles for the Trust.

The primary goal of the Svalbard Seed Vault is to act as a final failsafe against a major loss in crop diversity, from events such as climate change or famine. The vault also serves as a major resource for those wishing to engineer new species of plants. If a farmer needs to find a strain of corn resistant to a specific disease, he previously would have only been able to use the seed banks in his native country, but now, the Svalbard facility serves not only as a bank in itself, but also as a resource for seed banks all over the world. With this added access to biodiversity, the seed bank will help the world be that much more prepared for any coming climate change.

Lainoff will remain with the Trust when it moves to a more centralized European location in Bonn, Germany in January. A former Rhodes baseball player, he hopes to join pro teams in Italy and Germany. He plans to spend from one to two years working at the Trust before enrolling in a graduate program. Although he has some ideas about a major, Lainoff is keeping an open mind, knowing that just as his environmental research led him to the Trust, his experiences with the Trust will, no doubt, influence his future academic pursuits.

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