The 21st Century Cities Blog

This blog will regularly highlight both new and old research by faculty at the Johns Hopkins University that focuses on urban issues of particular relevance to current issues.


Environmental Conservation and Poverty Reduction

The coastline of Malpais and Santa Teresa beaches, Costa Rica by Geoff McCabe.

By Mac McComas, Senior Program Manager at 21CC, and Riya Rana, 21CC Intern and JHU Economics, Sociology, & International Studies ’20 | 12/9/20

Protected areas such as national parks and nature reserves have become fraught with controversy as they are generally assumed to impose large economic costs that exacerbate local poverty and limit industrial development. However, policymakers have also acknowledged that these protected areas can generate economic benefits through infrastructure development, tourism promotion, and ecosystem improvements. Recognizing this ongoing debate, Paul Ferraro, Bloomberg Distinguished Professor of Human Behavior and Public Policy at Johns Hopkins University, and co-authors provide empirical evidence in a 2015 PNAS paper that protected areas alleviated poverty in Costa Rica and Thailand. The findings of this report provide policy makers with evidence and methods to evaluate future conservation policy and illuminate potential solutions for achieving both environmental sustainability and poverty alleviation.

Debates on the efficacy and impacts of protected areas have persisted due to the lack of empirical data on direct socioeconomic outcomes. To address these concerns, Professor Ferraro and co-authors used national census data on household-level characteristics and tangible assets in order to obtain reliable measures of human welfare. The researchers identified appropriate comparison communities (unprotected areas) and matched them to communities with protected areas in order to control for potential extraneous variables and remove unobservable sources of bias. Finally, this novel research design gathered data from protected areas that have existed for 15 or more years prior to data collection in order to study the long-term systemic impacts of protected areas across both Costa Rica and Thailand. 

The researchers found no evidence that protected areas exacerbate poverty in communities located nearby protected areas. In contrast, the results provide strong evidence that protected areas alleviate poverty. In Costa Rica, the authors found that around 10% of poverty reduction was attributable to protected areas, while in Thailand, this number was around 30%. The findings of this study highlight the possibilities for simultaneous progress toward biodiversity conservation and poverty reduction goals. While there is growing evidence that protected areas may reduce poverty, we need more research to understand and illuminate the underlying mechanisms by which these areas reduce poverty. Most importantly, this study must be replicated in nations other than Costa Rica and Thailand in order to understand how the socioeconomic impacts of conservation policy may vary across economies, environments, political systems, land governance regimes, and development indicators. 

Climate change poses a wide variety of risks and uncertainties to cities and people living in poverty across the world. The maintenance and conservation of attractive green spaces can do a lot to improve the quality of life of all residents at both the national and urban level. At a time when government, business, and people are trying to find new ways to grow economies and reduce the impacts of climate change, this research paves the way for public-private collaboration that improves adaptation and empowers local communities.

Evaluating Voluntary and Mandated Social Distancing Policies on COVID-19

by Mac McComas, 21CC Senior Program Manager and Riya Rana, 21CC Intern and JHU Economics, Sociology, & International Studies ’20 | 6/30/20

The COVID-19 pandemic has claimed countless lives around the world and caused an unprecedented disruption to the global economy. In response to the outbreak, researchers and policymakers have begun to analyze the health and economic consequences of the pandemic, using scientific data to document transmission rates and prevention strategies. However, this fast-growing body of research has not yet modeled the difference between government-mandated and self-imposed isolation prevention strategies. Recognizing this knowledge gap and the urgency of the crisis, Alessandro Rebucci, Associate Professor of Economics at Johns Hopkins Carey Business School and 21CC steering committee member, and co-authors examine the impact of such containment policies on both the pandemic and economic markets by comparing prevention strategy implementation across countries in a recently published SSRN paper

The researchers use daily data from the Johns Hopkins University hub on Chinese provinces to chart a comprehensive history of the pandemic, accounting for errors in measurement such as under-reporting of infected and recovered cases. By considering both government-mandated social distancing policies and voluntary self-isolation, the researchers are able to analyze different types of mitigation strategies and their varying impacts on transmission rates and outcomes. The researchers further evaluate the short-term economic impact of the crisis by studying the different impacts that various social distancing policies had on employment. Lastly, the study provides critical estimates of area-specific recovery and exposure rates in China and a selected number of other countries, including Spain and Italy, in order to provide global analysis on effective policy responses. 

The results of the study indicate that government-mandated policies can be very effective at flattening the epidemic curve, but costly in terms of employment loss. However, research also indicates that these employment losses may be partially reduced if mandated social distancing policies are targeted towards individuals most likely to spread the infection. In contrast, voluntary self-isolation is driven by individuals’ perceived risk of becoming infected, which must be very high to be acted upon. Because of this, self-isolation occurs too late to be effective. The need for very strict mandatory policies is further bolstered by comparing data from Chinese provinces to European countries. The results indicate that an inadequate and uncoordinated policy response in other countries resulted in exposure rates that were almost five times higher in Italy and Spain than those documented at the epicenter of the epidemic in China. As more reliable data becomes available, further research is needed to extend this empirical analysis to the United States as well as other countries worldwide. Further analysis must also deepen our understanding of other social distancing policy responses such as contact tracing and intensive testing and relate these factors to employment outcomes. 

This study provides critical insight into the differential impacts of mandated and voluntary social distancing policies at a time of global contagion and widespread disruption. Effective strategies are critical to reducing transmission, improving economic outcomes, and saving lives. The results of this study indicate a dire need for policies that prioritize mandatory social distancing and offset economic losses through effective targeting. This research paves the way for further analysis that improves our understanding of prevention strategies and bolsters our global pandemic response.

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