University of Minnesota Alumni Association

Alumni Stories

The Green Giant

Alumnus Jack Dangermond has helped preserve a remarkable piece of Pacific coastline.

Photo courtesy the Nature Conservancy

When Jack Dangermond (M.Arch. ’68) left his hometown of Redlands, California, to begin graduate studies at the University of Minnesota’s School of Architecture, he had no idea that 50 years later, he and his wife, Laura, would be integral to protecting an eight-mile stretch of pristine Pacific coast habitat.

Yet, thanks to the largest gift the Nature Conservancy has ever received, of $165 million, that’s exactly what happened. The Virginia-based nonprofit was able to purchase, and permanently preserve, the roughly 38-square-mile piece of land west of Santa Barbara, California. With a jagged coastline giving way to centuries-old oak woodlands, the expanse is traveled by mountain lions, bobcats, and bears, and serves as habitat for endangered species like the snowy plover, the red-legged frog, and the monarch butterfly.

That the preserve was named after the typically understated and private Dangermonds speaks volumes. Cofounders of Redlands-based Esri, or the Environmental Systems Research Institute, a pioneering GIS mapping and spatial analysis software company, they hope the gift will spur others to action.

“We do not think of ourselves as philanthropists,” says Jack Dangermond. “We run a billion-dollar business and we both work day and night. We are fortunate to have accumulated personal wealth and we spent it on this gift. Although awkward to go public by putting our names on the preserve, the idea was it would be something that other people of means would copy.”

The strategy is working. “Jack and Laura’s gift has been inspirational and hugely impactful in the world of conservation,” says Michael Bell, oceans programs director at the Nature Conservancy and director of the Jack and Laura Dangermond Preserve. The gift from these committed conservationists has ignited a larger conversation, he says, about “how high-wealth donors can catalyze big meaningful advancements in the protection of our natural world.

“This 25,000-acre property is truly the last coastal wilderness of southern California, a last-of-its-kind refuge for many marine mammals, shore birds, plants, and other animals,” adds Bell. “This is a globally significant piece of nature—a place that conservationists felt must be protected. But the truth was, we had no idea how we’d pull that off. That is until Jack and Laura called.”

Jack and Laura Dangermond hope their gift will spur others to take action to help the environment.
Courtesy Esri

Dangermond credits the U with laying the foundation for his conservation efforts and green space planning ideas. After earning a B.S. in environmental science and landscape architecture at Cal Poly Pomona, he responded in writing to a poster advertising the U’s new Urban Design program in the School of Architecture. He soon received a handwritten letter from Roger Martin, a landscape architect and head of the program, who offered Dangermond a fellowship and teaching associate position.

“Roger signed the letter, ‘Warm regards,’” recalls Dangermond, “which changed my life. I was ready to go to the University of California, Berkeley, where I had been accepted. I can’t tell you why, but this was different. Laura and I went to Minnesota.”

Martin was Dangermond’s primary mentor. “We did all kinds of innovative and creative things, discussing a lot, not just reading books,” says Dangermond, who, among other projects, created an “open-space plan” for land along the Mississippi River. “Roger was an amazing intellect in landscape planning. He changed my thinking of landscape architecture as a profession—from landscaping to ‘landscape,’ meaning geography.” Dangermond also singles out John Borchert, a geographer and associate dean at the U, who urged him toward “geographical thinking as a foundation for planning and design.

“Minnesota definitely influenced me to have a rich and motivated profession, to be passionate about geographical thinking as a platform for my work, and it reinforced my interest in planning and conservation,” Dangermond says. “At Minnesota I combined the fields of architecture, landscape architecture, and urban design into one degree. This appealed to me.”

He went on to study at Harvard University, earning a master’s in landscape architecture in 1969. But he remains connected to the U’s College of Design and its Minnesota Design Center—he’s working with center Director Tom Fisher on a worldwide effort called the Geodesign Collaborative.

“We [at Esri] build tools that help people understand the world and make rational decisions about it,” Dangermond says. “GIS can help solve environmental issues. That is Esri’s role.” The company, which boasts a global client roster, donates software, training, and support to thousands of non-governmental organizations and nonprofits.

Dangermond doesn’t want people to think, because of his gift, “that only wealthy people can help preserve the environment. That’s not the point. Everybody, regardless of wealth or capabilities, will have to do something. We need a revolution to occur where everyone is participating in conservation and green space planning all over the world, as fast as possible.”

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