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Fighting for justice where geoscience meets public health

Grappling with divisive issues, collaborators from multiple fields find common purpose


TEX helps geoscientists and communities work together to solve problems. While it may be unconventional in the geosciences, this type of collaborative approach isn’t quite so new or radical in other fields. Indeed, the approach we call community science grew, in part, out of community-based techniques pioneered in the field of public health.

As we work to forge, test and refine community science approaches, there is a great deal to learn from—and perhaps even contribute to—public health.

An ongoing TEX project to engage residents and decision makers around the environmental health impacts of a major thoroughfare highlights how this disciplinary cross-pollination plays out in practice.


Decades of distrust

At issue in the project is I-10, a highway that runs through a 9-mile network of neighborhoods in central New Orleans known as the Claiborne corridor. Neighborhood residents, who are predominately African American, believe I-10 has negatively impacted their health and quality of life through vehicle emissions, noise pollution and development decisions that have increased flood risk, harmed water quality and exacerbated transit challenges.

“This community has been harmed over the years by planning and policy decisions that we had no say in,” explains Amy Stelly, an urban planner who advocates for the redevelopment of the corridor through a community organization known as Claiborne Avenue Alliance. “This is a culmination of poor and harmful policy decisions that started in this neighborhood nearly a century ago.”


A new way of having the conversation

Stelly, a community lead on the TEX collaboration, believes the neighborhood fragmentation caused by the highway’s construction, in addition to its environmental and potential health effects, has contributed to the area’s disproportionate rates of poverty and crime. In her view, blame rests in part with an overly segmented approach to planning in New Orleans, in which ‘the right hand doesn’t know what the left is doing’.

She hopes the TEX project can bring the various planning stakeholders together, engage the community and finally get some resolution for residents’ public health concerns.

“That multidisciplinary approach is a very new way of having the conversation here in New Orleans,” she says. “I think it will shine a huge light on what we have to deal with and give people the tools to push forward in a way that supports a healthy, diverse and well-integrated community.”


Breaking down barriers

One of the scientific partners engaged to help is Adrienne Katner, PhD, an assistant professor of public health at Louisiana State University. Katner is studying the health impacts of the I-10 corridor to provide the community and decision makers with a clear assessment of the issue.

Katner says she was drawn to community science after finding herself discouraged by how little impact she felt she was having on public health in a previous job at a government agency. She sought training in the public health technique known as community-based participatory research, which gave her the basic precepts she’s using now in community science.

That training also gave her a framework for using some of the same practices she had stumbled upon through experience while working on her dissertation years before.

“I noticed I wasn’t really getting anywhere with my dissertation research until I got out of my office and started engaging,” she recalls. “Before that point, my training was really to hold people and emotions at arm’s length in order to stay impartial and objective. But that perspective is problematic, because you’re not really engaging the community.”

Katner believes her experience is emblematic of a paradigm shift underway both in her field, public health, and in science more broadly.

“Now it’s not so much about objectivity and distance, but engagement and participation,” she explains. “Public health is a great field for that because it is at the intersection between policy and communities and health practitioners. I think that’s why public health has really taken community science—whether in the context of citizen science, community-based participatory research, or whatever—and elevated it to become more respectable in the scientific community.”

In addition to breaking down barriers between communities and scientists, she says community science approaches are also breaking apart the silos that have traditionally separated practitioners and researchers in various domains.


A balancing act

Doing community science well is a balancing act, though, Katner says. On one hand, it’s crucial to generate accurate data that decision makers can be confident has not been manipulated, which can sometimes require keeping a little distance from groups that might have an expressed agenda. On the other hand, in order to ask the right questions, get accurate data and put it to use effectively can require partnering with communities. An approach that is too removed or aloof can undermine such partnerships.

Stelly sees echoes of this balancing act in her own work as a planner. Sometimes, she says, you have to steel your nerves and accept the fact that you’re not going to be popular with everyone. In such cases, solid data is a valuable asset that can go a long way toward getting everyone on equal footing.

“I think we will definitely be able to drive the conversation. It may not be what everybody wants to hear—both for the communities and the political world—but it will at least allow us to have a different type of discussion,” Stelly says. “I think that will be a good thing.”


More lessons to learn

In addition to the I-10 project in New Orleans, TEX has been learning from a number of other projects relevant to public health and geosciences—an area we call “geohealth.” Examples include:

Accounting Cumulative Impacts of Highly Industrialized Infrastructure (Robinson Township, Pa.)

Residents are concerned about the cumulative impact of hydraulic fracturing and are working with a TEX scientist to design a program to monitor air quality, especially volatile organic compounds.

Building Community Resilience to Extreme Heat (Brookline, Mass.)

Town leaders were concerned about the growing number of extreme heat days it was experiencing and the adverse effect on vulnerable populations, particularly its elderly population. This completed TEX project evaluated several options to mitigate heat vulnerability, and findings were incorporated into the city’s development plan.

Restoring a Local Pond for Recreational Use (Berlin, Md.)

The town purchased several acres from a former poultry processing facility for use as a recreational area.  Working with TEX, they identified necessary analyses and carried out a microbiological analysis of sediment sampling. The results showed that there was no microbiological hazard, which allowed the town to save $2M in remediation.

Addressing Bacterial Contamination in a Constructed Wetland (Ontario, Calif.)

A nationally recognized wetlands to manage storm water has been plagued by high bacteria levels at outflow. The community is working with TEX scientists to identify and address the source of this bacteria.

Assessing Unhealthy Air in Homes (Denver, Colo.)

This project worked with residents in five low-income neighborhoods to map overall exposure to environmental radon and other potential outgassing from spilled chemicals. The work served as pilot for a successful EPA grant. As one of three pilot projects when TEX started out, it introduced the TEX team to the scholarship and practice of Community-Based Participatory Research.

mgoodwin editor

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