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World Resources 1996-97
(A joint publication by The World Resource Institute, The United
 Nations Environment Programme, The United Nations Development
 Programme, and the World Bank)
(Data edited by Dr. Róbinson Rojas)

2: Urban Environment and Human Health

Box 1 Can We Improve Neighborhood Quality in Neglected
                       U.S. Cities?

Webster's New World Dictionary defines the word environment as "all the conditions, circumstances, and influences surrounding and affecting the development of an organism or group of organisms" (1). In other words, everything we see, smell, feel, or hear as soon as we walk outside our home is our neighborhood environment. This includes not only trees and sidewalks but noisy neighbors, litter in the street, abandoned houses, and polluted air.

In policymaking, however, the United States, like many other nations, has a much narrower definition of environment. In local, state, and national government, environmental problems are equated with air, land, and water pollution. Crime is left to the criminal justice system; blight is the responsibility of housing, community development, police, and firefighting organizations; traffic noise, congestion, and access are left to departments of transportation.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's narrow environmental mandate has not prevented the agency and its state progeny from improving the environment. Nationally, despite substantial increases in population, production, and consumption, emissions into the air, land, and water have decreased (2) (3) (4). But this single-agency mandate does not work for inner-city neighborhoods, which face a multitude of hazards.

The inner-city neighborhood of East Elizabeth, New Jersey, exemplifies the array of problems facing declining U.S. cities. Residents confront deafening noise from Newark Airport, the 10th busiest airport in the United States, located just 1.6 kilometers away. The New Jersey Turnpike, the most heavily trafficked road in the United States, runs directly through the community.

The largest petrochemical complex on the East Coast, which, according to toxic release inventory data, is the seventh largest waste-producing site and eighth largest emitter of toxins in New Jersey, is located on the southwest boundary of the neighborhood. The site of a former hazardous waste incinerator that exploded in 1980 still stands vacant, surrounded by a 2.4-meter-high chain link fence. The neighborhood also contains clusters of abandoned buildings and numerous littered lots. Police warn visitors not to venture into public housing projects located in the center of East Elizabeth because the area is said to be the local epicenter of illegal drug activity.

When surveyed, the citizens of East Elizabeth, as well as local government experts, recognize that there are multiple sources of environmental risk. They also say that solving one or even two of these risks is insufficient to substantially improve neighborhood qual ity (5)(6).

At this time, however, the U.S. government does not assess the cumulative risk of living in neighborhoods with crime and other behavioral hazards, severe physical blight, and multiple forms of pollution. Experts well-versed in air pollution modeling and epidemiological studies have neither the mandate nor the skills to assess risk from other pollution problems.

Furthermore, crime, uncontrolled dogs and rats, abandoned and unsafe buildings, and various forms of antisocial behavior and physical decay are not included with pollution in risk assessments. As a result, mitigation efforts tend to be piecemeal and uncoordinated and thus unlikely to markedly reduce the risk these neigh-borhoods face.

I cannot offer a realistic and simple solution to the multiple environmental problems of these neighborhoods. However, if efforts to rehabilitate our cities are to succeed, we must redefine the concept of environment in a way that matches the realities in multiple-hazard neighborhoods--in a way that is closer to Webster's definition. We cannot set priorities for action unless we understand the full extent of the risks these communities face. For now, those best equipped to set priorities are the residents and local officials who live and work in these neighborhoods.

It is also clear that no single agency can play the heroic knight. The agencies responsible for environment, criminal justice, housing, transportation, and other areas must contribute both individually and collectively--along with businesses and communities--to finding ways to improve the environment and quality of life in multiple-hazard neighborhoods.

--Michael Greenberg

Michael Greenberg is a professor of urban studies and community health at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy of Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey.

References and Notes

1. David Guralnik, ed., Webster's New World Dictionary, second edition (Simon and Schuster, New York, 1980), p. 468.

2. Paul Portney, ed., Public Policy for Environmental Protection (Resources for the Future, Washington, D.C., 1992), pp. 7-25, 275-289.

3. Richard Smith, Richard Alexander, and M. Gordon Wolman, "Water Quality Trends in the Nation's Rivers," Science, Vol. 235 (1987), pp. 1607-1615.

4. J.G. Calvert, et al., "Achieving Acceptable Air Quality: Some Reflections on Controlling Vehicle Emissions," Science, Vol. 261, No. 5117 (1993), pp. 37-39.

5. Michael Greenberg and Dona Schneider, "Hazardous Waste Site Remediation, Neighborhood Change, and Neighborhood Quality," Environmental Health Perspectives, Vol. 102, No. 6/7 (1994), pp. 542-547.

6. Michael Greenberg and Dona Schneider, Environmentally Devastated Neighborhoods: Perceptions, Policies, and Realities (Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, New Jersey, 1996).

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