Research brings more community voices to the restoration conversation

November 18th, 2015 by

Environmental clean-ups can revitalize a waterway and nearby neighborhoods, but are they always good for everyone in a community? Are there people left behind, or worse, negatively impacted by the process or the results?

Bethany Cutts and Andrew Greenlee (pictured here left, with a Milwaukee resident), both University of Illinois researchers, are investigating these questions in conjunction with Great Lakes Legacy Act clean ups in Milwaukee’s Lincoln Park and the Grand Calumet River in northwest Indiana. In Milwaukee, they have been interviewing residents, as well as representatives from businesses and grassroots organizations that have a stake in river management activities to learn how the remediation experience is playing out for more vulnerable members of the community.

Social vulnerability is a measure that is typically used when a community goes through turbulent change, which is mostly disasters. Vulnerable populations are defined by census categories—low income, minorities, single mothers, the elderly, for example.
“Socially vulnerable populations generally have a lack of capacity to recover from these setbacks or do not have a voice during the community decision process,” said Cutts. The interviews provide an opportunity to inform how vulnerable populations are characterized and it can help target outreach during remediation projects.
According to El Lower, a Master’s student working on this project, one preliminary finding in these taped interviews is that generally, residents tend to think about different river restoration projects together. They don’t separate them in terms of who is funding the work or the different project goals.
In the Milwaukee area, this means that the Great Lakes Legacy Act project, which has led to the removal of many cubic yards of contaminated sediment, may become viewed by residents as connected to a controversial plan to remove the Estabrook Dam upstream.
Caitie Nigrelli, IISG social scientist, affirmed that at public meetings for the Lincoln Park sediment remediation project, discussions were overtly steered away from the contentious dam.  

Through listening to residents and their strong opinions on the dam, the research team has come to have some advice for environmental organizations and agencies involved in other nearby restoration projects. “The conflict the dam generates may help outreach coordinators more successfully address residents’ questions and concerns regarding the Milwaukee River as a whole,” said Cutts.

Also, the dam project provides a ripe opportunity to hear from vulnerable populations. For her Master’s project, student Kaitlyn Hornik (pictured on right with El Lower) will create a video from interviews and focus groups to share the opinions of those who are not typically heard, which will be shown at a community meeting. “Public forums can be intimidating. The video can open people’s eyes to different points of view,” she explained. “It helps create a level playing field.”
Next, the researchers will turn their sights to northwest Indiana where the Grand Calumet River has been undergoing remediation for several years to learn how this is impacting residents.

“We need to think about socially vulnerable groups and if possible include them in the process,” said Cutts. “Analyzing how change can occur is important. The remediation process can be opportunity to have more compassion regarding how this process impacts people.”

To learn more about this project you can find videos and reports at Urban Environment Equity Research.

-Irene Miles

U of I course combines social science, urban planning, and sediment remediation

March 20th, 2014 by
A group of urban planning graduate students from University of Illinois have just returned from Milwaukee—but this wasn’t your typical weekend excursion. They spent their time interviewing government employees, business owners, members of the community, and others affected by clean-up efforts on the Milwaukee Estuary, where industrial toxins threaten water quality and aquatic wildlife. And the information they collected will go a long way to ensuring that future restoration and remediation projects across the region leave nearby communities stronger than they were before. 
It is all a part of an IISG-funded project investigating the relationship between sediment removal projects and a community’s vulnerability to environmental hazards like natural disasters, pollution, and changing weather patterns. Social vulnerability depends on a lot of factors—average income, education levels, public engagement, and more. Using the Milwaukee Estuary and Grand Calumet Areas of Concern as models, U of I researchers Bethany Cutts and Andrew Greenlee are investigating how these factors change—for better or worse—when a community becomes involved in sediment removal projects. 
This project stands apart from much of the research on community vulnerability. It is localized, focused on vulnerability over time, and supplements census data with qualitative information on community attitudes and perceptions of remediation. Because of these differences, its results will be a significant boost to the tool government agencies currently use to determine and reduce social vulnerability, the Social Vulnerability Index. Cutts and Greenlee are calling their tool the Social Vulnerability Index Plus (SoVI+). 
When it is done, SoVI+ will help groups involved in remediation, including IISG, better prepare communities for the aspects of cleanup that may increase vulnerability—like restricted road access and heavy truck traffic. EPA could also use the new tool to prioritize sediment remediation in areas where it will be most beneficial.   
Work is just beginning, but the project promises a lot of data collection and analysis over the next few years. That is where the students come in. They are all part of the Workshop in Urban Environmental Equity, an inter-departmental course focused on identifying historical demographic changes in the researched regions, as well as developing and piloting interview strategies that Cutts and Greenlee will continue to use well after the course is complete. Beyond being a big step forward for the research project, the workshop provides a unique opportunity for students to be a part of the design and implementation of a multidisciplinary, mixed-method research project—what one student called “the holy grail” of research. Situated at the intersection of social and economic shifts, environmental restoration, planning, and policy, the course and the research can have tremendous benefits for ongoing and future remediation projects and the coastal communities. 

Photo A: Natalie Prochaska, Juliana Wilhoit, Andrew Greenlee, Annie Contractor, Vinisha Doshi, Nancy Smebak, and Rachel Wilson take a break from their work in Milwaukee. (Not pictured: urban planning graduate student and workshop member Carolina Chantrille.)

Photo B: U of I students take part in a “Ski the AOC” event to learn more about ongoing remediation efforts and the community.

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