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Bringing Local Knowledge into Environmental Decision Making: Improving Urban Planning for Communities at Risk

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Abstract

This article reveals how local knowledge can improve planning for communities facing the most serious environmental and health risks. These communities often draw on their firsthand experience—here called local knowledge—to challenge ex- pert-lay distinctions. Community partici- pation in environmental decisions is putting pressure on planners to find new ways of fusing the expertise of scientists with insights from the local knowledge of communities. Using interviews, primary texts, and ethnographic fieldwork, this ar- ticle defines local knowledge, reveals how it differs from professional knowledge, and argues that local knowledge can im- prove planning in at least four ways (1) epistemology, adding to the knowledge base of environmental policy; (2) procedural de- mocracy, including new and previously si- lenced voices; (3) effectiveness, providing low-cost policy solutions; and (4) distribu- tive justice, highlighting inequitable distri- butions of environmental burdens.
10.1177/0739456X03253694 ARTICLECorburnImproving Urban Planning for Communities at Risk
Bringing Local Knowledge into
Environmental Decision Making
Improving Urban Planning for
Communities at Risk
Jason Corburn
I
ncreasingly, concerned lay publics, especially the most disadvantaged populations
experiencing the greatest environmental exposure risks and health effects, are
demanding a greater role in researching, describing, and prescribing solutions to ame-
liorate the local hazards they face (Cole and Foster 2001; Di Chiro 1998). These com-
munities are demanding environmental justice and are speaking for themselves, often
drawing on their firsthand experience—here called local knowledge—to address the
environmental risks they face (Collin and Collin 1998). The need to take account of
local knowledge is putting pressure on environmental and public health planners to
find new ways of fusing the expertise of professional practitioners and scientists with
the contextual intelligence that only local residents possess (Fischer 2000). As planners
increasingly play a mediating role between experts, policy makers, and various publics,
they need to learn new ways of taking account of the local knowledge embedded in the
communities within which they work. This article highlights the cognitive and norma
-
tive contributions local knowledge makes to environmental health planning, particu
-
larly interventions aimed at improving the most at risk communities.
I highlight the contributions of local knowledge by reviewing the work of residents
in the Greenpoint/Williamsburg (G/W) neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. In this
largely immigrant, Latino, and low-income community, residents have organized to
research, assess, and offer solutions for the environmental health hazards they face,
including asthma, air toxics, and risks from diets of locally caught fish. I suggest that
community knowledge provides crucial political and technical insights often over
-
looked by professionals. The article argues that through both its epistemological and
democratic contributions to professional planning, local knowledge should never be
ignored by planners seeking to improve the lives of communities experiencing the
greatest risks.
420
Journal of Planning Education and Research 22:420-433
DOI: 10.1177/0739456X03253694
© 2003 Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning
Abstract:
This article reveals how local knowledge
can improve planning for communities
facing the most serious environmental
and health risks. These communities often
draw on their firsthand experience—here
called local knowledge—to challenge ex-
pert-lay distinctions. Community partici-
pation in environmental decisions is
putting pressure on planners to find new
ways of fusing the expertise of scientists
with insights from the local knowledge of
communities. Using interviews, primary
texts, and ethnographic fieldwork, this ar
-
ticle defines local knowledge, reveals how
it differs from professional knowledge,
and argues that local knowledge can im
-
prove planning in at least four ways (1)
epistemology, adding to the knowledge base
of environmental policy; (2) procedural de
-
mocracy, including new and previously si
-
lenced voices; (3) effectiveness, providing
low-cost policy solutions; and (4) distribu
-
tive justice, highlighting inequitable distri
-
butions of environmental burdens.
Keywords: local knowledge; environmental
health; community planning
Jason Corburn is on the faculty in the De-
partment of City and Regional Planning at
the University of Pennsylvania. He is also the
Associate Director of the Center for Occu
-
pational and Environmental Health at Hun-
ter College, City University of New York.
What Is Local Knowledge?
While this study argues for the professional recognition of
local knowledge in research and decision making, I also aim to
clarify what I mean by local knowledge. I seek to avoid reifying
the categories “professional” and “local” as if they were invari
-
ant or monolithic entities (Agarwal 1995; Wynne 1996a). I
therefore analyze the tendencies and differences among pro
-
fessional and local ways of knowing. The policy sciences litera
-
ture characterizes local knowledge as “knowledge that does
not owe its origin, testing, degree of verification, truth, status,
or currency to distinctive . . . professional techniques, but
rather to common sense, casual empiricism, or thoughtful
speculation and analysis” (Lindblom and Cohen 1979, 12).
Local knowledge can also include information pertaining to
local contexts or settings, including knowledge of specific
characteristics, circumstances, events, and relationships, as
well as important understandings of their meaning. Another
definition of local knowledge comes from Geertz (1983),
whose seminal anthropological work titled Local Knowledge
defines it as “practical, collective and strongly rooted in a par-
ticular place” that forms an “organized body of thought based
on immediacy of experience” (p. 75). Geertz suggests that
local knowledge can be described as simply as “to-know-a-city-
is-to-know-its-streets” (p. 167).
1
To further characterize local versus professional ways of
knowing, I ask who holds the knowledge? Local knowledge is
often held by members of a community that can be both geo
-
graphically located and contextual to specific identity groups.
This means that a “knowledge community” might be a neigh
-
borhood and/or a group with a shared culture, symbols, lan
-
guage, religion, norms, or even interests. In contrast, profes
-
sional knowledge is generally held by members of a profession,
discipline, university, government agency, or industrial associa
-
tion. However, this does not imply that identity is a fixed con
-
cept and predetermined by such things as religion, ethnicity,
or neighborhood. As my empirical study will make clear,
understanding identity means embracing intersectionality and
anti-essentialism—or the notions that no person has a single,
easily stated, unitary identity and that no absolute “truth” exists
from any one perspective (Haraway 1991).
A second way to distinguish local from professional knowl
-
edge is to ask how evidence is gathered. The differences
between professional and local ways of knowing can be charac
-
terized by examining the emphases each place on information
collection methods, standards of evidence, and analytic tech
-
niques. Local knowledge is often acquired through life experi
-
ence and is mediated through cultural tradition. Practitioners
of local knowledge make explicit their reliance on evidence
from time-honored traditions, intuition, images, pictures, oral
storytelling or narratives, as well as visual demonstrations such
as street theater (Van der Ploeg 1993). This knowledge is easily
accessible to locals and widely shared. Tacit awareness and
understanding, which are the product of historical experience
and not merely a hunch, are also emphasized by practitioners
of local knowledge (Krimsky 1984). In addition, local knowl
-
edge rarely conforms to technical rationality, particularly the
need to search for causal models and rely on universal princi
-
ples and theories for getting to the “truth”—both standard
practices in most professions (Habermas 1970). Conversely,
professional knowledge is largely gathered through experi
-
mental methods and disciplinary tools, such as risk assessment
in environmental health problem solving (National Research
Council 1996).
A third question that helps distinguish local from profes
-
sional knowledge asks what makes evidence credible? For com
-
munity members, local knowledge is rarely a hunch or sponta
-
neous intuition but rather evidence of one’s eyes tested
through years if not generations of experiences. Furthermore,
local knowledge is rarely instrument dependent. Community
activists often draw from their experiences of seeing their own
or a neighbor’s sick children, combined with observations of
industry smokestacks and foul odors, to piece together credi-
ble evidence (Tesh 1999). Community knowledge comes in
part from actual sights, smells, and tastes, along with the tactile
and emotional experiences encountered in everyday life. Yet,
community members often make two different claims based
on experiential evidence. The first claim represents a type of
local knowledge that identifies or poses a problem. This claim
is reflected in statements like, “I’ve seen sick people” and high
-
lights contextual knowledge that allows professionals to focus
on things they may have missed. Another claim reflects a type
of local knowledge that hypothesizes a relationship between a
hazardous exposure and illness. This claim is reflected in state
-
ments such as, “I know if dioxin and mercury are going to
come out of an incinerator stack, somebody’s going to be
affected.” Too often, professionals assume that local knowl
-
edge is only of the second kind, dismiss these claims, and miss
the importance of the first type of local knowledge.
A final question that helps distinguish local from profes
-
sional knowledge asks how the forums where evidence is tested
differ. Local knowledge is generally tested in public narratives,
community stories, street theater, and other public forums. In
contrast, professional knowledge is generally tested through
peer review, in the courts or through the media. Admittedly, all
these distinctions can fluctuate, particularly when activists
organize to try and stake out part of the traditional scientists’
terrain—be it in academic journals, the courts, or the media.
Community activists concerned with their own health and
safety are increasingly wrangling with scientists about issues of
Improving Urban Planning for Communities at Risk 421
truth and method, exerting pressure on them from the outside
and locating themselves on the “inside” of research (Heiman
1997; Irwin 1995; Shepard et al. 2002). These activists chal
-
lenge not just the use and control of science and expert knowl
-
edge but also the content and processes by which knowledge is
produced. Fundamentally, community activists claim to speak
credibly as experts in their own right, as people who know
about things scientific and who can partake of this special and
powerful discourse of truth. Brown (1992) has labeled one
method of laypeople engaging in environmental health
research and decision making “popular epidemiology” and
defines it as the process whereby laypeople “gather scientific
data and other information and also direct and marshal the
knowledge and resources of experts in order to understand
the epidemiology of disease” (p. 269). Despite evidence that
local knowledge can offer valuable insights for environmental
problem solving, professionals continue to treat community
members as largely ignorant of the technical and scientific
aspects of the hazards they face.
Models of Community Knowledge
While much of the planning literature has recognized the
knowledge of communities, particularly in the form of narra-
tives and storytelling (Baum 1997; Forester 1999;
Throgmorton 1996), a majority of these studies reveal either
what is wrong with expert-lay dialogues or the political, but not
technical insights, community members can offer. For exam
-
ple, in a study of the discourse surrounding the locating of a
hazardous waste site in the Ironbound community in Newark,
New Jersey, Williams and Matheny (1995) reveal how planners
used a “managerial” discourse that ignored the “communi
-
tarian” views of local residents. Briggs (1996) has noted that
communicative planning efforts can often fail because profes
-
sionals are generally inattentive to the culturally particular and
ethnically derived language, speech codes, and scripts used by
people of color. In a study of an environmental-planning pro
-
cess discussing the health issues surrounding a toxic waste site,
Kaminstein (1996) notes how environmental agency experts
alienated community members with confusing scientific lan
-
guage and patronized residents who raised passionate con
-
cerns about their safety. Finally, Forester’s (1989, 1999) impor
-
tant work on planning, planners, and public deliberation has
instructed the entire planning community of the power plan
-
ners have to either manipulate citizen participation or facili
-
tate deliberative democracy.
What these and other studies reveal is that planning pro
-
cesses, and the planners that organize them, often fail to cap
-
ture both the technical and political insights community
members can offer. Yet, communities from Love Canal, New
York, to Woburn, Massachusetts, to St. James Parish, Louisiana,
have organized to investigate and address technical issues sur
-
rounding the environmental health hazards they face (Brown
and Mikkelsen 1990; Cole and Foster 2001; Gibbs 1994). A few
planning studies have helped reveal the contributions
laypeople make to scientific inquiry and environmental prob
-
lem solving (Heiman 1997; Tesh 1999). Scott’s (1998) study of
state-centered planning concludes that projects often fail
because professional planners fail to see the importance of the
practical, contextual, and local knowledge that makes plan
-
ning work. Wynne (1996a) notes how sheep farmers in the
Cumbria region of England provided information about local
variations in soil type to geologists studying the influence of
Chernobyl fallout on local flora and fauna. Irwin (1995) also
studied the knowledge of farm workers and notes how they
organized stories of their experience working with the pesti
-
cide 2, 4, 5-T—telling regulators how protective clothing, res
-
pirators, and safety guidelines were never followed in practice.
This information convinced scientists to reconsider the safety
of the chemical and eventually lead to its ban in England.
Epstein (1996) reveals how AIDS activists organized their own
clinical trials on experimental drugs, reacting to inaction by
government scientists in the early years of the AIDS epidemic,
and how these “lay experiments” eventually changed the U.S.
government’s biomedical research protocols and formed the
basis of today’s disease-suppressing “drug cocktails.” In Har-
lem, community activists with West Harlem Environmental
Action (WEACT) organized young people to document and
map areas in the neighborhood where they experienced foul
odors, irritated throats, shortness of breath, and other symp
-
toms of lung dysfunction (Northridge et al. 1999; Corbin-Mark
2001). The activists used their information to inform a
research partnership with Columbia University researchers
measuring the effects of diesel exhaust on childhood asthma
in the community (Northridge et al. 1999).
What these studies reveal is that community members can
contribute both political and technical insights to environ
-
mental problem solving. However, the dominant models of
community knowledge still view the public as having either a
deficit of technical understanding or as merely complement
-
ing the work of experts. In the deficit model, professionals
claim that the public needs to be educated in the ways and
knowledge of professional experts to meaningfully participate
in environmental decisions (Yearley 2000). This view was per
-
haps most clearly articulated by Supreme Court Justice Ste
-
phen Breyer (1993) when he called for a federal
“superagency” consisting only of scientists and other experts,
insulated from politics and public input, to make neutral, risk-
based decisions. While most planners committed to
422 Corburn
democracy and even the U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency (EPA) rejected the deficit model (Lash 1994; National
Research Council 1996), professionals often prefer a “comple
-
mentary” model of public participation. In the complemen
-
tary model, the public is asked to offer values, raise questions of
fairness, and provide “political” insights, but scientific experts
retain autonomy over technical issues (Douglas and Wildavsky
1982; Slovic 1991). The complementary view prevails in most
studies of communicative planning since these analysts gener
-
ally fail to adequately problematize and deconstruct the dis
-
course of technical experts (Healey 1999; Ozawa and Suss-
kind 1985). This article argues for a third model, called “co-
production,” where all publics are understood as potential
contributors to all aspects of environmental-planning deci
-
sions because hard distinctions between expert and lay, scien
-
tific and political order, and facts and values are rejected
(Susskind and Elliot 1983; Jasanoff and Wynne 1998).
In the co-production model, science is understood as
dependent on the natural world, as well as historical events,
social practices, material resources, and institutions that con-
tribute to the construction, dissemination, and use of scientific
knowledge (Habermas 1970; Jasanoff and Wynne 1998). Politi-
cal decision making in the co-production framework does not
take scientific knowledge as a given but seeks to reveal and
deconstruct how science is conducted, communicated, and
used (Latour 1979). The co-production model also
problematizes knowledge and notions of expertise from the
outset, challenging traditional distinctions between expert
and lay ways of knowing (Wynne 1996a; Yearley 2000). I now
turn to the work of activists in Brooklyn to further clarify the
practice of co-production and to reveal how local knowledge
improves environmental planning.
Local Knowledge and
Community Air Toxic Exposures
The G/W neighborhood was selected by the EPA for the
first community-based cumulative exposure project to
respond to the lack of local health studies, the disproportion
-
ate number of polluting facilities in the neighborhood, and to
address concerns raised by neighborhood-based environmen
-
tal groups (Hanhardt 2000; Talcott 1999). With approximately
160,000 residents living in a less than five square mile area, the
G/W community is a dense urban neighborhood where indus
-
try abuts housing. The residents are some of the poorest in all
of New York City, with 35.7% of the population living below the
poverty line and less than half of the adults older than twenty-
four years of age having a high school diploma or higher level
of education (U.S. Bureau of the Census 2000). The ethnically
diverse neighborhood is approximately 42% Latino (mostly
Puerto Rican and Dominican), 24% Hasidic Jew, 13% African
American, and 10% Polish and Slavic immigrant (U.S. Bureau
of the Census 2000). The neighborhood is also one of the city’s
most polluted; it has the largest amount of land devoted to
industrial uses among New York City’s fifty-nine community
districts, the largest concentration of Toxic Release Inventory
(TRI) reporting industries in New York City, a sewage treat
-
ment plant, more than thirty solid waste transfer stations, a
radioactive waste storage facility, thirty facilities that store
extremely hazardous wastes, and seventeen petroleum and
natural gas storage facilities (New York City Department of
Environmental Protection [DEP] 1997; Perris and Chait 1998;
Steinsapir, Schwarz, and Lalor 1992).
The EPA exposure assessment was aimed at better under
-
standing and addressing some of these hazardous exposures in
the neighborhood. One aspect of the EPA project attempted to
estimate resident’s exposure to air toxics. The study modeled
the local dispersion of 148 hazardous air pollutants using a dis
-
persion model titled Assessment System for Population Expo-
sure Nationwide (ASPEN) (EPA 1999). The EPA had originally
planned to run the dispersion model and present the results to
the community (Talcott 1999). However, at the urging of some
city environmental officials who had worked with activists in
the G/W neighborhood, the EPA agreed to present its
research methods to local activists (Hanhardt 2000).
During one community meeting, the EPA heard from the
Watchperson Project, a neighborhood organization that mon
-
itors local environmental and health hazards, that the air dis
-
persion model was going to miss hundreds of polluters that did
not show up in any state or federal air-quality database. The
EPA had based its air pollution model on data from New York
State air monitors and TRI sites in the neighborhood (EPA
1999). The community group noted that there was only one
state air monitor in the entire neighborhood and that there
were hundreds of small local polluters that did not appear in
the TRI. Activists also argued that since the ASPEN model
would aggregate air pollution by census tract, it would likely
“wash out” these small-source polluters and the block-to-block
pollution differences that characterized their industrialized
neighborhood (Swanston 2000).
In making its case to the EPA, the Watchperson Project
developed maps of the neighborhood showing the locations of
the small polluters on each land parcel in the community. The
community organization obtained pollution permit data from
the DEP and plotted these sources using a geographic informa
-
tion system (Swanston 2000). The DEP database included the
small-source air polluters that the city permitted but the EPA
did not regulate, such as boilers in apartment buildings, auto
paint shops, and printing facilities. The Watchperson Project
Improving Urban Planning for Communities at Risk 423
mapped these small sources because they were concerned that
by relying on the TRI and aggregating exposures by census
tract, the EPA model was not going to accurately characterize
community air pollution exposures. According to Robert
Lewis, director of the Watchperson Project’s geographic infor
-
mation system,
To capture data only by census tract or block group aver
-
aged-out significant localized emissions. A data-set that
aggregated by census-tract or even block would miss impor
-
tant distinctions between city blocks and even within one
block. Our map was the only one to show just how many
small-sources there are in the neighborhood and how the
state and federal monitoring misses all these sources.
The community group mapped 15,167 distinct land parcels in
the community and produced maps comparing the facilities
the EPA was modeling with the facilities in the DEP database
that the exposure assessment was not going to include. The
group found more than one thousand potentially toxic air pol
-
luters that the EPA was going to miss (Swanston 2000).
The Watchperson Project’s maps were compelling to EPA
scientists, but according to one, the agency struggled with how
to treat the local data in the dispersion model:
We struggled for a long time considering the community
group’s data set. We tweaked the model some but we just
couldn’t aggregate all those sources at a block-by-block
level without loosing accuracy in the dispersion model.
What we did do, however, was take the area sources we
could get enough data for, plot them, and model them as
point sources.
2
Thus, the community-gathered information forced the
EPA to rethink how its dispersion model might more closely
reflect actual community exposures.
Another set of data collected by the Watchperson Project
also influenced the EPA model. A project run by the commu
-
nity group used volunteer high school students to canvass the
neighborhood in teams to follow up on community complaints
of air, noise, and odor pollution registered by residents with
the city DEP. This survey discovered that a large number of
complaints were coming from residents living in buildings with
dry-cleaning establishments on the ground floor. The
Watchperson Project organized the students to document the
location of all the dry-cleaning establishments and the specific
type of buildings where they were located. The survey found
fifty-four dry cleaners in the neighborhood, with twenty-three
of the fifty-four performing dry-cleaning in residential build
-
ings (EPA 1999). Combining census data with the neighbor
-
hood survey, the group also found that as many as 183 apart
-
ments and approximately 550 persons in G/W were living
above the dry-cleaning establishments (Swanston 2000).
The Watchperson Project’s dry-cleaning survey raised a
particular concern to the EPA since previous studies had found
concentrations of perchloroethylene (“perc”), a known car
-
cinogen, inside apartments (at up to three floors above a dry
cleaner in the same building) averaging 150 parts per million
and some measurements exceeding 1,000 parts per million
(Wallace et al. 1995; New York State Department of Health
[NYS DOH] 1993).
3
Yet, the EPA model estimated that the
expected outdoor concentration of perc in G/W was less than 2
parts per billion, with a maximum-modeled census tract out
-
door concentration of 39 parts per billion (EPA 1999). Accord
-
ing to Fred Talcott of the EPA,
The average concentrations found in apartments above dry
cleaning establishments was on the order of 1000 times
higher than the outdoor concentration of “perc” as pre
-
dicted by the ASPEN model in G/W. That to me is an illus
-
tration of a micro-level problem that would be completely
obscured if you only looked at daily walking around con
-
centration. Without the community group data set, we
would have missed this. (Talcott 1999)
The EPA considered performing a separate assessment for this
subpopulation but eventually decided to document only the
findings in the cumulative exposure project report (EPA 1999,
chap. 6). Nonetheless, the fact that the EPA considered the
dry-cleaning establishment data generated by the community
represented a significant change from the traditional expert-
driven assessment process. According to Samara Swanston
(2000), director of the Watchperson Project, “The dry cleaners
were something you couldn’t know from any database. You’d
have to walk around the neighborhood to know that they are
located in residential buildings. That’s what we did in our sur
-
vey and they listened to us.” The EPA modeling team acknowl
-
edged that lived experience is an important factor in under
-
standing exposures and acquiesced to “local experts” for this
knowledge. Community knowledge forced the EPA to rethink
their initial assumptions and set the stage for local knowledge
to frame other aspects of the community exposure assessment.
Tapping the Local Knowledge
of Subsistence Anglers
During the same series of community meetings about the
air toxics model, the EPA heard concerns from residents about
the agency’s planned methodology for assessing dietary expo
-
sures. Residents learned that the EPA intended to estimate haz
-
ardous dietary exposures using a series of default “urban diet”
assumptions. This raised immediate objections since it was
obvious to most locals that the community’s different ethnic
424 Corburn
groups all ate different diets. According to one resident, Loyda
Gisela Guzman, Mira [look], you can’t tell me Hasidic Jews,
Puerto Ricans, Poles, Italians and Guyanese immigrants all liv
-
ing here are eating the same thing. We might all be ‘urban’ but
we ain’t eating typical diets.” Residents were particularly con
-
cerned that the EPA assessment lacked any specific informa
-
tion about the potential hazards from diets consisting of locally
caught fish. Residents noted that due to poverty and cultural
tradition, many locals were living off a subsistence diet of East
River fish (Swanston 2000). This was the first time the agency
had heard of this potential health hazard, and neither the EPA
nor the community had any detailed data about subsistence
fishing beyond anecdotal evidence (Swanston 2000).
The Watchperson Project emphasized to the EPA that not
only were the hazards from subsistence fishing a significant
dietary exposure but also that since many of the anglers were
immigrants and non-English speakers, they would likely be
reluctant to speak with outside researchers about their prac
-
tices (Swanston 2000). The community group recommended
that angler exposure data be included in the EPA study and
that a data collection effort be conducted by local people since
they would be the only ones trusted by the anglers to share
honest information about local fish diets (Swanston 2000).
After bringing the EPA researchers on a tour of popular fishing
piers in the community, the agency agreed that this was a
potentially serious hazard and decided to help the
Watchperson Project collect information about the practices
of local anglers. According to Talcott of the EPA,
After we learned from residents that they were eating fish
from the East River, we had no choice but to let the commu
-
nity groups gather the data. For a number of reasons,
including language, cultural barriers, and potential trust
issues, we felt the local people could best gather this data.
This was one situation where residents raised an issue we
hadn’t considered, defined the extent of the problem, and
provided the data for analysis. (Talcott 1999)
Working with the EPA, the Watchperson Project developed
a protocol to interview anglers to identify approximately how
many people were eating fish out of the river, the amounts and
frequency of fish consumption, and the types of fish that
anglers and their families were eating (EPA 1999). The com
-
munity group spent three months interviewing anglers at the
India Street and the North Seventh Street/Kent Street Piers
along the East River. Community members volunteering with
the Watchperson Project visited the piers twice a day for two
weeks during August and September and observed and inter
-
viewed more than two hundred anglers. Each angler was asked
about his or her age, race, country of origin, and the number
and age of people in their family. The species of fish and the
number they regularly caught was also asked. Since the inter
-
viewing was conducted during the summer, each interview
included questions about seasonal variability and frequency of
catches in different seasons. Finally, each angler was asked
about his fish consumption patterns and those of his family,
including the species, quantities, and preparation techniques
of the fish they ate (EPA 1999).
Angler Survey Findings
The community-gathered information was divided by age
and ethnicity, and separate categories were created for whites,
Poles, African Americans, and Latinos. The Watchperson Pro
-
ject found that almost all the anglers were Latino males
between the ages of sixteen and sixty years. The family size of
each angler ranged from three to ten persons, and all anglers
interviewed noted that at least one family member was younger
than the age of nineteen (EPA 1999). The Watchperson Pro-
ject survey determined that local anglers were catching
between 40 and 75 fish per week, averaging 57 fish per week,
and that each family member of an angler was eating approxi-
mately 9.5 fish per week (EPA 1999).
All the anglers interviewed listed the same four species as
the most frequently consumed fish: blue crab, American eel,
blue fish, and striped bass. Most anglers reported that they ate
whatever they caught. The EPA analysts performed toxicologi
-
cal tests on fish from the same river and compared these data
with fish contaminant estimations in the East River from the
New York State Department of Environmental Conservation
(EPA 1999). From these data, the EPA determined that the
contaminants of concern in the locally caught fish included
cadmium, mercury, chlordane, DDT, dieldrin, dioxins, PCBs,
arsenic, and lead (EPA 1999).
Using the community survey data, EPA generated a con
-
sumption rate for G/W residents in grams per day, which was
found to be consistent with EPA data from other communities
relying on subsistence fishing (EPA 1993). Resident exposures
were then calculated based on fish tissue contaminant concen
-
trations found in actual samples and the consumption rates.
Eventually, the EPA calculated a lifetime cancer risk for adult
subsistence anglers in G/W and found that the risk exceeded
one in ten thousand (1 × 10
–4
) for every exposure scenario
(EPA 1999). Compared with the EPAs acceptable cancer risk
of one in a million (1 × 10
–6
), the risks to subsistence anglers in
G/W were significant but would have been missed without the
community-generated information.
Improving Urban Planning for Communities at Risk 425
Local Knowledge to Address Asthma
A third example of how the knowledge only community res
-
idents hold can improve environmental decision making
comes from another community organization in G/W called
El Puente. A community learning and development institution
located in Williamsburg’s Southside, El Puente has conducted
a series of community health surveys focusing primarily on
asthma (Ledogar et al. 2000). Designed, administered, and
interpreted largely by community residents, the surveys have
enabled El Puente to learn about neighborhood health, the
challenges residents face in maintaining their health, and
structuring interventions that resonate with and make sense in
people’s daily lives (Ledogar, Acosta, and Penchaszadeh
1999). Since 1995, El Puente, with the assistance of the non
-
profit group Community Information and Epidemiological
Technologies, has performed six community health surveys.
El Puente and Community Information and Epidemiologi
-
cal Technologies adopted a research methodology called Sen
-
tinel Community Surveys or Service Delivery Surveys (Ledogar
and Anderson 1993). In these methods, a mix of quantitative
and qualitative data is gathered by existing community organi-
zations that are trained to conduct questionnaires, perform
face-to-face interviews, and facilitate public discussions of sur-
vey design and results—all with the intention of collective
action. The research philosophy is rooted in the Latin Ameri-
can tradition of Participatory Action Research, which empha-
sizes that research ought to be understood as a process of edu
-
cation and pedagogy as a practice of social transformation
(Freire 1974; Fals Borda and Rahman 1991). The key compo
-
nents of El Puente’s research approach include (1) commu
-
nity ownership of both the information and the research pro
-
cess, (2) the premise that research will lead to action for the
benefit of the community, and (3) the weaving of research into
a process of community reflection and learning (Ledogar,
Acosta, and Penchaszadeh 1999).
After its first survey effort, which was limited to high school
students, El Puente employed a dedicated survey staff of ten
Latinas from the neighborhood to obtain more detailed infor
-
mation and to develop a sustained action-research effort
(Ledogar, Acosta, and Penchaszadeh 1999). These women, all
Puerto Ricans and Dominicans, comprised El Puente’s Com
-
munity Health Educators (CHE) team. The CHE women acted
as community health workers, lay health educators, advocates,
and advisors who learn from and help educate individuals and
groups toward increased well-being (Love, Gardner, and
Legion 1997; Ramirez-Valles 1998). The workers act as bridge
builders between residents, cultural and folk practices, and
professional providers of clinical health care (Love, Gardner,
and Legion 1997). This can be accomplished when the women
workers offer basic disease education, screening, and detec
-
tion techniques; translate the cultural and folk practices for
unknowing health care providers; and seek out professional
health care for those who desire it (Ramirez-Valles 1998).
Focus Groups and Local Knowledge
After a series of surveys, El Puente established a peer-
reviewed asthma rate for the first time in Williamsburg’s Latino
community. Published in the American Journal of Public Health,
El Puente calculated an 8.5 percent active asthma rate gener
-
ally and a 12.4 percent active asthma rate for children, more
than twice the national rate of 5.4 percent (Ledogar et al.
2000). Other survey findings revealed that residents who had
been living the longest in the neighborhood had the highest
prevalence of asthma, more than half the respondents did not
have health insurance, many new immigrants avoided profes
-
sional health care, and residents who came straight from Latin
America or the Caribbean had half the risk of having been
diagnosed with asthma than those who came from other areas
within the United States (Ledogar et al. 1999). El Puente used
focus-group discussions to reveal some of the reasons behind
many of these survey findings. For example, one survey found
that women older than forty-five years of age had a high preva-
lence of asthma, similar to that found in children. This was sur-
prising since children, not older women, are generally sus-
pected as being the most vulnerable to developing asthma.
During focus-group discussions, many women noted that their
only choices for work included hair and nail salons, laundries,
dry cleaners, or textile factories—all occupational environ
-
ments that could contribute to respiratory disease (Igelsias-
Garden 2001). Without the focus-group discussion, it is
unlikely that the potential relationship between women’s
employment and asthma would have been uncovered.
Another survey finding revealed that many residents relied
on herbal and other culturally derived home remedies to treat
asthma, often in place of physician-prescribed medication
(Ledogar et al. 1999). When the group discussions turned to
why this might be happening, most residents told of being
shunned and ridiculed by their health care provider when they
tried to explain their cultural or spiritual practices
(Penchaszadeh 2001). Residents also stated that they had a
hard time trusting a physician who did not understand, appre
-
ciate, or take seriously their home remedies as both spiritual
and traditional practices (Iglesias-Garden 2001).
4
Focus-group
discussions also helped reveal why Dominicans were almost
twice as likely as Puerto Ricans to replace physician-prescribed
medication with home remedies. Dominicans noted that the
home remedies helped them “connect with others who could
426 Corburn
help them integrate into American culture,” suggesting to El
Puente that the home remedies helped keep new immigrants
connected with their social networks (Ledogar et al. 2000).
Local Knowledge for Action
Armed with local knowledge from surveys and focus-group
discussions, El Puente began taking action. The CHE team
enrolled hundreds of families in a free New York State health
insurance program and in the group’s asthma management
program (Iglesias-Garden 2001). The CHE also developed a
“cultural competency program” to train local health care pro
-
viders in Latino folk medicinal practices. The work of El
Puente also appears to be influencing the professional envi
-
ronmental health community. The group’s research has twice
been published in the American Journal of Public Health
(Ledogar, Acosta, and Penchaszadeh, 1999; Ledogar, 2000),
and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences
funded El Puente to continue its research and act as the princi-
pal investigator for a four-year asthma study (National Institute
of Environmental Health Sciences 2000). Most important, El
Puente’s work appears to be paying off; not only have they edu-
cated and enrolled hundreds of community members in their
asthma mastery program, but asthma hospitalizations in the
Community District have decreased from 1,166 in 1997 to 484
in 1999 (NYS DOH 1999).
The Cognitive and Normative
Contributions of Local Knowledge
The work of activists in G/W reveals some of the ways local
knowledge can improve environmental planning and how co-
production works in practice. Yet, studies of local knowledge
and community-based practices, particularly in environmental
politics, are often challenged for romanticizing local culture
and practice and overlooking the structural and global dimen
-
sions of problem solving. Local knowledge might be under
-
stood by these critics as parochial and condemned to “the
neighborhood,” and this, they say, ignores national and global
politics. Skeptics might accuse me of being too sympathetic to
“identity groups” and in the process reifying social divisions
among groups. This critique claims that by valorizing identity
groups as important sources of knowledge and political claims,
I am perpetuating divisions among social groups that are often
creations of the state. A similar critique might label my work
“populism” since I challenge elitist assumptions that ordinary
people cannot think or act as rationally as experts. Finally, my
research into local knowledge might be challenged for
exonerating the state’s responsibility to protect those least well
off and shifting the burden of information gathering to local
people. This same critique might suggest that by emphasizing
local knowledge, I am ignoring the social, political, and eco
-
nomic structures and institutions that helped create the envi
-
ronmental burdens currently facing the poor and people of
color. In the next section, I attempt to respond to these chal
-
lenges by emphasizing both the cognitive and normative con
-
tribution local knowledge makes to environmental policy.
Local knowledge contributed to community planning in
G/W in at least four different ways: (1) epistemology—local
knowledge made a cognitive contribution by rectifying the ten
-
dency toward reductionism in professional vision and policy;
(2) procedural democracy—local knowledge contributed addi
-
tional and previously excluded voices, which can promote
wider acceptance of decisions by fostering a “hybridizing” of
professional discourse with local experience; (3) effectiveness
local knowledge identified low-cost and efficient policy analy
-
sis and implementation options; and (4) distributive justice
local knowledge raised previously unacknowledged distribu-
tive justice concerns facing disadvantaged communities. The
epistemology category can be aggregated into four additional
contributions to environmental decision making:
1. Aggregation—that is, professional decision-making tools
always aggregate, and this misses local particularity.
2. Heterogeneity—local knowledge can highlight how profes-
sional assessment models pay inadequate heed to the
interindividual or intergroup variability of the population
on which the model is being imposed.
3. Lifestyle—professional models always try to say something
about the relevant causal factors, and in so doing, they nec
-
essarily bound some things out as not relevant. From the
community perspective, this category says “your profes
-
sional model of how I’m going to react (my body or my
community) to this exposure is flawed because you are not
taking a holistic enough look at how I move through the
world.”
4. Tacit knowledge—local knowledge reveals the unspoken
information that does not easily lend itself to the
reductionist model making that is characteristic of profes
-
sional science.
Epistemology
The episodes presented here make clear that community
knowledge makes a contribution to the overall knowledge base
used for environmental policy making (Krimsky 1984). Part of
the knowledge base for environmental decisions comes from
professional science, or information emerging from a profes
-
sion or discipline that undergoes a series of professional legiti
-
macy “tests” (i.e., case-controlled experiments, statistical analy
-
ses, peer review, etc.) (Habermas 1970). Yet, Brooklyn activists
Improving Urban Planning for Communities at Risk 427
highlighted that critical environmental health insights also
come from time-tested experiences, community maps, and
narratives. The G/W activists contributed to epistemology by
engaging with and seeking to extend science. When these
activists challenged the “normal” ground rules about how sci
-
ence was conducted by, for example, altering the dietary risk
assessment, they contributed to what Funtowicz and Ravetz
(1993, 1999) have called “post-normal science.”
5
In other
words, when given an opportunity to engage with science and
scientists, community members often seek “to re-value forms
of knowledge that professional science has excluded, rather
than to devalue scientific knowledge itself” (Cozzens and
Woodhouse 1995, 538). The Brooklyn activists demonstrated
that a lack of data should not lead to professional assumptions
of an absence of hazard. Too often, specific disease and envi
-
ronmental exposure information do not exist at the local level,
especially in communities of the poor and people of color
(Shepard et al. 2002). This ignorance leads researchers and
agency decision makers to assign zero risk where little or noth
-
ing is known. These episodes have shown that local knowledge
is crucial for filling the gaps in health department and environ-
mental regulatory agency informational databases. At least
four additional subcategories help clarify the epistemological
contribution local knowledge makes to environmental
planning.
Aggregation
By definition, professional decision-making tools always
aggregate, and this tends to miss local particularity (Winner
1986). Local knowledge can point out where an insupportable
degree of aggregation is taking place. For instance, in the air
toxics episode, community members pointed out to the EPA
that its dispersion model missed many small emission sources
and dangerous perc emissions from dry cleaners located in res
-
idential buildings. In the angler episode, residents highlighted
how the EPA assumption of an “urban default diet” was also a
grossly inaccurate aggregation of local diets. Thus, local knowl
-
edge can highlight an epistemological flaw when professional
models of data aggregation wash out particularities within the
community (Habermas 1970).
Heterogeneity
Local knowledge can also reveal that professionals are pay
-
ing inadequate heed to the heterogeneity of a population that
expert models are often studying. Interindividual or inter
-
group variability was revealed by local knowledge when, for
instance, El Puente’s CHE helped highlight culturally specific
information about asthma. The El Puente surveys also found
that asthma rates differed significantly for Puerto Ricans and
Dominicans despite the fact that they often lived side by side
(Ledogar et al. 2000). Population differences that local knowl
-
edge exposes are critically important for understanding
interindividual and intergroup susceptibility to certain hazard
-
ous exposures, especially for people of color and low-income
communities who currently experience disproportionate dis
-
ease and hazardous exposures burdens (Institute of Medicine
1999). These groups tend to be more susceptible and vulnera
-
ble to hazardous exposures and illness by virtue of their social
environment (Krieger 2000; Northridge and Shepard 1997).
Yet, the heterogeneity of a population is commonly ignored by
professional models, particularly risk assessments, because the
default assumption is that everyone is equally and similarly sus
-
ceptible (Kuehn 1996; Jasanoff 1999).
Lifestyles
Local knowledge can also highlight the importance of life-
styles for understanding the relevant causal factors that profes-
sional models should and should not consider. In other words,
local knowledge can help capture the information that is often
ruled out by professionals as “a way of living.” For example,
diets consisting of locally caught fish were not something the
EPA considered, and it was not until the Watchperson Project
took agency representatives on a tour of the neighborhood
that the scientists treated fishing as more than a lifestyle issue.
6
The importance of lifestyle factors was also made evident dur
-
ing El Puente’s focus-group discussion highlighting the extent
of home-remedy use and why folk medicines were substituted
for physician-prescribed medications. When challenging pro
-
fessional models for ignoring their lifestyles, G/W activists
were not merely saying, “You have to give weight to me and my
experience” as a narrative voice, but rather, “Your professional
model of how I’m going to react (my body or my community)
to this exposure is flawed because you are not taking a holistic
enough look at how I move through the world.” In other
words, residents failed to “see themselves” in the science, and
the professional study failed to take on board the very public
whose health it was trying to assess. The assumption that local
lifestyles have nothing to offer science is an all-too-common
occurrence when professionals assess community environ
-
mental health issues (Brown 1992; Israel et al. 1998).
428 Corburn
Community knowledge helps uncover inadequacies in profes
-
sional models when these models bound-out of their cognitive
domain things that really do affect health and illness.
Tacit Knowledge
A fourth epistemological contribution local knowledge
makes to environmental planning is that it can uncover previ
-
ously inaccessible and highly contextual information. Tacit
knowledge is important because without it professionals can
rarely truthfully discover information that does not easily lend
itself to the reductionist model-making characteristic of pro
-
fessional science. The most obvious example of this occurs
when professionals are doing research on the mafia; they can
-
not get truthful information unless they become part of the
community, and some information is so tacit that only mem
-
bers of the community can gather it. The information pro
-
vided by the subsistence anglers—most of whom were immi
-
grants, non-English speakers, and fearful of talking with
outsiders—was an example of the kind of tacit information
that only local people could accurately gather. When commu-
nity members surveyed the anglers, with whom they shared a
common language, cultural heritage, socioeconomic back-
ground, and immigration status, many of the angler’s fears and
disincentives to participate were allayed.
Procedural Democracy
Beyond its cognitive contributions, local knowledge can
also make normative contributions to environmental plan
-
ning. One such contribution is toward enhanced procedural
democracy, which occurs when previously excluded and
marginalized voices are included in the technical research and
decision-making process, especially in a world where expertise
tends to exclude people (Fischer 2000; Sclove 1995). Includ
-
ing local knowledge with professional science can foster a
“hybridizing” of professional discourse with local experience
and ultimately promote wider democratic legitimacy for pro
-
fessional decisions (Jasanoff and Wynne 1998). In the El
Puente example, Latinas with no formal education and folk
healers were two groups historically ignored by public health
professionals that made significant contributions. Similarly, in
the air pollution episode, community residents participated in
risk modeling, a process that is generally the domain of only a
select group of experts (Jasanoff 1999; Winner 1986). When
local people meaningfully participate in science, not only is
the circle of participation expanded, but they can “create
value” by identifying additional decision-making consider
-
ations and can fundamentally alter the existing rules of the
“scientific field.”
7
By explicitly recognizing community exper
-
tise, local environmental decision making can provide the
opportunity for communities to speak back to the often hege
-
monic power of scientific expertise and ensure that problems
are defined, analyzed, and addressed in ways that make sense
to local people (Habermas 1970; Tesh 1999). Issues of research
transparency, trust, ownership, and self-determination con
-
tinue to concern community groups, especially the poor and
people of color who have either been ignored by researchers
or, when asked to participate as subjects, are often abandoned
in the end by researchers intent on analyzing results only for
their own advancement and not for community improvement
(Shepard et al. 2002). The practice of joint fact-finding, com
-
monly used in consensus building and collaborative planning,
is one way planners might address community concerns. In
joint fact-finding, community residents, agency representa
-
tives, and other interested “stakeholders” work together to
gather and analyze information, making assumptions and
judgments explicit along the way, and collaboratively decide
how information should be used in decision making (Ozawa
1990). While no panacea, local knowledge helps democratize
the environmental assessment and decision-making process.
Effectiveness
Community insights can also make environmental deci
-
sions more efficient and effective. Local knowledge can help
identify low-cost policy options and implementation strategies
that more closely align with “street-level” realities. Low-cost
policy options might include community residents’ perform
-
ing education, information dissemination, or even a commu
-
nity survey. By including local knowledge in professional sci
-
ence, community members are more likely to see themselves in
science thus finding it more acceptable, potentially saving time
and money in policy making (Wynne 1996b). Implementation
of policy options is also likely to be more effective when local
knowledge highlights existing practices embedded in the com
-
munity that might affect an intervention, such as the cultural
medicinal practices of Latinos discussed in the El Puente
example (Majone 1989; Scott 1998).
Distributive Justice
Finally, local knowledge can improve environmental deci
-
sions by highlighting the distributive justice concerns of
Improving Urban Planning for Communities at Risk 429
community residents. By revealing the hundreds of polluters
the EPA air toxics model was missing, residents highlighted the
disproportionate environmental burden they experienced
every day. When community members asked whether the EPA
assessment of local diets accurately captured the potentially
hazardous diets of anglers, a particular subpopulation in the
community, they were asking who was at risk, not merely
whether a particular probability or level of risk was acceptable.
Similarly, when El Puente documented the high asthma rate
for local Latinos and the challenges these same Latinos face
accessing health care, they were demanding to have the same
distribution of goods and opportunities as any other commu
-
nity. When community residents raise distributive outcome
issues in environmental planning, they are demanding a lower
-
ing of risks (not for a shifting or equalizing of existing risks)
and for fairly distributed environmental and health benefits
(Gelobter 1994). Ultimately, to lower risks for everyone, advo
-
cates of local knowledge almost always prefer preventative and
precautionary action since communities at risk cannot wait for
the “definitive proof” to guide interventions (Cole 1999; Gibbs
1994).
Local Knowledge for
Environmental Justice
While policy analysts often document how science trans-
forms society (Ezrahi 1990), it is less often appreciated that
society, in speaking back, can transform science and accompa
-
nying decision making. The implication is a shift from science
“speaking truth” to society to the more democratic notion of
“making sense together” (Sclove 1995). The three episodes in
G/W revealed that local knowledge can both extend the
knowledge base used for environmental decisions and pro
-
mote democracy by doing such things as identifying gaps in
expert assumptions, improving professional understanding
of local practices, and highlighting culturally based health-
promoting practices. The episodes also point out that commu
-
nity residents can be “citizen scientists,” working with conven
-
tional scientists, not in place of them. The activists in G/W
brought to light how the co-production model works in prac
-
tice and debunked the notions that the public always has a defi
-
cit of knowledge or merely complements what experts already
know. Certainly, the knowledge of community residents is no
panacea for improving environmental decision making. More
work is needed to understand both the benefits and limits of
how the contextual knowledge of local people can improve
environmental decisions. However, one thing is clear: for
epistemological and democratic reasons, local knowledge
should never be ignored by professional planners interested in
improving the scientific basis and fairness of community-based
environmental decisions.
Notes
1. The international development literature (Agarwal 1995;
Chambers 1997) often defines local or indigenous knowledge as
a. information linked to a specific place, culture, or iden
-
tity group;
b. dynamic and evolving knowledge;
c. know-how belonging to groups of people who are inti
-
mate with the natural and human system within which
they live; and
d. knowledge that has some qualities that distinguish it
from “formal (i.e., modern) scientific” knowledge.
2. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) scientist inter
-
viewed on 24 April 2000, on the condition of anonymity.
3. The EPA cancer benchmark level for perchloroethylene is
1.7 parts per billion.
4. The use of herbs and home remedies is widespread in Latino
cultures, especially for those following the spiritual practices of
Santeria and Espiritismo, popular among Caribbean Latinos from
Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and Cuba (Zayas and
Ozuah 1996).
5. The term post-normal provides a contrast to two sorts of “nor-
mality.” One is the picture of research science as normally consist-
ing of puzzle solving within the framework of an unquestioned and
unquestionable “paradigm,” in the theory of Kuhn (1962).
Another is the assumption that the policy environment is normal
in that routine puzzle solving by experts provides an adequate
knowledge base for policy decisions. The idea of post-normal sci-
ence is to bring “facts” and “values” into a unified conception of
problem solving where a plurality of legitimate perspectives are
recognized as capable of contributing to addressing any given
problem (Funtowicz and Ravetz 1999).
6. Community-led tours, often called “toxic tours,” can be
thought of as important “rituals of learning.” Forester (1999)
notes that these rituals are performances that enable learning by
both locals and outsiders:
We can think of participatory rituals as encounters that
enable participants to develop more familiar relation
-
ships or to learn more about one another before solving
the problems they face—for example, the informal
drink before negotiations; the meals during focused
workshops;...Participatory rituals are encounters in
which “meeting those people” comes first, even if it
serves the secondary objective of “solving our problem.”
On such occasions we discover that we learn about our
problems through, and as we learn about, other partici
-
pants too. (Forester 1999, 131-32)
7. To “create value” means to expand the possible questions to
ask, evidence to consider, and options for action (see Susskind and
Cruikshank 1987). For an understanding of “field,” I draw from
Bourdieu and Wacquant (1992), who describe fields as specific,
relatively autonomous domains of social action, social production,
and reproduction, which reflect and constrain the interests, posi
-
tions, strategies, and investments of the actors within them. While
this idea is helpful to understand how laypeople attempt to locate
themselves within science, it may be too narrow because Bourdieu
430 Corburn
portrays scientific practice as something carried out in laborato
-
ries, universities, and peer-reviewed journals, not in foundations,
defense departments, biotech companies, or community-based
social movements.
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