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Understanding Minority Residents’ Perceptions of Neighborhood Risks and Environmental Justice

Journal of Architectural and Planning Research 27:2 (Summer, 2010) 107



Raul P Lejano and  Daniel Stokols


There is a pressing need to more deeply understand how incompatible land-use patterns intersect with place attachment and experiences of environmental injustice. While environmental policy is strongly influenced by the classic, probabilistic model of environmental risk, the present research instead aims to develop notions of environmental impact that more closely reflect the lived experience of community residents. This entails employing a phenomenological stance toward the analysis of environmental

impacts, as well as research methods that seek to uncover the narratives and cognitive representations that residents actually employ.  In our exploration of these issues in the town of ValVerde, California,we discover how a nearby landfill encroaches on the everyday lives of the residents in ways that go beyond the classic model of risk. For example, rather than employing a positivist measure of environmental hazard, residents experience the landfill viscerally and emotionally in terms of its impacts on their everyday lives. Broadly stated, analysis is not simply to be associated with thought, but also with lived experience. We conclude the article by reflecting on the implications of this type of research for policy analysis.



The primary motivation for this research is the desire to improve policies that address the needs and aspirations of communities. We are particularly interested in the issues of environmental quality and land use (Le., what land uses are approved, where they are located, and how to deal with conflicts between these uses, especially under rapid urbanization). Most broadly, we inquire into both the kinds of knowledge that are crowded out of the policy space and the necessary avenues for institutional reform.

We begin with the fact that there are always dominant conceptual frameworks that guide public policy. In the area ofenvironmental quality, one such framework is that of risk,which is classically defined as the probabil- ity that the presence of a polluting land use can lead to adverse health effects among those who live and work around it. This dominant notion often turns policy discussions into a numbers game in which the goal is to ensure that measured or estimated risks fall below established regulatory thresholds (e.g., de minimis cancer risks).

Our thesis is that community members experience environmental injury in ways that are deeper and more complex than this simple notion of risk.We proceed to investigate aspects ofthis experience in a community residing near a major landfill. To go beyond the dominant framework, however, it helps us to let go ofthe classic, probabilistic model ofrisk and open up our investigation to understanding how problematic land uses are experienced. We put the word risk in italics as a reminder that the term is to be used simply as a placeholder that is to be filled in with more faithful descriptions of lived experience. In fact, in our discus- sions with community members, we find ourselves talking about broader notions of place and visions of a better life. In this respect, we are informed by phenomenological investigations ofplace (e.g., Casey, 1993; de Certeau, 1999; Relph, 1993; Seamon and Mugerauer, 1985). At no point in our discussions did we introduce dominant frameworks such as risk or environmentaljustice- this is a necessary prerequisite for what Spiegelberg (1982) has called phenomenological “intuiting.” In fact, the researchers did not inject the landfill into the discussion until the residents broached the subject themselves.

It is clear, however, that our research in this community is not simply about the phenomenology ofplace but, more specifically, is about how the landfill enters into the lives of residents. As we will argue, the complex ways in which some problematic issue (such as a landfill) intrudes into the lives of community members creates a need forpolicy responses that respect this utter contextuality (Lejano, 2006). In this light, we found a need to use different methodologies and research artifacts to gain deeper insight into the day-to-day experiences of community residents. It is our beliefthat policymakers need to broaden their understanding of what constitutes policy-relevant knowledge and, correspondingly, what constitutes evidence (see also Chaudhury and Mahmood, 2008).

The reductionistic notion of risk traces its roots to the decision sciences. In particular, von Neumann and Morgenstern (1944) used the model of a lottery to construct a notion of risk as a pure probability of an uncertain negative or positive outcome. Subsequent investigations, notably by Kahneman and Tversky (1979), have shown that people do not perceive prospects as simple cardinal measures, whether on a probability or other scale. The general notion of risk as ajpositivist measure remains to this day and guides environmental policy. Conflicts about riskare interpreted as disagreements over measured values of these probabilities and outcomes. In this model, the problem can be solved by simply closing the gap (through better information or public-relations processes) between real, measured risk and public perceptions of it (e.g., Lundgren and McMakin, 1998; Morgan, et al., 2002). In our research, we are guided by the notion that conflicts over risk stem from the more basic fact that people understand risk in more complex and multidi- mensional ways than the traditional policy model allows and to a degree that better communication may never completely remedy. This sentiment is shared by other researchers in the fields of environmental psychology and risk analysis (Bickerstaff, 2004; Fischhoff, et al., 1978; Rowe and Wright, 2001; SjSberg,

2001; Slovic,etal.,2004;Vaughan, 1995).

One rich source of insight into deeper structures of knowing is the very way that people talk. The study of narrative stems from the realization or claim that narrative is the most basic mode by which people transmit knowledge (Bruner, 1986; Griffin, 1993; Polkinghome, 1988) and that, it stands to reason, narrative analysis is a powerful way to uncover different knowledge (e.g., see duToit,2009; Gadamer, 1960/1975; Lyotard, 1979; Ricoeur, 1991). We do not have to wonder, for the moment, if the way people talk truly represents the way they reason. We simply have to recognize that mere stories can embody a person’s or community’s complex experiences and moral deliberation and that conversations can integrate the diverse experiences, knowledge, and moralities found in a place (e.g., see Forester, 1999). The other sources of content that we employ in this research are sketches done by community residents, both individually and as a group. In this way, we provide multiple forums for expression, including graphic instruments that allow communication of every- day experiences and sentiments that may be difficult to put into words. This is characteristic of the realm of post-normal science (Funtowicz and Revetz, 1994), in which knowledge uncertainty intersects with normative conflict and nontraditional instruments like sketches become most relevant.

The modalities of analysis that we are espousing have much to do with recent efforts to foster participative planning practices (Forester, 1999; Healey, 1996; Innes and Booher, 2005). As Mehta (1998) points out, current planning and policy institutions exhibit aspects of technocracy, where positivist, scientific frames of knowing crowd out other discourses, especially in formal decision making, a point made, too, by Lyotard (1979) in his contrasting positivist versus narrative knowledge. The alternative is an intersubjective, com- municative type of rationality (Habermas, 1984). This, in turn, requires new institutional designs to allow alternative ways ofknowing (Schneider and Ingram, 2007). Glicken (2000) calls for modes ofrisk analysis that value experiential knowledge, which nonscientists acquire individually, along with value-based knowledge, which resides in the community. We see this research as responding to this call for incorporating experiential knowledge into urban planning practices, as seen in the individually based cognitive-mapping exercises and in the shared group knowledge that emerged in the collectively drawn community vision maps.

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