Teaching Environmental Justice through Building Model Cities

On the first day of the Environmental Justice Summer Institute, high school students from Lennox, Hawthorne and Inglewood gathered in a room at the Lennox Library.  As a partnership program between non-profit groups and USC, each student had to apply for this opportunity – and give up three days a week for 5 weeks of their summer vacation to participate.

Pictured here, James Rojas (front row, 2nd from left) with EJSI students and staff.

While the students would be learning the more technical side to environmental health and justice in the following weeks, on day one they took a deep dive into their memory, to understand their experiences, values, and intuitive sense of the environment.  James Rojas was the leader who guided the students through several learning experiences using “PLACE IT!,” a design-based urban planning initiative. For the initial team building activity, students were asked to build their favorite childhood memory. He noted that this was an “urban planning exercise,” even though they did not realize how they could envision at this point what their environment might look like, instead of what it DID look like.  This exercise revealed the students’ history of who they are, where they come from, and what they value.

Click here to read more about EJSI from a previous blog post.

“We are going to look at the places where you live – but through a unique perspective,” Rojas said. “Let’s start with all of you creating a memory. What was the most fun activity you remember doing as a child?”

Using construction paper as a base and choosing from hundreds of small items with which to build, the participants were given fifteen minutes for their creations. This short period of time allowed them to think on their feet to build the physical and social details that created their memories. As participants finished building the representations of their childhood days, they began to talk, look around at the other dioramas created by their colleagues and pull out their cell phones to take pictures of their models.

Rojas asked each participant to share his/her memory with the group. Builders spoke with conviction as they told compelling, entertaining stories illustrated through the objects, colors, textures, and layouts of their models. Everyone listened with enthusiasm to these visceral details that engaged the group visually and orally. The group members began to learn about each other by sharing these stories and bonded through common themes.  They commented:

“My childhood memory was when I would go to a park with my dad and my brother. I learned that being a child and being outside is a lot better than how kids my age [today] are always inside and on their phones/laptops. I used a lot of grassy material to represent the trees, flowers, and a blue toy to represent a pool.” -Vanessa Sanchez

“My memory was building cars with my dad, going to the zoo, playing with dogs and going to the beach. I learned that every kid played with friends and didn’t worry about [pollution from] planes or factories. We used toys. I used little wood cars to represent me and my dad. I used animals to represent the zoo, and snakes for my memory of Santa Monica. I used a spring because I used to go on trampolines and jump off.” –Eder Juarez

“I learned from my experience that little by little without us noticing, beautiful places are not part of our surroundings anymore. I like the park with flowers I constructed, but there are no such beautiful parks that are accessible after I get out of school just to release some stress. I learned from my experience that many people don’t have the opportunity to relax in a good place like a park, and therefore have a stressful routine of going to work and then going home every day.” -Abigail Diaz“My experience of building a favorite childhood memory was fabulous. I built my favorite zoo location. Thanks to the activity, I was able to remember all the sweet memories that I have with my parents. I never thought I would ever think about those memories, due to the fact that life is too busy for anyone to sit down and think about the past. I’m very appreciative of this activity.” – Khan Nguyen

Participants discovered that as children they had very similar experiences created by interactions with people, and the built and natural environments. They realized they had a deep relationship with nature around them. As children many of the participants sought fun, intimacy, shelter, and challenges in the environment.

Through this activity participants were able to personalize the urban planning process based on their experiences and imagination. This approach gave everyone access to the exercise and validated their knowledge of the built environment. This acknowledgement supported their contribution to the planning process: everyone had something to share and contribute.

“The memory I built was the moment when I first cooked a special meal for my grandmother. What I learned from this experience was that that was the first time I created something for someone else. I feel that cooking for oneself is boring but to cook for someone else is fun and it makes it special.” –Eduardo Vazquez

Through the activity, participants were able to see the greater potential within themselves and their colleagues with which to draw upon in the coming weeks of the Institute. The workshops provided a foundation that the content of the institute will further build upon in order to educate and empower the students to seek paths toward environmental justice in their respective communities.

Students were then placed into two teams and asked to work together to create their “ideal city.”  Each team had time to reflect, examine, and build a city that was designed to promote environmental health and justice. To achieve this they again used construction paper and hundreds of pieces of toys/building blocks provided by James Rojas to build their solution.  The teams were given no constraints or rules.

Team One built a city centered around “activities.” From basketball courts toroller coasters as one time member said “We never get bored.”

Team Two built a city based on “experiences.” It was clean and green, full of flowers, plants, and gardens. They build a beautiful mono-rail system with other urban design enhancements.
Once all the teams presented their projects, Rojas synthesized the findings and asked the participants what they learned about themselves, each other, and the built environment. By building together, students identified many opportunities and challenges in the built environment. The workshop brought out the students’ intuitive sense of the built environment.

For participants, these exercises turned the city into a blank canvas, letting students build their own images of healthy spaces.
The hundreds of small colorful, vibrant, tactile, objects triggered the participant’s emotional connections to the built environment. Participants connected and synthesized how they experience urban space by seeking and touching these objects. They created small vignettes of urban life. The high school participants gained satisfaction from this process because they were able to translate memories, visions, and ideas into a physical form. As soon as students realized this connection, they realized they could actually transform their environment.  One participant asked,“Why isn’t the city I live in like the city I want to live in?”
Stay tuned for future blog posts documenting the students’ activities over the course of the summer.

by James Rojas and Wendy Gutschow

NEWS RELEASE: Research raises new concerns about air pollution impacts at Los Angeles International Airport

Study shows air quality from ultrafine particles extends further than demonstrated by previous research

PRESS: Los Angeles Times , Daily Breeze

For more news coverage, click over to our summary on Storify.

LOS ANGELES — For the first time, research conducted by scientists at the Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California (USC) shows that airliner activity at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) worsens air quality over a far larger area than previously assumed.

The study, published May 29, 2014, in the journal Environmental Science and Technology (ES&T) and conducted with University of Washington (UW) researchers, found a doubling of ultrafine particle number concentrations extended east more than 10 miles downwind from the airport boundary over a 20-square mile area, encompassing communities including Lennox, Westmont, parts of South L.A., Hawthorne and Inglewood, and, in certain wind conditions, areas south of LAX.

“Our research shows that airport impacts extend more than 5 times further than previously assumed,” said Scott Fruin, D. Env., lead researcher and assistant  professor of preventive medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC.  “Effects from planes that are landing appear to play a major role in this large area of impact.”

To put this large area of impact into perspective, the researchers calculated that one-quarter to one-half of the entire L.A. County freeway system produces an equivalent increase in ultrafine particle numbers on a concentration-weighted basis.

Graphic depicting ultrafine particle increase downwind of LAX relative to urban background air quality

“LAX may be as important to L.A.’s air quality as the freeway system,” said Fruin. “The impact area is large, and the airport is busy most hours of the day. That makes it uniquely hard for people to avoid the effects of air pollution in affected areas.”

Most previous research on the air quality impacts of airports focused on measuring air quality near where jet takeoffs occur. Takeoffs produce immense plumes of exhaust but only intermittently, and pollution concentrations downwind have been observed to fall off rapidly with distance. The assumption has been that total airport impacts also fall off rapidly with distance. The new research finds that this assumption is wrong.

The study found that concentrations of ultrafine particles were more than double over 20 square miles compared to background concentrations in nearby areas outside the area of LAX impact. Also, ultrafine particle number concentrations four times higher than background extended a distance of six miles.

“Given the existing concern about the possible health effects of urban ultrafine particle levels, living in an area with two to four times the average L.A. levels of ultrafine particles is of high public health concern,” said first author Neelakshi Hudda, Ph.D., research associate in preventive medicine at the Keck School.

Ultrafine particles are currently unregulated, but are of concern because they appear to be more toxic than larger particles on an equal mass basis in animal and cellular studies, and because they appear able to enter the bloodstream, unlike large particles that lodge in the lungs.

The research team used vehicles equipped with special measurement devices to capture data not available using traditional fixed monitors. The team was able to take moving measurements for more than 5 hours under consistent wind conditions to fully capture the extent of the impact boundaries.

“Other airports generally have less steady wind directions, which would make these measurements more difficult,” said Hudda. “Similar impacts are probably happening, but their location likely shifts more rapidly than in Los Angeles.”

“The on-shore westerly winds cause this impact regularly in communities east of LAX, because the impact’s location corresponds to the wind direction,” Hudda added. “In the winter months, when the winds were different, impacts were measured south of the airport during northerly winds.”

The research was funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

UW researchers included Tim Larson, Ph.D. and Tim Gould, Ph.D. in the Department of Civil Engineering, and Kris Hartin, Ph.D. in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences.

Hudda, N., Gould, T., Hartin, K. Larson, T.V., and Fruin, S. A. (2014). Environmental Science and Technology, Published online May 29, 2014; dx.doi.org/10.1021/es5001566

ABOUT KECK MEDICINE OF USC

Keck Medicine of USC is the University of Southern California’s medical enterprise, one of only two university-owned academic medical centers in the Los Angeles area. Encompassing academic, research and clinical entities, it consists of the Keck School of Medicine of USC, the region’s first medical school; the renowned USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center, one of the first comprehensive cancer centers established in the United States; the USC Care Medical Group, the medical faculty practice; the Keck Medical Center of USC, which includes two acute care hospitals: 401-licensed bed Keck Hospital of USC and 60-licensed bed USC Norris Cancer Hospital; and USC Verdugo Hills Hospital, a 158-licensed bed community hospital. It also includes outpatient facilities in Beverly Hills, downtown Los Angeles, La Cañada Flintridge, Pasadena, and the USC University Park Campus. USC faculty physicians and Keck School of Medicine departments also have practices throughout Los Angeles and Orange counties. The Keck Medicine of USC world-class medical facilities are staffed by nearly 600 physicians who are faculty at the renowned Keck School of Medicine of USC and part of USC Care Medical Group. They are not only clinicians, but cutting-edge researchers, leading professors and active contributors to national and international professional medical societies and associations. For more information, go to www.keckmedicine.org/beyond

NEWS  RELEASE CONTACT INFORMATION:

Contact: Leslie Ridgeway at (323) 442-2823 or lridgewa@usc.edu
For a copy of the study, contact Environmental Science and Technology at (phone or email)

USC Health Sciences Public Relations & Marketing
1975 Zonal Avenue, KAM 400, Los Angeles, California 90033
Tel 323.442.2830
Fax 323.442.2832
http://www.usc.edu/hsc/info/pr

Environmental Justice Summer Institute: Youth Workshops

Four Southern California groups are excited to announce a new partnership to jointly sponsor an inaugural Environmental Justice Summer Institute (EJSI):

  • USC Environmental Health
  • Asian and Pacific Islander Obesity Prevention Alliance (APIOPA)
  • From Lot to Spot (FLTS)
  • Social Justice Learning Institute (SJLI)

This five week, 14-session summer program will begin on June 26, 2014. ESJI was created to engage a diverse group of 15 local high school youth from Lennox, Hawthorne and Inglewood, around environmental health and environmental justice issues.

This EJSI curriculum is focused on educating, engaging, and empowering the youth to be agents of change in their own neighborhoods.

Educate: Youth will learn about environmental justice and its disproportionate impact on people of color communities through workshops, presentations, and community tours.

Engage: Youth will participate in an interactive workshop with urban planner James Rojas and conduct on-the-ground monitoring and mapping.  With partner USC the youth will develop hands-on experience to not only map out and identify highly polluted locations in their own neighborhoods, but to also have an opportunity to use air and noise monitoring equipment to track pollution levels.

Empower: Throughout the program, the youth will work with Digital Rain Factory on digital storytelling to educate and engage their communities around the environmental concerns they have. The digital stories they create will also be used to advocate to their local elected officials, for changes they identify are needed through their summer program.

Curriculum to be covered:

  • Researching environmental justice in our community
  • Becoming environmental justice youth leaders
  • Learning how to make videos for a cause
  • Monitoring air and noise levels
  • Informing public policy 101: The low down on our local policies
  • Being a dynamic speaker
  • Engaging the Community

Stay tuned for more exciting details of this pilot program! Search #EJSIFellows on Twitter to keep up on the latest developments, photos and more.

Learn more about the institute in these blog posts and Resource Page:
Environmental Justice Summer Institute: Youth Workshops
Youth Pollution Monitoring Activities across the Southland
Teaching Environmental Justice through Building Model Cities

The EJSI is partially supported by USC’s Children’s Environmental Health Center, which is funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences  and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Additional support for staff participation is provided by grants from the Kresge Foundation and the California Wellness Foundation.

Environmental Justice Summer Institute partner organizations on Twitter:
@USC_EH_Outreach
@fightAPIobesity
@SJLI_CA
@fromlottospot

Establishing a GEOHealth Hub for East Africa

L-R: Ratnam, Howland and Tefera on the roof of USC’s Soto Street Building as they disassemble an air pollution monitor.

Worku Tefera is a researcher visiting USC Environmental Health this week to learn about the types of air pollution monitoring conducted as part of the Children’s Health Study. The training will kick-start a similar air pollution monitoring network that will be set up in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. “Pollution is boundary-less,” said Tefera, who is also studying for a PhD at USC under the direction of Dr. Frank Gilliland.

Training is being provided by USC staff Suresh Ratnam and Steve Howland and faculty members Kiros Berhane, Frank Gilliland and Scott Fruin. “It’s been a busy week” training Worku and documenting all the equipment procedures, says Ratnam.

Tefera will be bringing exposure monitoring equipment back to Ethiopia with him to begin a study, as part of the Global Environmental Health initiative of the SCEHSC and part of the global health activities of the Institute for Global Health.

Tefera is co-investigator of a planning grant from the National Institutes of Health’s Fogarty International Center designed to establish a “GEOHealth Hub for East Africa.” GEOHealth stands for “Global Environmental and Occupational Health,” with the Hub covering Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda. He is also a co-investigator on a proposal with Environmental Health faculty on “Effects of Clean Cookstoves on Child Survival in Ethiopia.”

by Kiros Berhane and Carla Truax

Guest Lecture at Cal State L.A. Spurs Discussion and Dialogue


On April 23, 2014 I had the pleasure of being a guest lecturer at a Health and Wellness class at California State University, Los Angeles. I shared information on air pollution, its health effects, research that is being done by our scientists at the Southern CA Environmental Health Sciences Center and Children’s Environmental Health Center, as well as about career paths in environmental health.  Students were particularly interested in the new Environmental Health Track in the USC Master of Public Health program and the Environmental Health minor for undergraduate students at USC.

USC postdoctoral fellow Davida Becker teaches the class. After my presentation, I asked students to read a short editorial article by Outreach Director Andrea Hricko about the effects of goods movement on environmental health. Students were struck by the article’s description of the path a doll takes after being made in China to get into the hands of a girl in the U.S. –  and all the pollution and ill health effects created by the transportation of goods.

Students then engaged in small group discussions and made observations about impacts from the Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, sharing some of the things they themselves can do toward making their environment a better place. Topics they raised included:

 

  • What are the effects of water pollution at the Ports in addition to air pollution?
  • Are the neighborhoods in Long Beach and Wilmington near the Ports considered “environmental justice communities” because they are predominantly minority?  [Yes, because these communities are disproportionately impacted by pollution from ships, trucks and rail.]   
  • Aren’t workers at even a higher risk than residents from air pollution at the Ports? [Yes, because they work in close proximity to the exhaust emitted by ships and idling trucks]

Some students shared what they are doing to create sustainable lifestyle choices, such as home gardening, using public transportation and biking, and other ways to reduce the carbon footprint.

Presentations such as this provide a platform for the USC Environmental Health Outreach Program to educate students about impacts of global trade on the environment and spur discussion on how students can make a difference in the world.        

by Carla Truax

Community Forum – “The Collision of Best Intentions: Public Health, Smart Growth and Urban Planning”

On April 9, 2014 the Southern California Environmental Health Sciences Center (SCEHSC), SC-Children’s Environmental Health Center (SC-CEHC) & National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) hosted “The Community Forum: The Collision of Best Intentions.” This 2.5 hour event was attended by approximately 150 individuals representing Los Angeles area community-based organizations (CBOs) and environmental justice (EJ) groups, NIEHS (National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences) center directors from around the U.S. and staff of NIEHS Community Outreach and Engagement Core (COEC) programs, appointed park and planning commissioners, graduate students from UCLA’s Master’s in Urban Planning program and UCLA’s Community Scholars program, and interested community members.

The forum brought together stakeholders around environmental health issues, particularly concerns about air pollution’s impacts on health and the epidemic of childhood obesity. Through a series of short presentations, a foundation was set to help attendees understand:

  • The public health dilemma of incompatible land use decisions
  • How we can achieve physical activity and other health benefits from building transit-oriented development (TOD) while also considering near roadway air pollution
  • The need for considering public health as we develop community gardens, urban parks, more walkable streets and new bicycle lanes. 

Presenters and their topics included:

Welcoming comments:  Dr. Linda Birnbaum, Director of the NIEHS

What We Mean by the “Collision of Best Intentions: Andrea Hricko, Director of the Community Outreach and Engagement Program of the SCEHSC and Professor of Preventive Medicine at USC

Why Different Perspectives are Colliding: Maria Cabildo, co-founder and president of East LA Community Corporation, L.A. Planning Commission

Near Roadway Air Pollution, Asthma and Obesity: Challenges for Urban Planning: Rob McConnell, Deputy Director of the SCEHSC, Director of the SC-CEHC and Professor of Preventive Medicine at USC

Introduction to Case Studies from the Community: Kafi D. Blumenfield, president emeritus of the Liberty Hill Foundation and member of the Los Angeles City Recreation and Parks Commission

No Mitigations or Solutions are Perfect; Here are Some Approaches: Doug Houston, Assistant Professor of Planning, Policy & Design at the School for Social Ecology, University of California, Irvine

As primary organizers of the event, Andrea Hricko and Carla Truax of the SCEHSC & SC-CEHC invited 16 CBOs to participate in a Poster Session that showcased the work that each group is doing around environmental health issues in the greater Los Angeles area.  Midway through the event’s schedule, all participants were invited to view the posters which further engaged attendees and presenters in dialogue around these issues.

The following southern California organizations participated in the poster session:

Advocates4 Clean Air – El Marino
Asian Pacific Islander Obesity Prevention Alliance
Ballona Institute
Coalition for a Safe Environment
East LA Community Corporation
East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice
Environmental Health Coalition
Esperanza Community Housing Corporation
From Lot to Spot
Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust
Move L.A.
Pacoima Beautiful
Social Justice Learning Institute
Strategic Actions for a Just Economy
Streetsblog LA
T.R.U.S.T South LA
Urban & Environmental Policy Institute, Occidental College

The concluding portion of the event was the open microphone session, during which all attendees were given the opportunity to ask questions, give perspective and feedback and set the stage for continued dialogue, interaction and collaboration around environmental health, smart growth and urban planning issues.  Serving as moderator, Jean Armbruster, Director of the L.A. County Department of Public Health’s “PLACE Program” (Policies for Livable Active Communities and Environments), briefly summarized the presentations provided and guided participants into the open microphone session.  It proved to be a time for attendees to ask questions, provide thoughtful ideas (e.g., why not reduce the number of cars on certain streets near schools than worry about school set-backs?) – and it promised further engagement around the environmental health issues being highlighted throughout the event.

The Community Forum sponsors thank The California Wellness Foundation and The Kresge Foundation for additional funding.

Also see this summary article that includes the Community Forum: on the NIEHS Environmental Health Sciences Core Centers annual meeting, hosted by the University of Southern California (USC) April 7-9 in Los Angeles.