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public housing

What’s on the Inside Counts Too!

Environmental Justice issues are not limited to pollution outside. 

In the world of environmental justice (EJ), there are many articles and discussions around the impacts from pollution that occur outdoors – industrial pollution, contaminated water bodies, mobile emissions, and other air quality impacts; however, many low income, minority communities often suffer from residential exposure to harmful contaminants that either occur indoors or infiltrate from outdoors. Let’s examine a few articles that have covered this topic.

In Moving Environmental Justice Indoors: Understanding Structural Influences on Residential Exposure Patterns in Low-Income Communities, which was published in the American Journal of Public Health in 2011, the authors explore disparities in indoor residential environmental quality. Below are some pertinent observations/ conclusions based on their research:

  • People in low income communities are more likely to live closer to mobile and stationary sources of pollution which increases the chance of outdoor pollution infiltrating indoors
    • Low income homes are often older and not as structurally sound (having holes). This may lead to increased infiltration from outdoors.
  • Homes within low income communities are more likely to have peeling paint which is a predictor of lead exposure in older homes; water leaks which are a predictor of mold and moisture development; and structural issues that serve as entry points for cockroaches and other pests
  • Communities with low socioeconomic status are more likely to experience second hand smoke particularly people who live within older multifamily buildings because the air infiltrates from unit to unit
  • One study has shown that lead concentrations in household dust, associations were found with income, race/ethnicity, floor surface or condition, and year of construction
  • Residential infestation of pests is linked to low socioeconomic status
  • Residential exposure to pesticides is more prominent in low income communities due to infestation

This research study explores several angles of exposure to indoor environmental justice issues each can be explored further as stand-alone research to further validate the connections between low socioeconomic status and EJ.


The Boston Globe published in article in April 2016 reporting Low Income, minority areas seen as lead poisoning hot spots. While this article is focused on Massachusetts this may be reflective of issues within your community as well. Here are a few findings as revealed within this article:

  • Cases where children have harmful levels of lead in their blood are predominantly in low income and minority communities
  • Boston has a citywide rate of lead poisoning at 2.8% but pockets within Dorchester (an overwhelmingly African American neighborhood) have rates over 6%
  • The article quotes Robert Knorr, the Director of Environmental Epidemiology at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health’s Bureau of Health as stating “Being poor and being a minority not only increases the risk of blood lead poisoning but makes it difficult to find a safe home”
  • Massachusetts has the second oldest housing stock in the country. Children living in these homes are primarily low income and minorities.

This news article in the Boston Globe is hyper focused on Massachusetts; however, it further validates the impact of indoor environmental issues concentrated in marginalized communities.

In an article entitled Homes of low-income minority families with asthmatic children have increased condition issues published in the Allergy and Asthma Proceedings, the correlation between home maintenance issues in low income minority communities and the prevalence of asthma in children is explored. Below are some discussion points and findings from the article:

  • Reviewing the occurrences of asthma in urban and rural communities shows that there is a socioeconomic difference that affects access to and quality of health care
  • Housing that is subpar and indoor environmental exposures have been correlated with increased indoor allergen exposure and sensitization and greater asthma diseases and death for low-income, minority children living in urban areas
  • This subpar housing usually has cracks that allow pests such as bugs and rodents to enter the home such as cockroaches, which can trigger asthma and allergies
  • Poor ventilation allows for high concentrations of allergens, tobacco smoke, CO2, radon and VOCs
  • In this study, homes of Latino children had the highest number of maintenance concerns followed by homes of black children and then homes of non-Latino white children
  • The study concluded that asthmatic children from low income black and Latino families had more areas of home and safety and maintenance concerns than non-Latino whites recruited from the same region
  • This article purports that improving living conditions in cities offers great promise for reducing health disparities and improving the quality of life and well being of children

This article focuses specifically on asthma but does point out that both children and adults who live in substandard housing face a host of health issues but lack adequate access to health care. Children living in inadequate housing are particularly vulnerable to asthma because of the identified maintenance concerns. The study focused on a small concentration of homes so it would be great to see this broadened across the United States.

Unfortunately, low income and minority communities face health risks linked to outdoor environmental justice issues but this is compounded by the fact that they often live in substandard housing which puts them at risk inside their home. Advocacy to eradicate environmental inequities must go beyond fighting industrial sources of pollution to advocating for adequate housing that is properly maintained for all.

Chanceé Lundy Russell is the Co-Founder of Nspiregreen LLC an environmental consulting, urban planning and public engagement firm based in Washington, DC. The Selma, Alabama native received her BS in Environmental Science from Alabama A&M University and her MS in Civil Engineering from Florida State University. She is passionate about environmental justice issues and works to create healthy, livable communities for all.


Adamkiewicz, G., Zota, A. R., Fabian, M. P., Chahine, T., Julien, R., Spengler, J. D., & Levy, J. I. (2011). Moving Environmental Justice Indoors: Understanding Structural Influences on Residential Exposure Patterns in Low-Income Communities. American Journal of Public Health101(Suppl 1), S238–S245.

Pacheco, C. M., Ciaccio, C. E., Nazir, N., Daley, C. M., DiDonna, A., Choi, W. S., … Rosenwasser, L. J. (2014). Homes of low-income minority families with asthmatic children have increased condition issues. Allergy and Asthma Proceedings35(6), 467–474.

Rocheleau, Matt. “Low-income, Minority Areas Seen as Lead Poisoning Hot Spots.” The Boston Globe. N.p., 11 Apr. 2016. Web. 23 May 2017.


Bike parking near the Rijksmuseum.

A Tale of Three Cities – Amsterdam: I didn’t do the thing you’re supposed to do

During my vacation to Europe  in March, I met my step goals in Paris and biked in Brussels. The last city I visited was Amsterdam. We took the train from Brussels to Amsterdam. When we walked out of the central train station, I had to choke back tears upon seeing the sheer volume of bike infrastructure, people biking, a large plaza for people, and streetcar lines. As a transportation nerd, this was transportation system paradise.

My Transportation Takeaways:

I didn’t bike in Amsterdam

I know… I know. I’m ashamed. I went to the one of the best places in the world for biking and I didn’t get on a bike the entire time I was there. The major reason for not biking is I didn’t have access to a bike. Since most of the Dutch have a bicycle or two (or four), Amsterdam does not have public bikeshare system. Some hotels offer bikes for guests, but we stayed at an AirBnB.  There are also places that rent bikes in three-hour increments. It was way too much effort for my short stay to locate a bike rental place. Even if I put in the effort to rent a bike, parking for bikes in near impossible to find, which leads me to my next point.

There wasn’t enough bike parking

There are parts of DC where there isn’t enough biking parking, because there isn’t any bike parking at all or there is one sad bike rack. In Amsterdam, there was so much biking parking including a bike parking garage. However, there still wasn’t enough bike parking. Around the city, every  bike rack was overwhelmingly full. There was such a lack of bike parking that some people locked the bike to itself (wheel and frame) and left it on the kickstand in the middle of the sidewalk.

There was plenty of public transportation

While I didn’t bike, I did ride the streetcars. The system was relatively easy to use even without knowing the language. Transferring between streetcars was seamless. Even late at night I didn’t wait more than 6 minutes for a streetcar. I had a 48-hour iAmsterdam pass, which allowed me unlimited transit rides. As a bonus, the pass also granted me access to public museums.

There was space for everyone

Despite Amsterdam’s reputation as a multimodal, no motor vehicle heaven, people did drive in the city. However, it was obvious that the city prioritized space for people and public transportation over cars. Throughout the city, all the modes were separated. There were wide sidewalks for walking, wide protected bike lanes and bike boulevards for biking, exclusive transit lanes for public transportation, and still had lanes left to accommodate motor vehicles. I did not observe any streets where modes were sharing lanes.

The culture of biking was much different

Back to biking, Amsterdam had a noticeably different bike culture from DC.  Most people in Amsterdam rode city bikes, cruisers, or cargo bikes, whereas in DC, many people have faster bikes like road bikes or hybrids. I saw one road bike the entire time I was there. Since they had chunkier bikes, no one biked particularly fast. I didn’t see anyone wearing a bike helmet. While most people biking obey traffic signals and laws, it was common to see people texting while biking or talking on their cell phones.

During my time in Paris, Brussels, and Amsterdam, I had an opportunity to experience different transportation infrastructure. While I was supposed to be vacationing, it was inspiring to see some international best practices to bring back home, and help generate ideas for Nspiregreen’s projects in the U.S.

Veronica O. Davis, PE is a transportation guru who uses her knowledge to spark progressive social change. As Co-owner and Principal of Nspiregreen, she is also responsible for the management of the major urban planning functions such as transportation planning, policy development, master planning, sustainability analysis, and long range planning. In July 2012, Veronica was recognized as a Champion of Change by the White House for her professional accomplishments and community advocacy, which includes co-founding Black Women Bike.


Garden plot in a community garden covered with a smattering of different types of weeds, thickly covering every inch of the plot except for bare spots covered in dead plant material.

So you want to have a community garden?

One area of passion for me is food justice and security. As a principle, community gardens serve as a key strategy to increase food security and access, make productive use of vacant land, and other great reasons. In grad school, I used my internship time to work with communities on food justice and access as well as did research on the subject. I also completed the courses of the Master Gardener Program at UDC, which gave me more training on holistic gardening and farming techniques. I found that through these courses, the teachers touted the benefits of community gardens without talking about the real experiences of them. Community gardening, for me, existed in the abstract since I didn’t have access to a community garden.

When I moved to Fairfax County, I was excited to join my local community garden and apply what I learned in my experience, work, and training into a community garden until I learned that there was a wait list for a plot in the garden. I was overjoyed a few weeks ago to get an email about a plot that had finally opened up…

…And then I visited the plot. It had a thick carpet of the kind of weeds that hold onto the soil for dear life like dandelions, spring onions, thistles, and mint. On the bus ride home I thought to myself: Could I really handle this? What would I be getting myself into if I agreed to take on this plot? Could I put all my education, past knowledge, and skills to work, on my own, to manage this plot? How could I get all of this done by May 1st, when the plots needed to be at least 2/3 prepared for planting? How would I get all the tools and materials to do this work?


I accepted the plot, sketched out my plan, and purchased materials. After a few hours of working on the garden, it became apparent that this was more than a one-person job. That’s when my neighbor, Pedro showed up. He was tending his plot and saw my struggles. He didn’t speak much English, and I don’t speak much Spanish beyond greetings. However through a combination of gesturing, google translate, calling his lovely daughter to help translate, and visuals, he helped me understand that there was no way around the harder work (that I was avoiding) it would take to get this in order. He showed me his handiwork on other adjacent plots, where he had helped the renter install a fence, build raised beds, or maintained the garden.

Pedro brought his tools over to my plot and started to work, showing me what to do. The feminist inside me started stomping her foot, “You know what you are doing, this guy is going to mansplain to you, with all of your experience and education, how to garden?!” The intersectional voice inside me said, “shut up, watch, and learn”. Pedro’s experience gardening helped me transition my book learning into action.

Over the next two weekends, we both worked hard on the plot and I tried to do most of the heavy lifting that I could- as it is my plot and my responsibility. His knowledge  showed me how to make my sketch become a reality. He even showed me a trick for using the twine I’d brought to measure out the beds without cutting it so it could be reused.. While we worked, we connected over our passion for gardening, laughed about a little bird that saw the feast of Japanese Beetle grubs we’d unearthed, and talked about our families. His granddaughter hung out with us, even pitching in at one point to help hold the landscape bags open as I forked in a decaying pile of weeds.

Garden plot with bare soil that has been turned up in shovelfuls with a mulched perimeter to pass.
One weekend, another fellow plot-holder was working his tiller through his plot. Despite my awkwardness and with Pedro’s encouragement, I ran over and asked my neighbor if he’d bring his tiller over for my plot. Knowing to stay in my lane of expertise in this case, I stood back and watched as my two neighbors pulled levers and pushed it through the soil of my plot. By the time I left that day, the plot was neatly laid out in beds, ready for my started seedlings. A few weeks later Pedro helped me plant my tomatoes that were rapidly growing taller than my toddler on our balcony.

Garden Plot showing 5 horizontal beds and a mulched perimeter border and straw-filled aisles between the beds. Three stacked bales of straw are on the left side of the photo. Plants have been planted in the second bed and small pots of plants are resting on top of the first bed.

The thing that touched me the most is that he also he had rehung my plot door, rehung the latch and lock, and added an interior locking mechanism, because he wanted to ensure I was safe when I was working alone.

I had finally experienced the hands-on greatness of a community garden. People talk to each other, said hi, and talk about their gardens. But more specifically for my experience, how intergenerational and intercultural learning can be so beneficial with community gardens as the medium that brings people together. Moreover, I learned to get over my millennial anxieties and open myself up to the opportunity to learn from someone else, from a different background and different culture. Despite my training and experience working in growing food, I learned new things from my neighbors. I’m forever grateful and indebted to Pedro, if not for him, I’d still be knee-deep in the weeds.


Christine E. Mayeur is an urban planner with a unique set of skills and hobbies, interested in all things creative and challenging. Christine uses her history of working with communities through grassroots organizations along with her planning skills to help plan transportation systems and environmental solutions that meet the needs of all users. 



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