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Someone Else's Backyard

Raymond Burby

Environmentally Devastated Neighborhoods: Perceptions, Policies, and Realities. Michael R. Greenberg and Dona Schneider. 264 pp. Rutgers University Press, 1996. $60.

When neighborhoods are characterized by a number of threats to public health and well-being, proximity to toxic waste sites or industrial pollution are not the potential harms of most concern to residents. More pressing problems, Greenberg and Schneider report, include crime, dilapidated housing, "bad" people and noise. From these findings, the authors conclude that dollars currently allocated to control pollution and toxicants might better be reallocated to more holistic efforts to address the full array of problems besetting environmentally devastated neighborhoods. Obviously, such a change would engender considerable political opposition. However, they believe a more limited approach involving only the siting and construction of new noxious facilities would be feasible. Greenberg and Schneider reason that to fully offset the adverse effects of such a facility, in addition to dealing with the hazard itself, funds need to be found to undertake projects (crime prevention, housing improvement, etc.) that will have a significant impact on perceptions of neighborhood quality.

By pointing up the multifaceted environmental problems experienced in neighborhoods with hazardous waste and other polluting industrial facilities, Greenberg and Schneider call attention to the importance of linking programs dealing with environmental hazards to local government efforts to improve living conditions, housing and safety in poor neighborhoods. A broader conception of hazards and their effects on communities is reflected in recent environmental legislation enacted in other countries. The Netherlands' National Environmental Policy Plan of 1989 and New Zealand's Resource Management Act of 1991 both involve regional and local governments in comprehensive approaches that consider affected neighborhoods and land uses, rather than focusing solely on reduction of risks posed by hazardous facilities. The issues raised by this book suggest that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency should begin exploring the utility of a similar approach here.

In doing this, however, it is important to obtain a better understanding than Greenberg and Schneider provide of the attitudes and preferences of residents of environmentally devastated neighborhoods. A number of deficiencies limit the degree to which their findings can be relied on as an accurate picture of people living in this type of setting. These flaws include theoretical omissions, serious problems with the accuracy of the data and limitations in the methods of analysis. Less serious, but also aggravating, is a narrative style in which key points become buried under a mountain of minutiae.

The theory proposed to explain variation in how people evaluate the livability of their neighborhoods leaves out a key factor in such evaluations, namely the standards used in making an evaluation, which can vary among residents. As a result, statistical models presented are under-specified. More serious are flaws in the data. Inferences are drawn from questionnaires returned by some 1,500 residents living in a sample of 20 neighborhoods in New Jersey chosen because they exemplified the existence of environmental hazards combined with what the authors term "land use" hazards (for example, dilapidated housing) and "behavioral" hazards (for example, crime). The degree to which the findings can be generalized to multiple-hazard neighborhoods in other states is not known.

The findings, however, are suspect, and generalization (even if warranted by the selection of neighborhoods studied) would not be advisable. Because questionnaires were simply placed on doorsteps and no follow-up efforts were made to secure a response, the overall response rate achieved is very low (under 20 percent in some neighborhoods). As would be expected, the data over-represent more educated and affluent residents, as well as residents who are more interested in the issues addressed in the survey. The analytic method chosen (stepwise discriminant analysis) limits comparisons of predictor variables across neighborhoods, since the stepwise approach results in the use of different predictor variables in each of the neighborhood analyses reported. One other limitation of the data is worth noting. The authors tell us a lot about how residents perceive problems in their neighborhoods, but they tell us virtually nothing about local, state and federal efforts that were under way in these neighborhoods to deal with the problems. Why were these not having a greater impact, and how would their failures be remedied by the policy reforms proposed? This is a critical failing in a book that wants to make a policy point. Finally, wading through the highly detailed reports of survey and case-study data requires considerable dedication, even though the authors try to ease this burden by inserting within the barrage of numbers and tables interesting case study narratives and observations from conversations with residents.

So, this a provocative book but not one that should lead directly to the policy prescriptions the authors espouse. To their credit, Greenberg and Schneider recognize most of the limitations noted above and call for more systematic investigation in neighborhoods in the Midwest, South and West of the issues they raise. EPA funding of such research should, to my mind, be an important agency priority.—Raymond J. Burby, College of Urban and Public Affairs, University of New Orleans

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