Community Development Pyramid
Case Study: Urban Environmental Infrastructure in Boston, MA
Boston has always been a city full of neighborhood activism, so it was not difficult to find groups, issues or communities to work with. Many Boston neighborhoods launched community-based efforts to protect the urban environment, but were faced with many daunting obstacles. Federal, state and municipal environmental laws were numerous, confusing, and often not designed to meet resident needs. The legal and technical resources required to solve urban problems were nonexistent because mainstream environ-mental groups generally ignored inner city environmental issues and focused on wildlife habitat and ecosystem preservation. There was also little public education on the connections between the urban economy, environment and public health.
Click on each phase of the pyramid to examine the UEP's efforts to service community needs by developing a sustainable infrastructure so local stakeholders and residents have a forum to get information, raise their concerns, and access resources to improve the health and environmental quality in Boston neighborhoods.
Phase 1: Understanding the Problems & Identifying Stakeholders
EPA New England responded to the public's request by requiring staff to focus more program efforts on urban neighborhoods in Boston and created the UEP as a dedicated resource. The UEP and community groups organized a number of environmental justice tours in Roxbury and Chelsea to increase agency awareness of the issues and concerns in the most disadvantaged Boston neighborhoods. These tours highlighted the disproportionate risks for residents including diesel and bus traffic and transport, vacant lots, lead poisoning, air pollution, asthma, and lack of green and open space along urban rivers. The UEP held focus groups with Tufts University and Boston University School of Public Health to engage local residents and environmental leaders about their issues and ideas as well as expanded partnership efforts with the National Center for Lead Safe Housing to develop strategies to reduce lead poisoning in high-risk neighborhoods. City Year's urban youth corps was another environmental group the UEP teamed up with to tap the energy of the volunteers to work in urban neighborhoods in Roxbury and Dorchester. The UEP also helped to support newly emerging environmental groups including Alternatives for Community and Environment (ACE), Environmental Diversity Forum (EDF), and the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI) and worked with health organizations to better understand the problems facing Boston residents.
During this first phase, the UEP worked to understand community concerns and supported stakeholders that were already serving as champions for urban environment and public heath concerns in Boston neighborhoods. UEP focused technical and financial resources to help build trust with the community partners. The majority of financial resources supported the staff time in non-profit organizations and directed academic resources to start gathering information and data to understand the extent and depth of contamination in Boston neighborhoods.
Phase 2: Building Community Capacity & Developing Local Partnerships
Building off the early project successes in Boston, the UEP started developing slightly larger scale projects to encourage community groups to jointly address common problems facing residents. A critical project was Neighborhoods Against Urban Pollution (NAUP), launched in partnership with UEP, ACE, DSNI, Massachusetts Campaign to Clean Up Hazardous Waste, Environmental Diversity Forum, Bowdoin Street Health Center, and the Tellus Institute. The NAUP team developed a blueprint for community-based ecosystem protection that started with resident awareness and mobilization and then leveraged technical resources (i.e. GIS mapping) to help the community identify and catalogue the sources of environmental hazards and environmental assets. The information was used to help prioritize problems and develop coordinated plans of action by creating Neighborhood Core Groups to organize and facilitate citizen involvement and input. This effort produced model campaigns for addressing some of the most common urban environmental problems including illegal dumping of waste on vacant lots, hazardous waste, pollution from auto repair and paint shops, and contaminated Brownfields sites. Additionally, the UEP, along with Boston University School of Public Health, Tufts University School of Medicine, and South Boston Community Health Center conducted surveys of public housing apartments to assess indoor air contaminants, safety hazards, health, and the role of residents in maintaining housing quality. This data helped to determine that there is a critical link between building and apartment quality and resident health and that this complex problem could only be solved by a combination of building improvements, change in maintenance policy, and community health education programs.
The UEP also continued to expand the number and diversity of stakeholders involved. The UEP provided community trainings to our partners, including GIS mapping, how to apply for funding, facilitation and conflict resolution, and general management skills. All of the projects addressed common issues of concern identified in Phase I, and encouraged local stakeholders to work together and share success.
Phase 3: Leveraging Public Resources To Improve Public Health & The Environment
Years of collaboration with a diverse set of local partners set the stage for the UEP to identify more public resources to support urban project work throughout Greater Boston communities. The UEP provided funding to restore the ecological integrity of urban rivers and worked with colleges to create a certification program for lead abatement. As a pilot program, the UEP could not effectively service all the needs of the sixteen communities in the area and was open to alternative mechanisms for securing direct technical and fiscal government resources to conduct project work. When the United States Dept. of Agriculture (USDA) issued a request for proposals for a new program to create Urban Resource Partnerships across the country, the UEP, Sustainable Boston, the Dept. of Environmental Management and a broad coalition of community, government, academic, and local business partners joined forces to successfully receive a total of $1.3 million dollars to invest over five years in communities through the Greater Boston Urban Resources Partnership (GB-URP). The state was set to build off the successes of the past and set new visions for the future.
Phase 4: Effective Partnerships
Once the USDA support was secured, the challenge was to take the partnership beyond the grant funding and make it effective. GB-URP grew to become a coalition of over forty members representing community organizations, local business, academic partners, and federal, state and local government. Its mission was to help local communities conduct projects that link social, economic, and environ-mental concerns with available resources to produce results. GB-URP members work together on projects and coordinate technical, financial, and in-kind resources to community based organizations and neighborhoods throughout Greater Boston. GB-URP operated with funding and support primarily from the USDA, with additional investment and involvement from the Dept. of Housing and Urban Development, the UEP, the City of Boston, BSC Group, Mystic River Watershed Association, Eagle Eye Institute, and Chelsea Human Services Collaborative. GB–URP annually awards approximately $250,000 in grants to neighborhood groups to support the mission. The UEP is a member of the Executive Committee and jointly participates in decision-making. GB-URP has gone beyond providing funding to coordinate a series of "Piecemeal to Cohesion" meetings that link grant-making foundations with community groups around specific environment and public health topics to help ensure that these projects receive consideration for funding.
Phase 5: Healthy Communities
The UEP and our community partners have successfully created many sustainable and effective partnerships that will continue to make measurable improvements in the quality of the environment and public throughout Greater Boston in the future. Partnerships that were once supported substantially by the UEP have expanded their role and gone well beyond their original local scope to service the entire city or state. ACE coordinates a citywide effort through the Greater Boston Environmental Justice Network which joins numerous community based environmental efforts in sharing information, political support and strategic planning. The Massachusetts Riverways Program now has a permanent Urban Rivers focus and funding source, and the indoor air efforts of the BUSPH has grown into a major collaborative effort between the three schools of public health in Boston (Tufts, Boston University and Harvard), the City of Boston and a community group (The Committee for Boston Public Housing). This cutting edge partnership will assess and implement system-wide changes in retrofitting and maintenance of Boston public housing.
Boston has always been fortunate to have strong activists and passionate professionals willing to work for change. UEP's efforts provided federal resources to support these community efforts and created effective projects, long-term partnerships, and measurement tools that will ensure better, cleaner, and safer neighborhoods for future generations.