Resources Radio, a podcast produced by the Resources editorial team, releases new episodes weekly with hosts Daniel Raimi and Kristin Hayes. Each episode features a discussion with a guest about a new or interesting idea in environmental and energy policy.
Transcribed here is one such episode, in which Daniel Raimi talks with Beia Spiller, who recently joined Resources for the Future (RFF) as a fellow and the director of RFF’s Transportation Program; she’s also a member of the board of directors at the Association of Environmental and Resource Economists. Spiller’s latest project is a collaboration with colleagues and community organizations to measure, analyze, and reduce exposure to air pollution for students in New York City, particularly in the Bronx. She and Raimi discuss how this type of community-engaged research produces new knowledge, informs policymaking, and benefits communities that are engaged in the research.
The transcript of this conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
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Daniel Raimi: Beia, I’ve really been looking forward to today’s conversation, because you’re going to help us learn about issues related to environmental justice and the transportation system. We know that negative environmental impacts often disproportionately fall on low-income communities and communities of color. Can you tell us about the specific issue that you’re addressing in your latest research project and the motivation for doing the analysis in the first place?
Beia Spiller: Overall, the objective of this project is to estimate the effect of traffic pollution on indoor air quality in New York City schools and understand how that influx of transportation pollution into the schools affects educational outcomes.
We want to explore two specific inequities: The first inequity has to do with the placement of transportation infrastructure. Across the country, communities of color are more likely to live near highways and freeways due to racist policies that specifically sited this infrastructure throughout or across these communities. And in New York City, this is really true. If you look at a map of New York City, you’ll see major freeways running through the Bronx and Brooklyn, directly through communities of color. So, there’s this inequitable impact in terms of exposure to transportation pollution.
And the second inequity that we’re exploring has to do with the ability of communities to invest in defensive behaviors that can help protect them from exposure to that pollution. This would include things like HEPA [high-efficiency particulate air] filters in HVAC [heating, ventilation, and air conditioning] systems.
These two inequities interact in a really interesting way in New York City. What we see, as I mentioned, are the freeways going through the Bronx and Brooklyn. You would expect a lot more pollution in these neighborhoods—but actually, if you look at pollution maps, we see that the majority of the pollution is located in Manhattan. However, when we look at the health impacts that are typically associated with exposure to pollution, such as asthma, the worst outcomes are in the Bronx. We see asthma concentrations in the Bronx that are at really high levels compared to anywhere else in the country. How do we explain this?
We could explain this in a couple different ways. One is scientific: Perhaps pollution coming from highways is different than pollution from just road traffic because of the types of vehicles that are on those roads. For example, perhaps long-haul vehicles on highways have more black-carbon emissions or other types of pollutants that could cause asthma. But another way that we can explain this could be through defensive mechanisms: that richer, whiter neighborhoods located in Manhattan might be better able to access defensive mechanisms and protect themselves more.
What we want to understand is not just how exposure to transportation pollution affects educational outcomes but also how the ability to protect oneself from that exposure, and protect children from this exposure through investments in building infrastructure, differs across community groups.
I think this is really important, because there’s a ton of research, both in epidemiology and economics, showing that when you’re exposed to pollution as a child, it can have long-lasting impacts on your health and well-being. We’re talking further into your future: reduced wages in the future, reduced ability to accumulate wealth, and human capital. If we really care about intergenerational equity and changing the tide of wealth and equity across race and ethnicity, then we need to be exploring these types of issues and interactions.
Can you tell us how this research project came about? Who are you working with?
This project was a long time coming. I had been having conversations with a professor from Fordham named Marc Conte. Marc and I had been talking for at least a couple years, trying to come up with some sort of research project around air pollution or air monitoring, but nothing was really panning out. And then, one day, Marc goes to a climate rally in New York and meets a community organizer named Victor Davila. And Victor works as a community organizer at the Point Community Development Corporation, which is a local, community-based organization in Hunts Point in the Bronx.
Marc tells Victor about his interest in air-pollution monitoring, and Victor graciously suggests, “I’d be interested in working together.” Then, Marc and I are having lunch one day, and he tells me, “I met this great guy, Victor. Why don’t we come to him with some of our ideas?”
And I said, “Let’s have a call with Victor. Let’s ask him what he’s most concerned about. What are the major concerns within the community? Let’s try to understand where our research could fit into these concerns and begin to help.”
When you’re exposed to pollution as a child, it can have long-lasting impacts on your health and well-being. We’re talking further into your future: reduced wages in the future, reduced ability to accumulate wealth, and human capital.
We have a call with Victor; it’s a great conversation. Victor tells us that they’re concerned about traffic pollution in the Bronx. They’re also really concerned about indoor air quality in schools. We’re like, “Maybe there’s something to be done about traffic pollution affecting indoor air quality in schools.” So, Marc and I huddle.
And during this time, Marc meets a physicist from Fordham named Stephen Holler. Steve had been going around to schools in New York City conducting STEM education [science, technology, engineering, and math] for kids. What Steve would do is install air-quality monitors inside and outside the schools. And he’d work with the students to build their own air-quality monitors and help them understand the importance of monitoring the air. So we thought, why don’t we expand on what Steve is doing and install a bunch of paired indoor-outdoor air-quality monitors across schools in the city? That way, we could identify the effect of transportation pollution on indoor air quality.
Victor loves the idea, and he suggests bringing other organizations into the fold: The first one is TREEage, a youth-led group in New York City that works with schools on environmental education. And the second is the New York Civil Liberties Union, which actually had been working a lot on issues associated with transportation-pollution impacts on schools.
The project was formed, and the partners were chosen. Everybody came together. We decided this was a really great idea, and we moved forward from there.
In the world of environmental economics, researchers historically focus on existing data sets rather than partnering with local organizations, gathering original data, and focusing specifically on local community concerns. From your perspective—and that of researchers who carry out similar work in environmental economics—what’s your sense of the motivation for engaging with partners in this new way? What are some of the benefits of it? Do you see it as a trend that’s growing in environmental economics, or is it static or shrinking—or how do you characterize it?
I do think this is a trend that is growing, and I’m very excited to see it growing. I hope more academics will choose to do this as we move forward and understand more about the importance of working with communities.
The reason I think it’s so important to work with communities is that I just don’t think academics are the correct individuals to know exactly what the worst problems are that a community faces. Academics are sitting in a different location, where we don’t have our finger on the pulse of what’s happening in the community. The way we’ve been trained to approach problems is to think of a policy (one that has been or will be implemented) and analyze it to see whether it was cost-effective—if it had the environmental outcomes that we expected the policy to have. To give credit to the researchers, we do ask whether we can observe distributional impacts and how these benefits vary across space and across the community. But the distributional impacts of the environmental justice angle of our work is usually just a tack-on to the work.
What ends up happening is that, many times, the policy solution that the research tells us is the right one may not be the right one for the community. I’ve seen this a lot of times, where researchers might say, “We did this analysis. Hey, community—this is good for you.” Yet the communities are up in arms against the policy. Why the clash? I think there’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what’s going on here from the researcher’s perspective.
What this means is that, when we begin to work with a community-based group, we can revisit the way we’re asking our research questions. We can formulate the questions in a way that could potentially have real, actionable outcomes for the community—and do so with an understanding of where the community is currently at. What I’ve seen and heard is that communities have really felt burned by researchers coming in, analyzing the community, identifying a problem, and then leaving. The community is left holding the bag, with nothing to show for it.
So, when researchers work with communities, we can develop questions that are useful for the community, and the research can build something for the community that lasts beyond when the researchers actually leave. I think our project is a good example, because it allows community members to collaborate with reputable academic institutions to collect data that are causal, that communities can have real scientific trust in, and that community members can trust because they were involved in the data-gathering process.
Let’s talk about the study itself that you’re going to carry out with your partners. You mentioned that air-quality monitors are going to be involved. Can you tell us more about how you’re going to gather the data for this analysis, and what you’ve learned so far as you’re getting ready to install the equipment in the schools?
We received a grant from Environmental Defense Fund to purchase air-quality monitors and install them in schools beginning in the summer of this year, and we expect the installation process to continue through the end of this year. We’re going to install them in 45 schools across New York City—one indoor air-quality monitor and one outdoor air-quality monitor at each school. The monitors will tell us how traffic pollution affects outdoor and indoor air quality.
To understand how the relationship between outdoor and indoor air quality is affected by characteristics of the buildings, we will conduct building surveys. We’ll ask questions like, Do these schools have windows that open? Do they have weatherization? Do they have central HVAC systems? Do they have HEPA filters? And so on.
If we’re working with the community, the solutions can be a lot more collaborative and much less top down, in a way that the community feels heard and will work for the community.
Another key piece of data that we’ll collect is information on wind direction. We will install a weather station right outside the schools. What the weather station can tell us is which way the wind is blowing, so we can establish causality. You could imagine a freeway where you have two schools within 500 feet of that freeway, but one is upwind of the freeway, and one is downwind. The school that’s downwind will be affected much more by the freeway pollution than the school that’s upwind. But if we didn’t know which school was upwind, we wouldn’t be able to assign the transportation pollution in a causal manner.
But two important issues come with installing these monitors in schools. The first is addressing data-privacy issues and the other is Wi-Fi connectivity. On the data-privacy issues, New York City high schools are competitive and have to attract students. Schools might not want these data about air quality to be made publicly available, because a school wouldn’t want potentially bad indoor air quality to affect who chooses to go to the school.
To maintain that data privacy, we decided to move toward a different type of monitor. The PurpleAir monitors we had in mind are user friendly and generally post the data immediately on the internet. Online, you can see the location of monitors of interest and what the air-pollution level is at each monitor in real time. But alternatively, we can store the data locally on an embedded USB chip, such that the data are private and not immediately accessible to the public.
Wi-Fi connectivity is another issue. A lot of these schools don’t have strong access to Wi-Fi. Victor, one of our community partners, has been working on this issue a lot, trying to get broadband connectivity to his community. That was another challenge with using the PurpleAir monitors, as they need Wi-Fi connectivity to post the data online.
Storing the data locally dealt with those two concerns.
What are some of the most interesting ways in which this type of community-engaged research project differs from research that does not engage the community—whether it’s from designing or implementing the research process, or policy implications and impacts on the ground?
One way is the fact that communities can benefit from the research. And communities get to work with the data; gather the data; and have access to the data, so they can advocate for themselves. The results that come out of this research are much more likely to be beneficial to the community.
Because the project and the research have been co-developed with the communities, the solutions that emerge are much less likely to be top-down. One thing that economists tend to be criticized for is that we can be a little condescending, with assumptions like, “We know what’s good for you. We have these solutions, and this is what’s best for you.” That’s a really problematic approach to policymaking. If researchers work with the community, the solutions can be a lot more collaborative and much less top-down, in a way that the community members feel heard and that works for the community.
The final point I want to mention is the benefit to the researchers, who can learn a lot from working with community groups. These learnings and the empathy these projects can foster stay with the researchers beyond the finalization of a project.
And for the communities that we’re working with, this work is personal. This is affecting them directly. It’s affecting their day-to-day lives. It’s not like an academic sitting in her ivory tower saying, “That’s an issue that affects them.” Rather, this is an issue that affects me. And that personalization is something that, again, fosters this type of empathy.
For example, I went with Victor to a public hearing, and he stood up to talk about why we need climate policy in New York. The first thing he said was, “I live in the Bronx. I have asthma because of the pollution.” So, for him, it’s really personal.
I want to read a short quote from Victor that demonstrates this sensation. He writes, “Infrastructure is a language. Infrastructure can communicate what we think about a culture and what we believe a community deserves. The city of New York has been saying for decades that the residents of the South Bronx are uncared for and unwanted, through its infrastructure. In the neighborhood where I grew up, the term ‘environmental justice’ was literally coined.”
For him, the fact that these freeways go through the middle of his community is a personal issue. And it’s made real by his day-to-day struggles with asthma. When we’re working with people for whom this matters and has an impact every day, the research takes on a different meaning and importance to the researcher and to the outcomes.
I couldn’t agree with that more, and you’ve stated it so nicely. My own experience is in a very different context—researching the impacts of oil and gas development on local communities. Had I only read journal articles and books about what that was like, I would’ve had a very different picture from what I actually have, which of course is based on reading journal articles and books, but also on spending a lot of time in communities, meeting people, talking to people, getting a feel for places and for what’s important to people. So, that resonates with me strongly, as well.
New York is taking environmental justice issues quite seriously through various pieces of legislation. Can you help us understand the most relevant laws that the state is or is considering implementing, which are seeking to address the types of environmental justice issues that you are looking at?
I know of three relevant pieces of legislation. The first one is the Environmental Rights Amendment, which was passed recently and states that everyone has a right to clean air. If everyone has a right to clean air, and if we’re demonstrating that some people do not have clean air because of proximity to traffic or because they lack a defensive mechanism, then our work can help build on it.
Another piece of legislation is the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, which is massive climate legislation at the New York State level. The goal is to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, but specifically, it provides funding that’s dedicated to disadvantaged communities. So, 35 percent of the benefits of clean-energy funding need to go to these communities. It also creates new air quality monitoring requirements. And the work I’m doing fits into this ongoing legislation.
One piece of legislation is just spot on, and that’s the Schools Impacted by Gross Highways Act. This act, besides just preventing the building of schools within 600 feet of major roadways and freeways, also prevents roadways from being built near existing schools by requiring developers to include in their environmental-impact statement the location of nearby schools. And finally, it funds retrofits for schools that are within 600 feet of major roadways. Our research doesn’t just help identify which retrofits would be most valuable, but also can show the benefits of identifying the downwind schools to target first with these funds.