In this week’s episode, host 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 and Raimi discuss the historical context and current policies related to air pollution exposure in New York City, particularly for schools in the Bronx. They also talk about how community-engaged research produces new knowledge, can inform policymaking, and can benefit the communities that are involved in the work.
Listen to the Podcast
- Poor air quality has long-term consequences: “When you’re exposed to pollution as a child, it can have long-lasting impacts on your health and well-being. And we’re talking further into your future: reduced wages in the future, reduced ability to accumulate wealth and human capital.” (6:29)
- Community-engaged research can produce benefits for the community: “Once our project is done, these community groups are going to have air-quality monitors. They’re going to have this data that they can use for their own purposes to help them advocate for themselves and can give them tools that they need, above and beyond, once we actually leave. I think that’s the motivation for working with these community groups because, in the end, it can have better outcomes for the community.” (15:02)
- Working toward collaboratively designed policies: “One of the things that economists tend to be criticized for is we tend to be a little condescending: ‘We know what’s good for you. We have these solutions. This is what’s best for you.’ And that’s a really problematic approach to take to policymaking. 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.” (22:17)
The Full Transcript
Daniel Raimi: Hello, and welcome to Resources Radio, a weekly podcast from Resources for the Future (RFF). I’m your host, Daniel Raimi. Today, we talk with Dr. Beia Spiller, who recently joined RFF as a fellow and the director of our transportation program. She’s also a board member at the Association of Environmental and Resource Economists.
In today’s episode, I’ll ask Beia to tell us about her research with community organizations working in New York City Schools to measure, analyze, and reduce exposure to air pollution for students in the Bronx.
The work is unfolding now, and Beia will help us understand the historical context and current policy setting around air pollution exposure in New York City. We’ll also talk about how this type of community-engaged research not only produces new knowledge and informs policymaking, but how it also benefits communities that are engaged in the research. Stay with us.
Beia Spiller, our new colleague here at RFF, welcome to Resources Radio.
Beia Spiller: Thank you for having me.
Daniel Raimi: So Beia, it’s great to have you with us here at RFF. We’re going to talk about some ongoing research that you are working on right now in today’s episode, but first because you’re new to the organization and you’re new to the podcast, we would love to know how you became interested in working on environmental issues, either at a young age or maybe later in life.
Beia Spiller: It was definitely inspired by my youth. I spent many years in California when I was a kid, and my parents would take me hiking in the forest up in the mountains, and I would go backpacking around the southwest. I really became, sort of, one with nature and loved being part of the natural world. So I knew I wanted to dedicate myself to some sort of environmental studies. When I was a kid, I really wanted to be a marine biologist.
As soon as I joined college, I signed up as biology major, but then shortly thereafter I found out I was going to have to dissect animals. So I said, That’s not for me.
Looking to see what else I could major in, I found environmental policy and figured that was one way for me to continue to help the environment, but not have to dissect any animals. So that’s how I ended up on this path.
Daniel Raimi: That’s great. So no one has shown you the dissecting room yet at RFF?
Beia Spiller: No.
Daniel Raimi: Okay. Well, maybe you get that tour after one year at RFF.
All right, Beia, I’m really looking forward to today’s conversation because you’re going to help us learn about issues related to environmental justice and the transportation system. And we’ve talked a lot about environmental justice issues, including about transportation in the United States and how disproportionate impacts often fall on low-income communities and communities of color. Can you tell us a little bit about the specific issue that you’re addressing in this research project and what the motivation is for doing the analysis in the first place?
Beia Spiller: Sure. 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. And there are two specific inequities that we want to explore here.
The first inequity has to do with the placement of transportation infrastructure, and perhaps this is something that you’ve covered in the podcast before, but 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, we see major freeways running through the Bronx and in Brooklyn, particularly 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 here 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 be things such as high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters in heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems.
These two inequities interact in this 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 there to be 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. So how do we explain this? When we have these major freeways running through the Bronx, we have these major asthma concentrations that are at really high levels compared to anywhere else in the country.
So there might be a couple different ways that we could explain this. One would be a potentially scientific way, which is that perhaps pollution coming from highways is different than pollution that’s coming from just road traffic because of the types of vehicles that are on those roads, right? With the long-haul vehicles, and perhaps they have more black-carbon emissions or other types of pollutants that could cause asthma.
But another way that we can think about this and explain it could be defensive mechanisms, right? And that richer, whiter neighborhoods who are located in Manhattan, they might be more able to access this defensive mechanism and so protect themselves more.
What we want to understand is not just how exposure to transportation pollution affects the 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 the epidemiological and in the economics space, showing that when you’re exposed to pollution as a child, it can have long-lasting impacts on your health and well-being. And 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 equities across race and ethnicity, then we need to be exploring these types of issues and interactions.
Daniel Raimi: That’s so interesting about the differential in asthma outcomes, despite the traffic patterns. Can you tell us how this research project came about? And also, I know you’re working with a variety of partners on this project. So who are the partners that you’re working with?
Beia Spiller: This project was a long time coming. I had been having conversations with a professor from Fordham. His name is 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 rally, a climate rally for New York, and meets a community organizer whose name was Victor Davila. And Victor works as a community organizer at The Point Community Development Corporation, which is a local community-based organization located in Hunts Point in the Bronx.
Marc and Victor have this nice conversation where Marc is telling him a little bit about his interest in air-pollution monitoring, and Victor graciously suggests, “I’d be interested in working together.” So Marc comes back to me, and we’re 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, “Well, let’s have a call with Victor. Let’s ask him, What is he 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 him with this through our actual research.”
We have a call with Victor, great conversation. Victor is telling us, “Look, we’re just really concerned about traffic pollution in the Bronx.” And another thing he was really concerned about was indoor air quality in schools.
We are hearing both of these things, and 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 had actually met a physicist from Fordham named Stephen Holler.
Stephen had been going around to schools in New York City conducting STEM education for kids. And what he would do is go to schools, and he would install air-quality monitors in the schools, inside and outside. And you would work with the students to build their own air-quality monitors and help them understand what the importance of monitoring the air is. So we thought, Well, 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? And to be able to identify that effect of transportation pollution on indoor air quality.
We come up with this idea, and we come back to Victor. Victor loves the idea, and he says, “Why don’t we bring other organizations into the fold?” And he suggests two organizations. The first one is TREEage, which is a youth-led group in New York City that works with schools on environmental education. They had this access to schools, which could be really useful for the work that we wanted to do. And the second organization that Victor suggests is the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU). The NYCLU had actually been working a lot on the issue 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.
Daniel Raimi: That’s so interesting. I do want to ask you more about that partnership in a few minutes, but first an in-the-weeds question for researchers. In the world of environmental economics–in many fields, subfields of economics–there’s a history of researchers often focusing on existing data sets rather than partnering with local organizations and going out and gathering original data and focusing specifically on local community concerns.
From your perspective, and also from researchers who you’ve spoken with who carry out similar work in the environmental economics field, what’s your sense of the motivation for engaging with partners in this way? What are some of the benefits that you see from it? And do you see it as a trend that is growing in the field of environmental economics, or whether it’s static or shrinking or how do you characterize it?
Beia Spiller: To answer your final question first, I do think that this is a trend that is growing, and I’m very excited to see that it is growing. And I hope that more academics will choose to do this as we move forward and understand more about the importance of working with communities.
The reason why 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 facing a community are. Right? We’re sitting in a different location where we don’t have our finger on the pulse of what’s happening in the community.
Especially from an environmental economics approach, to study the way that we’ve been trained. As you mentioned with data, the way we’ve been trained to approach problems is to think of a policy, either one that’s been implemented or is planning on being implemented. And then we analyze it to see, Was it cost effective? Did it have the right environmental outcomes that we were expecting that policy to have? Then, many times, to give credit to the researchers, we do ask the question of, Are there distributional impacts? How do these benefits vary across space and across community? But what that means is that this issue of 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. So I’ve seen this a lot of times where researchers might be saying, “Oh, we did this analysis. Hey, community. This is really good for you.” Yet the communities are up in arms against this policy. So why is there this clash, when we’re saying, “We know that this policy is good for you, but you’re not liking it.” And 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, it helps us revisit the way that we’re asking the question. It allows us to formulate the question 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, right? What I’ve seen, in terms of other people talking about this, I’ve heard a lot 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. Right? So when we work with the communities, we cannot only develop questions that are useful for the community, but the research itself can build something for the community that lasts above and beyond when the researcher actually leaves. This specific project that we’re doing, I think, is a good example of one, because it allows community members to collaborate with reputable academic institutions to collect data that’s causal, that they can have real scientific trust in; but also they can trust in it because they were involved in the data-gathering process.
Once our project is done, these community groups are going to have air-quality monitors. They’re going to have this data that they can use for their own purposes to help them advocate for themselves and can give them tools that they need above and beyond once we actually leave. I think that’s the motivation for working with these community groups, because in the end it can just have better outcomes for the community.
Daniel Raimi: That makes a lot of sense. I agree. It does seem to be a trend that’s growing in the field, and other researchers at RFF and other academic institutions that we work with are certainly seeing more engagement with communities, which is really exciting.
Let’s talk a little bit about the study itself that you’re going to be carrying out with your partners. You mentioned that air-quality monitors are going to be involved. Can you tell us a little bit more about how you’re going to be gathering the data for this analysis, and what you’ve learned so far as you are–correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe you are getting ready to install the equipment in the schools.
Beia Spiller: That’s correct. We received a very generous grant from the Environmental Defense Fund to purchase air-quality monitors and install them in schools beginning this summer, and we expect the installation process to continue through the end of the year. We’re going to be installing in 45 schools across the city. One indoor air-quality monitor and one outdoor air-quality monitor. This will be able to tell us, given the proximity of the school to traffic, how that traffic pollution is affecting both outdoor and indoor air quality.
And to be able to understand how the relationship between outdoor and indoor air quality is affected by building characteristics, we’re going to be conducting building surveys. We’re going to 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 and so forth.
Another really key piece of data that we’re going to be collecting is information on wind direction. What we’re going to be doing is installing a weather monitor, a weather station right outside the school. What the weather station is going to be able to tell us is which way the wind is blowing, because this is how we’re going to be able to ensure causality. Because 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 is going to be affected much more by the transportation pollution caused by the freeway than the school that’s upwind. But if we didn’t know which school was upwind and which one was downwind, we wouldn’t be able to assign that transportation pollution in a causal manner.
By installing the weather stations, we’ll be able to achieve causality. And as I mentioned, we still are in the process of buying the monitors and planning how we’re going to go into these schools. But one of the things I wanted to mention that I’ve learned so far, which was surprising because, at first, Marc and I thought, Oh, it’ll be easy peasy. We’ll just go into schools and put in the monitors.
But there are a lot of issues that come with that. And there’s two important issues that come with installing these monitors in school. The first one is addressing the data-privacy issues and the other one is Wi-Fi connectivity. On the data-privacy issues, New York City high schools are actually competitive in that they have to attract students.
So there’s a possibility that schools might not want these data about the indoor air quality, the outdoor air quality right outside the school to be made publicly available. Because if a school potentially had some bad indoor air quality, they wouldn’t want that to affect who chooses to go to the school. To be able to maintain that data privacy, we decided to move towards a different type of monitor that collects the data automatically.
These are PurpleAir monitors, which are these really user-friendly monitors that generally post the data immediately online. If you go to purpleair.com, you can see the location of the monitors. You can see what air-pollution level is at each monitor right now. But actually they do come with this little, incorporated USB chip. So we can have the data stored locally on the monitor, such that the data are private and not accessible to the public immediately.
Also, the Wi-Fi connectivity is an issue. That’s something I wasn’t fully aware of, but this is something that Victor, our partner at The Point, has been working on a lot, trying to get broadband connectivity to his community. A lot of these schools, you don’t have Wi-Fi or maybe don’t have really good access, really strong access to Wi-Fi. That made it another challenge with using the PurpleAir monitors, they would have to have Wi-Fi connectivity to be able to post the data online. Shifting to this different type of monitor that can store the data locally dealt with those two concerns.
Daniel Raimi: Wow, that’s really interesting. And honestly, I’m a little shocked that there are a substantial number of schools in New York City that don’t have Wi-Fi.
Beia Spiller: Yeah. Or they have pretty shoddy Wi-Fi that is really inconsistent, and you would need to have very strong, consistent Wi-Fi for the data to not be very spotty.
Daniel Raimi: Really interesting. So a couple more questions before we go to our top of the stack segment. One of them goes back to this question of engaging with community members in community-based organizations in research. What are some of the most interesting ways in which this type of research project that is community-engaged differs from research that is not community-engaged, whether it’s from the designing the research process or whether it’s implementing the research process, or maybe for policy implications or impacts on the ground? You’ve already touched on a couple of them, but I’m hoping you can expand a little bit.
Beia Spiller: One of the ways, and I touched on this earlier, is the fact that communities can benefit from the research. And what is provided to them from working with the data, gathering the data, having access to it that they can use to advocate for themselves. So communities can definitely benefit from the research, and the results that will come out of this research are much more likely to be beneficial to the community.
And again, the solutions that are coming out. Because the project and the research was co-developed with the communities, that means that the solutions that emerge are much less likely to be top-down. One of the things that economists tend to be criticized for is that we tend to be a little condescending: “We know what’s good for you. We have these solutions. This is what’s best for you.” And that’s a really problematic approach to take to policymaking. 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.
The final point that I want to mention is a benefit to the researcher because the researcher learns a lot from working with these communities and with these community groups. And these learnings, these understandings—and frankly, the empathy that it can foster—is something that would stay with the researcher above and beyond the finalization of this project.
And for communities, the communities that we’re working with, this work is really—it’s personal, right? This is affecting them directly. It’s affecting their day-to-day. It’s not like it’s an academic sitting in her ivory tower saying, “Oh, this is an issue that affects them.” Rather, it’s an issue that affects me. And that personalization is something that does, again, foster 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. And the first thing he said was, “I have asthma. I live in the Bronx, I have asthma because of the pollution.” Right? So for him, it’s really, really personal. And I wanted to read to you just a very short quote that Victor sent me 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 are going through the middle of this community is a personal issue. And it’s made so real by his day-to-day struggles with asthma. When we’re working with people for whom this really, really matters, and this affects them day-to-day, it gives such a different sensation to the work, and it gives it a different meaning and importance to the researcher and to the work product.
Daniel Raimi: I couldn’t agree with that any more. And you’ve stated it so nicely. I mean, my own research experience, in a very different context, but 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 is based on reading journal articles and books, but also spending a lot of time in communities, meeting people, talking to people, getting a feel for places and a feel for what is important to people. So that resonates with me really strongly as well.
I think this will be our last question before we go to our Top of the Stack, and it’s a policy question. Normally on Resources Radio, we talk mostly about policy. Today, we’ve been talking a lot about research, which is great, but I do want to touch on policy. And as you know really well, Beia, New York is taking environmental justice issues quite seriously through a variety of pieces of legislation. Can you help us understand the most relevant pieces of law that the state is implementing, or maybe considering implementing, that are seeking to address the types of environmental-justice issues that you are looking at or that are related to the topics that you’re looking at?
Beia Spiller: There are three really 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. That’s one of the really key things, right? If everyone has a right to clean air, if we’re demonstrating that some people do not because of proximity to traffic or because of this lack of defensive mechanism, it’s a way that this work can help build upon it.
Another legislation is the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, which is a 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. And it also creates new air-quality monitoring requirements. This is another way in which the work that I’m doing fits into ongoing legislation.
But there is one piece of legislation that is just spot-on-the-money, and that’s the SIGH Act. And the SIGH Act is the Schools Impacted by Gross Highways Act. This SIGH Act, it prohibits building schools near major roadways and freeways. The SIGH Act has passed legislation, but I think it’s still in the Senate, or there’s still some final step that it needs to go through to become codified.
This act, besides just preventing the building of schools within 600 feet of major roadways, also tries in a way to prevent roadways from being built by existing schools by requiring the 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.
So our research could not just help identify which retrofits would be most valuable, but can also show the benefit of identifying downwind schools with which to target first with these funds.
Daniel Raimi: That’s so interesting. And it’ll be really interesting to see if that gets passed and, if so, how it ends up being implemented. And of course, incorporating good evidence and data to do that implementation. I should just note, RFF is actually working with New York state on developing some metrics for implementing the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act. That work is being led by Alan Krupnick here at RFF and involves a variety of researchers. Keep an eye out for more on that from the RFF end. But thank you, Beia, so much for that lay of the land. I know we breezed through the policy issues, and there’s a lot more to talk about there, but it’ll have to wait for another episode.
Let’s go now to our top of the stack segment where we ask you to recommend something that you’ve read or watched or heard that you think is really great and that you think our listeners would enjoy. So Beia, what’s at the top of your literal or your metaphorical reading stack?
Beia Spiller: It might sound a little out of left field, but I actually watched the other day Prehistoric Planet. It’s a TV show on Apple TV that shows basically what the world looked like prehuman. It’s during the dinosaur era. So it follows different dinosaurs. It shows them–I don’t know the kind of CGI that they use to do this, but it literally looks like you’re watching a nature show. It’s with Dave Attenborough. It’s amazing in terms of–actually, for a few reasons, right? First of all, it makes you think about how much humans have altered the world. Because it’s not just about the dinosaurs. They show landscapes, and it really does make you think about the effect that we have as human beings on our natural world.
But the other reason why I loved it so much was that to be able to create this show that shows that Tyrannosaurus rexes mating, they’re swimming. Different types of ways that they interact with each other. How do they know this? Well, all of this is based on so many years of scientific understanding and knowledge that the anthropologists have come up with. So they take all of this scientific knowledge and collapse into this really entertaining TV show.
How can we bring STEM education to the broader public? I think this is a really great way of doing that. As I was watching it, I felt like a kid again. The kid with my fossils as I had when I was a kid and thinking about the prehistoric times. What would life be like back then? Anyways, I just thought that was a really fascinating show and highly recommend it.
Daniel Raimi: That looks fantastic. I had also heard about that show, but haven’t watched it yet. Now with your recommendation, I’m definitely going to put it on the list, and maybe I’ll start watching it tonight. I did actually go see the new Jurassic Park movie a couple weeks ago, but I feel like that had a slightly different level of scientific rigor.
Beia Spiller: I’ll have to go watch that one.
Daniel Raimi: I’m just in it for Jeff Goldblum. But anyway, that’s a great recommendation, Beia. Thank you so much. And thank you for coming on the show and telling us about this fascinating work you’re doing about air pollution in schools in the Bronx. It seems like it’s such an important issue, and it’s really great to have you at RFF working on it and being a colleague of myself and all of us here at RFF. So thank you again for coming on to the show.
Beia Spiller: Thank you so much, Daniel. This was a lot of fun. I really appreciate you inviting me.
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