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Mapping Perceptions of Environmental Health Risks: A Comparison of Three Philadelphia Communities

January 27, 2015


Philadelphia’s River Wards are characterized by industrial legacies that have left a distinct material and cultural imprint on the city’s northeast neighborhoods. Lining the Delaware River, Fishtown, Kensington, Port Richmond, and Bridesburg comprise one of eighteen planning districts that have been targeted by Philadelphia’s 2035 initiative. But how will sustainability initiatives – those led by the city as well as community-based projects – address suspected environmental hazards, particularly risks from sources that anchor economic activity, expand existing infrastructure (such as construction on 95), or were long ago abandoned, like the infamous ‘Coke’ site in Bridesburg?

This past fall, Drexel researchers from the Center for Science, Technology, and Society, and the School of Public Health, in collaboration with the Clean Air Council, conducted a community survey that investigated how River Ward residents perceive environmental conditions in their neighborhood, how residents obtain information about hazards as well as community projects, and what they thought were priority issues for the River Wards district. The study, “Mapping Perceptions of Environmental Health Risks,” was funded by Drexel’s Social Science Council, which solicited applications for interdisciplinary projects that paired social scientists with faculty from other disciplines.

The Drexel survey team – which included undergraduate students from the International Area Studies program, the Custom-Designed major, and Chemistry, and graduate students from the Science, Technology, and Society program and the School of Public Health – canvassed the study area for eleven weeks, visiting more than 3,300 households across four zip codes. The team used a 28-question survey as well as a ‘block observation’ tool, which structured data collection on the material conditions of more than 140 blocks. ‘Block’ data included tallies of vacant properties, private and community gardens, drainage, businesses, quantities and types of trash, and even social activity. 

The study was designed as an assessment of community resources, knowledge, and political activity, which aims to help Drexel researchers build relationships with civic associations, local organizations, and government agencies working on sustainability initiatives in the district. A key feature of the study was comparative analysis between Kensington, Port Richmond, and Bridesburg, which share various infrastructures but differ in demographic composition, land use, and (possibly) levels of political engagement. The study documents evidence for these differences and evaluates their impact on residents’ perceptions of their community and their interests in political engagement. Although the project team is still analyzing survey and block data, ethnographic observations suggest that drug-related crime, transportation infrastructure, and business development are pressing issues across River Wards neighborhoods, while industrial activity  (past and present) were conditions that residents felt they had little control over.

The PI team, Alison Kenner, assistant professor, history and politics and science, technology and society, College of Arts and Sciences, and Igor Burstyn, associate professor, environmental and occupational health, School of Public Health, of Drexel University and John Lee and Russell Zerbo of the Clean Air Council, hopes that study findings will help facilitate collaborations between Drexel University and other organizations interested in addressing environmental health issues in the River Wards. For more information about the project, visit