Where the Sidewalk Ends
New scholarly approaches to Atlanta's environment both complement and collide

Return to Contents

Georgia on their minds

 

"I'm a scholar, but I'm also a citizen. I separate the two somewhat, but I think the purpose of acquiring knowledge is to improve the world."
Howard Frumkin, School of Public Health

"My advocacy comes in demonstrating that environmentally sound decisions can be really good for business. They don't have to decide to spend money for what feels like no return except to get Greenpeace off their backs."
Steven Walton, School of Business

When professor of Pediatrics Gerald Teague began looking into the rate of emergency room visits for asthma in children in Atlanta during the 1996 Olympic games, his research drew him into unknown territory--his own hometown.

"People stayed home or used MARTA like never before during the Olympics, so it was a perturbation that we thought might change the air quality," says Teague, an Atlanta native. "The ground ozone level did fall, and so did asthma activity, by 30 to 40 percent, compared to the weeks before and after."

Teague's study, to be published soon in the Journal of the American Medical Association, has pushed him toward incorporating environmental science into his work as a pulmonologist. "The current paradigm is that you're born with a genetic susceptibility to asthma, but that's not enough," he says. "If we're ever going to understand asthma, we have to look at the environmental impact on the human immune system. Environmental genomics is going to be the new science."

Teague is part of a recent wave of scholarship at Emory that scrutinizes environmental issues in Atlanta. Faculty from areas as diverse as business, public health, anthropology, law, medicine, and environmental science are exploring the ecology of the city in the contexts of their own fields. As this community of researchers grows, they are also learning how their novel approaches both complement and collide as the boundaries shift between scholarship and advocacy.

"This may sound a little strange," says Karen Mumford, a visiting assistant professor in environmental studies from the University of Michigan, "but Atlanta's a really exciting place to be right now. People's backs are against the wall--they're frustrated with traffic congestion and air quality. There are all these health and quality of life implications, and they're talking about significant change."

Mumford has received partial support from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to document the effectiveness of its Greenspace Protection Program, which uses funding incentives to urge Georgia counties to set aside 20 percent of their geographical areas as permanently protected land. She is observing the development of Greenspace programs in metropolitan area counties during this first year of the program.

"I want to compare the different strategies counties employ to protect green space and document the successes and barriers," Mumford says. "For example, some counties are including the public in their planning stages, but others are being a bit closed-door about it. It will be interesting to study whether including citizens and non-governmental organizations at the front end hinders or helps the process
as lands become targeted and set aside."

Blending her research interests with a government program has raised some delicate issues, however. "I've had to walk a careful line with dnr, because it's not just about me sitting in the back seat, criticizing this program, which has historically been the role we've taken as academics. It's really about working with county and municipal officials to find out what's working and what isn't. The findings will be used to help strengthen and improve the program."

Mumford's project has also received funding from Emory's new Office of University-Community Partnerships, created to support teaching and research with an emphasis on serving greater Atlanta. "People are now using terms like 'community-based research' and 'action research' to talk about collaborative endeavors in which the community is actually a partner in defining the problem," says Associate Professor of Political Science Michael Rich, the office's director. "These partnerships really raise the capacity of organizations to understand problems and find solutions to them. It's advocacy in the sense of trying to push the knowledge we've been able to create more toward utilization."

 

Scholarship and Citizenship

Howard Frumkin, associate professor and chair of environmental and occupational health in the School of Public Health, is also among those whose work addresses local environmental problems. He is writing a book on the public health effects of urban sprawl, which he defines as low-density, land-extensive development, segregated land uses, unchecked road-building, a lack of regional planning, and heavy traffic. He studies sprawl as a health problem due to air pollution, the expanding urban heat island effect, lack of exercise and obesity, automobile and pedestrian accidents, mental health consequences, and eroding civic engagement and relationships.

"For every episode of road rage, there are inevitably more people who are hostile or unhappy, whose interpersonal behavior becomes much less civil than it would be in a face-to-face, calmer environment," he says. "And you have to figure that translates into home and civic life, as well."

Frumkin feels his work also carries a mandate to help solve the city's problems. He is a board member of the Clean Air Campaign, a metro-Atlanta public effort to promote alternatives to single-occupancy vehicle travel. And he works with the Georgia Regional Trans-portation Authority to develop indicators of the region's air quality, health, and livability. "I'm a scholar, but I'm also a citizen," he says. "I separate the two somewhat, but I think the purpose of acquiring knowledge is to improve the world. I also think the university has a social obligation to the city and the region and to civic life."

Professor of Anthropology Peggy Barlett takes this principle a step further. "Living in Atlanta and seeing the dimension of crisis we face directly here, together with a sense of growing global awareness of this notion of environmental sustainability, really brought home the big research question for me: How can we create a transformation of American culture and lifestyles toward sustainability, so that we meet the needs of the current generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs?"

Barlett's response was to become a local activist. She formed Emory's Ad Hoc Committee on Environmental Stewardship, which has urged the university to adopt an environmental policy statement, build its new buildings with environmental sensitivity, and restore and maintain the campus's undeveloped spaces.

"I haven't been doing a classic anthropological study," says Barlett, whose past research has examined rural agricultural development in Latin America and the U.S. farm crisis in the 1980s. "I've been waiting to see how I can bring the anthropological methods I've used before to bear on this new subject. It's service, but it is also the most scholarly demanding thing I've ever engaged in.

"I feel a moral imperative to use what anthropology and other academic fields have taught us in order to act in the face of global climate change and the water and air crises we face in this city. For me personally, to only observe and analyze would feel unethical."

 

The Environment and the Bottom Line

Steve Walton, an assistant professor of decision and information analysis in the business school, brings a perspective to urban environmental concerns that he says does not always sit well with his colleagues who espouse more grassroots approaches. "There's only one type of organization that's big enough, strong enough, and rich enough to accomplish the kinds of changes necessary for the environmental gains we need, and that's the multinational corporation," Walton argues. "The businesses are going to lead the changes, and the last thing they need is someone else beating them up for how they should behave environmentally."

Walton studies how major corporations manage their suppliers and distribution systems to minimize the waste generated, citing as an example Delta Airlines' decision to change the way they bought hazardous chemicals, which both reduced their usage by 80 percent and saved the company $500,000. "I realized very quickly that companies can save a lot of money by doing things that turn out to be environmentally good. They don't have to do them because of public pressure; it can actually be a smart business decision. And I patently disagree with groups that say if businesses make money on an environmental improvement, it doesn't count."

Nonetheless, most of these scholars find themselves wrestling with a pull toward public pressure and advocacy. "As a scholar, I try to base policy recommendations on data," says Frumkin. "As a citizen and public health advocate, I may go beyond the data, to advocate a position based on normative beliefs. I'm comfortable with both approaches, but I think it's essential to know which is which and be explicit about the basis of any policy options I advocate."
A.O.A.