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An atlas of equity

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billlascher | Mar 02, 2011 01:08 PM

Portland, OR often receives credit for green leadership, but that doesn't mean that the city is free from environmental risks. Like anywhere else, the commerce, industry and daily activities of millions of people in Portland's metropolitan area combine to strain the environment; and, like in any city, Portland's disparate neighborhoods don't feel these strains evenly.

That's one reason the Coalition for a Livable Future wants to update its Regional Equity Atlas to reflect data from the 2010 Census. The atlas -- a project that other Western cities might easily adopt -- works to chart exactly who has access to the very features that earn Portlanders their sustainability bragging rights, and who's left out even by forward-thinking city leaders. The atlas charts these impacts through maps of proximity to grocery stores and analyses of the relationship between income levels and ethnicity (I wrote about some of these findings in a November post to this blog about Portland's work toward developing “ecodistricts”), among many other data sets. It will be great to learn more from the new census data about how environmental health, income and race interact.

Meanwhile, residents of one Portland neighborhood are already engaging one another as they take documenting their community's health into their own hands.

Linnton, a riverside neighborhood at Portland's northwesternmost extreme, is in the midst of a series of community meetings discussing how to move forward with its Linnton Action Model Project. That project brings Linnton residents, businesses and other stakeholders together with Oregon's Public Health Division to assess ways to improve health while redeveloping brownfields along the Willamette River.

A $125,000 grant from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry will help pay for the action model project to incorporate public health goals into its planning for brownfield redevelopment. Linnton is the first community in the Western U.S. so far to receive such a grant.

Even as the community meetings move forward, Linnton's stakeholders are already documenting the community's health.

Located downriver from major industrial and harbor operations along the Willamette, Linnton, which is also Portland harbor mapnear the river's confluence with the Columbia but relatively far from most of Portland's population, faces unique risks from toxic sites compared to many other parts of the city (coincidentally, as I reported for the Portland Mercury last month, much of the industry that remains in Linnton -- such as chemical and fuel storage tanks -- also threatens the neighborhood with some the worst damage that could occur if a feared subduction zone earthquake strikes the city).

Though the grant and the cooperation of state and federal authorities with involved Linnton community members is encouraging, I'm most interested to see what develops from involving residents directly in documenting their own concerns. Linnton residents are participating in the “Linnton Photovoice Project” by photographing sites they personally feel illustrate either community health strengths or weaknesses. At their next open meeting, on St. Patrick's days, community members will discuss the photos and select specific ones to then write narratives explaining the sites' significance. These narratives, in turn, will be part of a final report that could more comprehensively explain to decision-makers the community's priorities better than an outside expert might.

Such “crowdsourced” studies might be useful to other communities concerned about the impacts broad policy decisions pose to unique localities. Meanwhile, they empower citizens while giving decision-makers valuable on the ground information and intelligence they might not otherwise have the resources to gather. Combined with the extensive, thorough data gathered by projects like the Regional Equity Atlas, this sort of information gathering could go a long way to ensuring that fewer individuals experiences are overlooked in the race to green our society.

Essays in the Just West blog are not written by the High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Map of areas for priority pollution control in Portland harbor courtesy Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.

Bill Lascher is a Portland, Oregon-based freelancer. He focuses on the environment's intersection with science, business, culture and policy.

He got the name for his Web site, Lascher at Large, from the legal column his father penned for 20 years before his death. Lascher is currently working on a project with his grandmother to tell the story of her cousin, Melville Jacoby, a foreign correspondent who died in the early days of World War II.

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