Visualizing the Dangers of Toxic Brownfields

At the national Brownfields conference, a few innovative social media and education projects demonstrated how the Web and video can be used to educate the public and school students about the dangers of toxic brownfields. For people living near brownfields and students growing up beside them, these tools provide important weapons in the fight to force local governments and developers to remediate and redevelop the many sites that continue to plague cities.

Involving Communities

HabitatMap, is a “community networking platform” that harnesses the power of social media to fight for environmental justice. Michael Heimbinder said “community maps are really network maps, all the relationships are made clear.” He added that you can’t “map brownfields with traditional maps.” HabitatMaps help “document perceptions and then unpack them.”

In an example of one local group that is using a HabitatMap, he pointed to the Netwon Creek Alliance, which has created “Creek Speak.” Using an oral history approach, HabitatMap partnered with local researchers to interview neighbors of a local superfund site. Most of these residents had no idea they were living next to a toxic site. One woman described how green ooze pours out of her air conditioner unit and how her health has suffered over the years.

Visualizing Dangers, created by SUNY Professor and artist, Brooke Singer, visualizes one superfund site each day. “Using aesthetics and design to pull people in,” the Web site hopes to make the environmental impacts of these sites and their contaminants more easily understood to the people who have unknowingly created lives near them.

Singer said turning superfund data into easy to understand visualizations was a bit of a nightmare. “Superfund data isn’t in a dynamic format. There are no standards. In addition, a lot of the data is dirty, with gaps, omissions, and redundancies.” She added that government open data initiatives like are “open, but not accessible.”

Lack of access to easy-to-understand data is directly linked with the lack of public awareness or debate on these site. “Many neighbors don’t know anything about these sites’s dangers.”

Exploring Brownfields in Schools

The Center for Urban Pedagogy uses “art, design and visual media to improve community participation in planning among underserved populations.” They are taking big, hard-to-understand topics like infrastructure and “breaking it down to make it more accessible.” A recent project is called “What is affordable housing?” and aims to “break down the definitions for everyone.”

The center creates a range of visual teaching tools or “toolkits” for use in schools. These include rather unconventional maps. Valeria Mogilevich said the act of “making a map is very different from filling in an existing map.” For example, “how do you decide what to map? This tells us more about the map makers and what’s important to them.”

One example of a project the group undertook in a school in a brownfield-ridden neighborhood in Flatbush, New York City, asked “Why are there so many empty lots?” Middle school students went out and mapped the empty lots and then “started investigating these brownfields.” People in the neighborhood, said Douglas Paulson, had “never even heard of a brownfield.” By undertaking this exploration, the students made the project “go to the heart of what is important to them for their neigborhood.”

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