Environmental Health News

What's Working

  • Garden Mosaics projects promote science education while connecting young and old people as they work together in local gardens.
  • Hope Meadows is a planned inter-generational community containing foster and adoptive parents, children, and senior citizens
  • In August 2002, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Board voted to ban soft drinks from all of the district’s schools

#804 -- Precautionary Mister Rogers, Part 3*, 11-Nov-2004

Environmental Research Foundation Home
Rachel's Democracy & Health News

   permanent link to this issue [PDF format]printer friendly version (PDF format)   
#804 -- Precautionary Mister Rogers, Part 3*, November 11, 2004
In this "Precautionary Mister Rogers" series, we are exploring how the precautionary principle works at the local level.

The precautionary principle can begin with the question, "Is this action necessary?" Or, "Does it have to be this way?" This leads naturally to a discussion of alternatives.

Precaution has been applied to least-harmful purchasing policies at the local level. But it can also be used to protect the local economy. We saw an example of this last week, with policies that favor government purchasing from local firms, to keep tax dollars at work locally. Here's another precautionary approach to protecting the local economy:


Local businesses are essential for the stability of any community. Therefore, looking ahead to try to prevent business closures is a sensible precautionary approach.

Dan Swinney at the Center for Labor and Community Research (www.clcr.org) in Chicago has studied the problem of small businesses disappearing and has concluded that there are two main reasons why small businesses close their doors: the owners grow old without making plans for succession, or insurmountable management problems arise.

Swinney believes that communities that understand these problems can take action to prevent the loss of local businesses -- arranging for the firms to be bought out by their workers, for example. Or, in the case of management problems, providing management advice to failing firms.

The key to success is developing a network of community people (chiefly workers, who have inside information about the places where they work). This "early warning network" can spot the signs of trouble in small businesses and can find the right kind of help to keep local businesses operating.

Swinney's brief report on this topic, "Early Warning Systems: A Proactive Tool for Labor in the Regional Economy," can be found at http://www.rachel.org/library/getfile.cfm?ID=488.

While you're thinking about your community's economy, take a look at Swinney's longer paper, "Building the Bridge to the High Road," http://www.rachel.org/library/getfile.cfm?ID=489. And while you're thinking about the "high road economy" versus the "low road economy," check out the High Road Service Center at http://www.highroadnow.org/. We "environmentalists" are missing the boat if we think we can protect "the environment" without paying attention to jobs, the economy, fairness and justice.


Sometimes the precautionary principle begins by asking, "Is this action necessary?" But it can also arise from the question, "What kind of community do we want? What are our common goals?"

Every community needs to have an articulated vision for its future and a set of goals to reach that vision. The vision and goals need to be created by all community stakeholders (residents, homeowners, local business owners, public officials, community-based organizations, and institutions in the community) who are committed to the process and who are ready to see it through. The process of setting goals will take a long time (sometimes a few years) so people need to be prepared to engage for the long haul. The group articulating the vision and goals also needs to develop a set of indicators to help local citizens know whether they are making progress toward the goals and the vision.

So how do a diverse group of people with very different agendas come to a table and agree on a vision and a set of goals? In Rachel's #783 we reviewed some of these techniques in detail but here is a quick wrap-up of the best of them:

In order to make sure you have all the stakeholders at the table you have to know who is in your community. The best way to do this is to conduct a community asset inventory to learn about all the gifts, skills, and talents of neighborhood residents; all the associations in your neighborhood including social clubs, religious organizations, sports clubs and teams, PTAs, civic organizations, gardening clubs and others; and formal institutions such as private businesses, public institutions (libraries, schools, parks, etc.), and non-profit agencies (hospitals, community development agencies, etc.). For more information about community asset inventories. see http://www.rachel.org/bulletin/index.cfm?issue_ID=2416 and http://www.rachel.org/bestPrac/detail.cfm?bestPrac_ID=56 .

Once you have all the stakeholders at the table you can create your vision and goals. There are a number of processes that will help with this task. Here are two:

** Participatory mapping will help you understand what your community looks like today and what you want it to look like in the future. This is done using paper maps rather than computer generated maps. For example, you can look at the map and locate all the grocery stores and then think of where you want new ones located so everyone in the community could easily get to a grocery store. You could target land for open space, new schools, retail stores, and affordable housing. You can look at what polluting facilities are in a residential area and discuss if they should stay there with more emission controls or should be moved to a more industrial area. For example, you might want an auto body repair shop conveniently located but you might want them to have better emission controls so they do not vent toxics into the neighborhood. You could also look at which neighborhoods need sidewalks or traffic calming devices (such as speed humps) so that it is safe for children to walk to school. To learn more about participatory mapping see http://www.rachel.org/bulletin/index.cfm?issue_ID=2416 and http://www.rachel.org/bestPrac/detail.cfm?bestPrac_ID=65 .

** Another tool for discussing vision and goals is "study circles" that are given the task of finding agreement on an issue. A study circle is a facilitated group of 8 to 12 people with diverse backgrounds and differing viewpoints who agree to meet several times to discuss a specific issue. Each person has an equal voice and people try to understand one another's different views, share concerns, and look for ways to make things better. With the help of the Study Circles Resource Center (http://www.studycircles.org/ ), communities develop a committee that creates the agenda and helps find the participants. Like the study circles themselves, these committees need to represent different backgrounds and interests in the community. Multiple study circles are held in the community simultaneously over a period of time, culminating in a community-wide meeting where the individual study circles report on the action ideas they agreed on. The whole group then agrees on the actions that the community can take together. http://www.rachel.org/bulletin/index.cfm?issue_ID=2416 and http://www.rachel.org/bestPrac/detail.cfm?bestPrac_ID=62 .

The above examples show how community-based organizations can jumpstart the process but there are also good models that have been driven by local governments. One such process has been used in Austin, Texas on the neighborhood level.

Austin, Texas has a long history of land use planning and zoning errors including zoning intended to create and enforce racial segregation[1]. In 1998, Austin began a program to develop neighborhood plans -- a program designed to remedy existing zoning problems and improve community outreach and communications.

Over the course of a year, Austin's Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department works with neighborhood residents to address land use, transportation, services and infrastructure, and urban design issues. The goal is for diverse interests (renters, residents, property owners, business owners, community organizations and institutions) to get together and develop a shared vision for their community.

Each neighborhood plan has four goals: 1) identify neighborhood strengths and assets (for example, can a resident meet all his or her basic needs within walking distance?); 2) identify neighborhood needs and concerns (for example, the neighborhood might need more recreational space); 3) establish goals for improving the neighborhood (for example, exclude properties that don't fit the scale of existing buildings); and 4) recommend specific actions to reach those goals (for example, develop design criteria for all new buildings).

So far, 25 of the 54 plans have been completed and are available on Austin's Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department's web site (see http://www.ci.austin.tx.us/zoning/adopted.htm ). The web site also includes an extensive library of materials that residents can review to prepare for their neighborhood planning sessions. See http://www.rachel.org/bestPrac/detail.cfm?bestPrac_ID=60 and http://www.ci.austin.tx.us/zoning/default.htm for more on Austin's Neighborhood Planning.

This kind of planning requires resources and it is best if community-based organizations work with local governments to create plans. Some other cities that have created neighborhood plans include Seattle (see http://www.cityofseattle.net/neighborhoods/npi/plans.htm ), Minneapolis (see http://www.nrp.org/R2/Neighborhoods/Plans/Plans.html ), and Lake Oswego, Oregon (see http://www.ci.oswego.or.us/plan/neighborhoods/naplan.htm ).

Large nonprofit organizations have also helped communities create neighborhood plans. See for example, the plan developed by Urban Ecology in Oakland, Calif. (http://www.urbanecology.org/neighborhood.htm) for the 16th Street BART neighborhood in San Francisco.

Having a vision, goals and even a plan is a good first start but then a community needs to know whether it is moving toward (or away from) its goals. A community needs to see whether things are getting better or worse. A good way to do this is to develop indicators -- standardized data that is collected every year. These indicators can measure progress, or the lack of it.

Indicators can be chosen to help residents understand a community's economic vitality, the strength of its social institutions, the health and well-being of the citizenry, and the state of the local environment. Residents can not only use indicators to track progress but can also use them to adjust their vision and goals. For example, if the indicators show that a community has a lot of emergency room admissions for routine health issues they could adjust their goals to include more local health centers within the community.

There are many ways to develop and collect indicators but here we will look at one effort that is taking place today and we believe is an excellent model.

The Neighborhood Environmental Indicators Project (see http://www.neip.org/ ) is sponsored by the Oakland-based nonprofit organization, the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment, and Security (http://www.pacinst.org/ ). With the West Oakland community-based organization, 7th St./MyClymonds Corridor Neighborhood Improvement Initiative they have created the West Oakland Indicators Project (West Oakland EIP), which has a Neighborhood Taskforce that serves as the community center and overseer of the project. The Neighborhood Taskforce selected indicators that represent a broad range of community concerns, from issues of air quality and toxics, to environmental health, land use, housing affordability, transportation, and even civic engagement.

Once the indicators were established, Pacific Institute researchers collected and analyzed data from city, county, state, and national agencies. They then compiled the information in 17 indicator reports that can be found at http://www.neip.org/article.php?list=type&type=21 and in the report, Neighborhood Knowledge for Change: The West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project (found at http://www.rachel.org/library/getfile.cfm?ID=490 and http://www.neip.org/downloads/w_oakland_indicators_report.pdf ).

For some of the indicators, data was not collected because it was not available or because it was not reliable, consistent, or regularly updated. Future plans for the project include having the community organizations update the indicator information themselves. By identifying missing data, the Pacific Institute helped residents identify data gaps in their community so they could advocate for government agencies to begin collecting this information consistently. Appendix B of Neighborhood Knowledge for Change lists four indicators that were not included: trucks, neighborhood blight, indoor air quality, and noise pollution, and tells why these indicators would be important, what can be done by the community about the problem, and who in the city to contact about the problem.

Like neighborhood visioning and planning, these efforts take resources to get started. Community-based organizations should look to nonprofit organizations and their local governments for assistance. Other examples of community indicator projects assisted by nonprofits include the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance (see http://www.bnia.org/ ), Truckee Meadows Tomorrow (Reno, Nev.) http://www.quality-of-life.org/main.php?choice=about , and the Crossroads Resource Center helping the Urban Ecology Coalition in Minneapolis (see http://www.crcworks.org/nsip.html ).

Examples of indicator projects sponsored by local governments include efforts in Seattle, (see http://www.sustainableseattle.org/Programs ), Washtenaw County, Michigan (see http://www.ewashtenaw.org/government/departments/planning_envir onment/sustainable_washtenaw/sw_indicators_sc_html ), and Jacksonville, Florida (see http://www.jcci.org/statistics/qualityoflife.aspx ). For a list of who is working on indicators see the International Sustainability Indicators Network at http://www.sustainabilityindicators.org/resources/WhoWorkingOnI ndicators.html .

Throughout the next year we will continue this series on Precautionary Mister Rogers. If you have a local precautionary project to tell us about, please send us an E-mail at erf@rachel.org .


* This series is a collaborative effort of Peter Montague and Maria B. Pellerano of Environmental Research Foundation, and Carolyn Raffensperger and Nancy J. Myers of the Science and Environmental Health Network (www.sehn.org). This installment was written by Maria B. Pellerano.

[1] Philip Rutledge and others Addressing Community Concerns: How Environmental Justice Relates to Land Use Planning and Zoning (Washington, D.C.: National Academy of Public Administration, July 2003), pages 89-116. Available at http://www.napawash.org/Pubs/EJ.pdf and http://www.rachel.org/library/getfile.cfm?ID=320 (this is a long document and takes a few minutes to retrieve).

back to the top

Rachel's Democracy & Health News (formerly Rachel's Environment & Health News) highlights the connections between issues that are often considered separately or not at all. The natural world is deteriorating and human health is declining because those who make the important decisions aren't the ones who bear the brunt. Our purpose is to connect the dots between human health, the destruction of nature, the decline of community, the rise of economic insecurity and inequalities, growing stress among workers and families, and the crippling legacies of patriarchy, intolerance, and racial injustice that allow us to be divided and therefore ruled by the few. In a democracy, there are no more fundamental questions than, "Who gets to decide?" And, "How do the few control the many, and what might be done about it?" As you come across stories that might help people connect the dots, please Email them to us at dhn@rachel.org. Rachel's Democracy & Health News is published as often as necessary to provide readers with up-to-date coverage of the subject. Editors: Peter Montague - peter@rachel.org Tim Montague - tim@rachel.org ::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::: ::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::: To start your own free Email subscription to Rachel's Democracy & Health News send a blank Email to: rachel-subscribe@pplist.net. In response, you will receive an Email asking you to confirm that you want to subscribe. ::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::: ::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::: Environmental Research Foundation P.O. Box 160, New Brunswick, N.J. 08903 dhn@rachel.org