Tag Archives: public policy

Difficult Dialogues Spring Public Forum: Health, Infrastructure, and the Environment

This spring’s Difficult Dialogues Public Forum, held on April 13, featured three of the 2020-2022 Faculty Fellows: Dr. Andrea Gore (College of Pharmacy);  Dr. Ben Hodges (Cockrell School of Engineering, Civil, Architectural, and Environmental Engineering); and Dr. Katherine Lieberknecht (School of Architecture, Community and Regional Planning) speaking on the topic of “Health, Infrastructure, and the Environment.” Each panelist spoke briefly, followed by conversation moderated by HI Director Dr. Pauline Strong.

Dr. Lieberknecht’s presentation focused on the importance of including local knowledge in climate planning. She heads a National Science Foundation-supported collaborative project located in Dove Springs that seeks to find ways to integrate community knowledge into city efforts to contain flooding and ameliorate extreme heat. Lieberknecht identified three kinds of infrastructure planners consider when designing solutions: the built environment; the ecological environment; and the social environment. Using seasonal flooding as an example, the built environment includes structures such as levees; the ecological environment includes efforts to create green space; and the social environment includes communication networks within communities. Local knowledge incorporates information about all three. Community members know which storm drain always backs up, which route to the grocery store is shadiest in the heat of summer, and who organizes community responses. The Dove Springs project is still in its beginning stages—the research began roughly 6 months ago, and some aspects have been hampered by C19 restrictions—but Lieberknecht and her academic and community partners hope that its findings will help planners and communities design more robust climate solutions.

Dr. Hodges followed. He opened his presentation by sharing a simple fact: global warming means increasing rain, increasing rain means more floods. Floods happen for three reasons, Hodges explained. Rivers exceed their banks; storm surges overwhelm coastal areas; and “water bombs,” localized intense rainstorms. Cities are not currently designed to manage such storms. Design criteria must change. But civil engineering solutions operate almost exclusively from a cost benefit analysis.  Wealthy people live on the most valuable land, so it’s that land that civil engineers strive to protect. Hodges pinpointed a dilemma in infrastructure planning: when changes are made to mitigate undesirable circumstances, such as flooding, property values rise. Gentrification often follows, driving the original residents out. How can engineers and city planners create solutions that preserve communities instead of displacing them? Hodges suggested a few ways to change current practices. Firstly, he encouraged more interdisciplinary work to provide more holistic understandings of the problems and possible solutions. He promoted investment in ripping out concrete and asphalt to create new green spaces, and stressed the importance of building codes in addressing infrastructure inequities. He also proposed that cities begin thinking of eminent domain as a tool to bring more valuable properties into green space.

To close the panel, Dr. Gore brought a more direct focus on health outcomes. Since the “chemical revolution” of the World War II period, synthetic chemical production has increased dramatically. Many of these chemicals allow us to have products that make our lives easier or more convenient. However, their production often causes pollution that harms both human and non-human life. Gore described her research on endocrine-disrupting chemicals, or EDCs, which she defined as “a chemical that interferes with any aspect of hormone action.” Hormones, she explained, affect brain development and behavior regulation, among other factors. She emphasized two points: EDCs have adverse effects on brain health, and these adverse effects can affect the health of future generations. We’re all exposed to EDCs, primarily through food. Chemical contamination harms wildlife as well as human life, which Rachel Carson demonstrated in her 1962 book, Silent Spring. As the planet warms up, the polar ice caps melt, and chemicals once trapped in the ice are released into the air and water. While it would be impossible to avoid all exposure to EDCs, Gore offered some actions we all can take in order to minimize risk. She advised microwaving in glass containers rather than plastic; drinking filtered water, not bottled water; and eating fresh produce—organic, if it’s affordable—instead of industrially processed food.

A lively discussion followed. Participants discussed the tension between local and national needs when addressing infrastructure issues, and the need for context-informed solutions. Lieberknecht cited the need to “think with equity.” Solving these issues requires thinking holistically, including conversations about living wages, affordable housing, and access to healthy food. While all agreed that community cultures of care are important, they stressed that it’s the role of municipalities to step up and address problems.

Several resources were shared by the panelists and participants in the chat. Some are linked below.

City of Austin Climate Equity Plan 

Planet Texas 2050

“Editorial: An International Riposte to Naysayers of Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals” Andrea Gore

“Policy Decisions on Endocrine Disruptors Should Be Based on Science Across Disciplines: A Response to Dietrich et al.” Andrea Gore, et al.

The Death and Life of Great American Cities Jane Jacobs

The Economy of Cities Jane Jacobs

Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life  Eric Klinenberg

Thinking in Systems and other work by Donella Meadows

Water 4.0: The Past, Present, and Future of the World’s Most Vital Resource David Sedlak

Scale: The Universal Laws of Life, Growth, and Death in Organisms, Cities, and Companies Geoffrey West

 

Photo of the 2015 Halloween flood in Austin, TX courtesy of the City of Austin

Controversy and Conversation Resources: “The Apple Pushers”

The April 1 meeting of “Controversy and Conversation” discussed issues raised by the film “The Apple Pushers,” a documentary featuring New York City’s Green Carts Program, an initiative intended to bring greater access to fresh fruits and vegetables to neighborhoods with little opportunity to purchase fresh produce.

HI’s program coordinator, Dr. Melissa Biggs, a food studies scholar, began the discussion. While the film used the terms “food desert” and “food swamp” to describe the neighborhoods served by the Green Carts, she suggested the concept of “food apartheid.” Introduced by activist Karen Washington, “food apartheid” refers to the systems of economic inequality and racial and environmental injustice that permeate our food system.  Biggs asked participants to consider perspectives critical of the “obesity epidemic” framework. The inequities that create food apartheid  contribute to health problems of many kinds.

The introduction served as a starting point for a conversation that touched on the food ecosystem of Austin, changes in shopping and eating due to the COVID 19 epidemic, and food insecurity in rural areas and on college campuses. Zach Shlachter, one of our Austin Public Library partners, described his work with the Eating Apart Together Initiative, a city-sponsored program that came together during the pandemic to help feed unhoused people.

Lucas Alvarez, also of the APL, compiled a list of resources available through APL for those who would like to explore these topics further: APL Resource List “The Apple Pushers”

Below are other resources mentioned during the discussion

City of Austin Food Resources:

Some Local Food Organizations

Austin-Focused Readings and Resources

UT Campus Resources and Initiatives

Readings on Food Justice and Food Systems

Announcing Hostile Terrain 94: Austin Site

Hostile Terrain 94 is an international participatory exhibit commemorating the thousands of people who have died or disappeared attempting to cross the U.S./Mexico border, due to the U.S Border Patrol policy of Prevention Through Deterrence. Organized by the Undocumented Migrant Project, the exhibit grew from the work of anthropologist Jason DeLeon, one of the Humanities Institute’s 2019 Distinguished Visiting Lecturers. Hostile Terrain exhibits will begin launching in late Fall 2020, and continue through Fall 2021. The Humanities Institute plans to participate, with a target date of Spring 2021 for the physical exhibit, and other activities leading up to and following the exhibit.

In advance of the exhibit, the Undocumented Migrant Project is hosting “A Moment of Global Remembrance.” The Project invites members of the public to record themselves reading aloud the name of a person who has died while crossing into the United States through the Sonoran Desert of Arizona. The recording also includes details of the person’s death. While it might be difficult to speak these details aloud, the project provides one way to remember those who have died and to bear witness to the results of U.S. policies.

The Humanities Institute extends an invitation to participate in “A Moment of Global Remembrance.” If you wish to record a video, the Undocumented Migrant Project offers these steps:

  1. Email hostileterrain94@gmail.com with the subject line “HT94 Video Compilation” and include your name and location* in the body of the email. *If you would prefer to keep your identity anonymous this information is optional. We will also accept audio-only recordings.
  2. We will reply to your email with the information that you will record yourself reading out loud along with further instructions.
  3. Send the recording back to hostileterrain94@gmail.com

Please submit all requests for participation by July 11th

For an example of the recording, watch Jason De León and other volunteers on the Global Moment of Remembrance announcement.

Hostile Terrain 94 : Global Moment of Remembrance

Recording the video can be a difficult experience. If you choose to record a video and would like to participate in a discussion about your  experience, the HI invites you to send a copy to Melissa Biggs, the guest curator for the Hostile Terrain 94 Austin site.

Three HI Affiliates Featured in Latest Issue of “Life and Letters”

In the latest issue of Life and Letters, several faculty from the College of Liberal Arts offer their perspectives on “Rebooting Our Lives After COVID-19.” Among the faculty included are two of our Difficult Dialogues professors: Robert Crosnoe, Associate Dean of Liberal Arts and Professor of Sociology, whose Difficult Dialogues course is called “Race and Policy in the U.S.,” and Ken-Hou Lin, Associate Professor of Sociology, who teaches “Two to Tango: The Sociology of Interpersonal Relationships” for the program. Another faculty member who contributed to the article, Heather Houser, Associate Professor of English, is collaborating with the Humanities Institute on our new theme, The Humanities in the Environment/The Environment in the Humanities.