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Research with rural populations shows that small towns are not always better for health equity.
In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the shift from urban dwellers to rural homebuyers has been touted as a panacea to the health risks posed by dense urban environments. But rural towns often present invisible and compounding health risks, especially for their most vulnerable residents, says Ben Shirtcliff, associate professor of landscape architecture and urban planning at Iowa State University.
Shirtcliff has dedicated his career to the study of underrepresented and vulnerable populations in the built environment – primarily young people – and his recent study, “Transversalizing environmental risks with design”, was published in the journal PLOS ONE. In it, he and his fellow researchers – Rosie Manzo, graduate student in landscape architecture, and Rachel Scudder, graduate student in community and regional planning – investigated the risk of exposure to pollutants and its relationship to the infrastructure that could support these communities. .
Since arriving in Iowa in 2014, Shirtcliff says he has found a research gap in studies of rural landscapes, primarily in areas that have seen growth in the number of migrant workers from places like Mexico and Central America over the past 20 years. Although there is documentation of historical “gateway communities” in California, Arizona, and Texas, new rural migrant populations in the Midwest only attracted the interest of research funders in the course of of the last decade, he says, when organizations such as the National Institutes of Health ranked underrepresented rural communities as a federally funded research base. “I had to start by building a base: what does vulnerability look like in small towns?” he says.
Shirtcliff studied three rural Iowa towns near the Iowa State base in Ames—Perry, Ottumwa, and Marshalltown—that have growing migrant labor and changing economic resources, to better understand the cross-risks of exposure to environmental pollutants and social vulnerability.
The researchers used a transect methodology. This approach to sampling, says Shirtcliff, is derived from ecological studies and, in an urban context, is used to “cut” political and ideological conditions in different places such as redlining, income levels, school districts , etc., to “see the real relationship, from a public health perspective, that people have with the land. His research team found that the environmental risk from pollutants was not consistent across the three cities, and that in some cases the risks of exposure to substances such as diesel, lead paint, airborne toxins carcinogens and chemical accidents were significantly higher than state averages. They used publicly available data from the Environmental Justice Screening and Mapping Tool from the Environmental Protection Agency which uses indicators of demographic vulnerability such as age, income, racial or ethnic identification, education and linguistic isolation, as well as environmental indicators of toxicity and proximity measures for air, waste, water and soil. They combined these datasets with data from measures of the physical and social condition of the three cities, and the analysis revealed what Shirtcliff calls “a double threat”, attributed to the social and economic conditions of migrant workers.
The study illustrates an urban-rural paradox: “When you think about exposures that occur in urban areas, underrepresented communities hopefully have more political power to advocate for safer and more cleaner, but you just don’t see that happening in rural areas. cities,” says Shirtcliff. Cities, with higher tax bases and density, generate more reports of environmental health outcomes and can address these issues by mitigating landscapes. By contrast, says Shirtcliff, rural areas experiencing shrinking tax bases often lack basic health care infrastructure, let alone the means to invest in healthy landscapes. They also lack the density that could facilitate health impact reporting, which makes small towns seem safer and less in need of intervention than their urban counterparts.
The paradox is further exacerbated by climate change, which can affect small towns in the Midwest as well as coastal cities in the form of flooding. In major cities like New York, which is now embarking on mega-landscape projects to protect its coasts from rising sea levels, capital investments can help prevent climate change and improve health. The smaller, more rural Perrys, Ottumwas and Marshalltowns do not have the funding or tools to mitigate their effects on climate change, apart from using what Shirtcliff calls “aggressive” measures such as l increased use of pesticides and fertilizers – measures that are more likely to expose these vulnerable populations to toxicity.
What Shirtcliff wants landscape architects to take away from the study is not just that rural areas need restorative landscapes, but that small-scale interventions can be just as influential on public health. One example highlighted by the study is the lack of privacy experienced by vulnerable populations, which can increase human stressors and weathers that affect health outcomes. This issue can be prevented through intentional plantings of trees and gardens which can provide a sense of privacy and safety, as well as visual interest, and can help vulnerable families heal from trauma and process change. . Migrant labor has in many ways demonstrated the transformative capacities of small towns.
“Rural life is changing faster and more visibly than in cities,” he says. “A city that in 1980 had less than 1% minority population now has 75% minority. The population hasn’t gone down—it’s the same number of people—but it’s a completely different culture. This suggests that rural towns actually have a greater capacity to displace and transform the local environment.
In his research, Shirtcliff has also observed how migrant workers have used the landscape to promote their own healing processes: artworks made by residents discussing the challenges of leaving their home country, small libraries free to share books with neighbors and altars placed by workers. alongside makeshift pathways to factory jobs that help them heal.
“It’s really important to consider how these communities have already demonstrated the ability to invest in this recovery,” says Shirtcliff. “Rebuilding does not necessarily mean building new. It means integrating diverse cultures and integrating into those communities.
Anjulie Rao is a Chicago-based journalist and critic specializing in the built environment.