built environment

Asbestos in the Built Environment

By Emily Walsh, Community Outreach Director for the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance

Health in the built environment, especially those structures containing asbestos, is an ongoing problem, even as building codes and standards are modernized.

For structures built during the past century, up until the 1970s, materials like asbestos were widely utilized. Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that was mined and incorporated into of applications from drywall and popcorn ceilings to household goods like clothing and crockpots. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has estimated that as many as 107,000 buildings in the United States contain asbestos, including older homes and schools.

Alongside other environmental toxins like lead, existing asbestos should be of concern to all those looking to renovate or change existing structures. When left undisturbed and intact, asbestos poses little danger; however, if asbestos-containing materials are broken or damaged, the fibers become airborne and potentially hazardous. If ingested or inhaled, exposure over time can lead to asbestosis, a chronic lung disease, or potentially a rare cancer called mesothelioma.

As the risk of exposure significantly increases when materials are broken, for example when testing is being carried out, testing and abatement of possible asbestos should be conducted only by professionals. Areas where asbestos is commonly found include: plaster, caulking, drywall, insulation, textured walls, tiles, and adhesives in spaces that were either built or renovated prior to 1980.

While existing asbestos is an issue, little awareness remains around the fact that many applications for asbestos remain legal in the United States and can be found in certain products up to one percent. Continued use in the U.S. is largely comprised of imported items including automotive brake pads and prefabricated construction items, and has also been found in children’s makeup, toys and crayons in recent years. Although the EPA was able to enact restrictions on asbestos use, it was overturned shortly after passage in the early 1990s, leaving the U.S. one of the few remaining developed nations yet to fully ban asbestos.

Thanks to the passage of the Frank R Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century in 2016, the EPA was given the authority to evaluate chemicals for their threat to human health, as well as the power to ban substances proven to be harmful. Asbestos was named to their first list of 10 initial chemicals to evaluate at the end of 2016. However, as with any change in administrative leadership at the federal level, the future direction of the program is unknown.

Map of malignant mesothelioma

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Supporting the EPA, following what legislation is on the docket that will impact human and environmental health, and calling your representatives are all actions that will help ensure that dangerous toxins finally get eliminated in the United States. If nothing else, maintaining and being aware of your living and working spaces for potential hazards is a great place to start.

Philadelphia Story: An Ambitious Campaign to Spread Opportunity into All Corners of the City

By Jay Walljasper, Senior Fellow at On the Commons and editor of OnTheCommons.org

For decades the “Philadelphia Story” was about steady economic decline.  That story is being rewritten today as many Americans rediscover the advantages of cities—inviting public spaces, rich cultural diversity and a creative environment that fertilizes start-ups and attracts talent.

Young people, in particular, have moved here in droves, realizing they can enjoy the same kind of urban amenities as New York, Washington or Boston. New Americans immigrating from other nations also contribute to the city’s growth. But so far Philadelphia’s comeback is limited to certain parts of town.  “We have one of the highest infusions of millennials coming here, but also some of the highest rates of poverty and economic segregation,” observes Parks Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell.

Map of population aged 18-24 in Philadelphia

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Refusing to accept these disparities as inevitable, local leaders formed the Reimagining the Civic Commons initiative three years ago to show how growing prosperity can be spread more widely throughout town— a strategy now being applied in Chicago, Detroit, Memphis and Akron.

Philadelphia’s early efforts show promise that urban revitalization does not inevitably translate to dislocation, in which lower-income people are shoved away when neighborhoods bounce back economically.  The stark boundaries—rich vs. poor, black and brown vs. white—begin to break down as people share parks, trails, libraries, nature centers and other gathering places.

Philadephia’s Civic Commons campaign began as a partnership among two foundations—William Penn and Knight—working with non-profit organizations, city staff and citizens to improve public assets like parks and libraries. The idea is that strengthening these civic commons—which means places belonging to everyone—can lay groundwork for economic and social opportunity in surrounding neighborhoods.

This is not doing something for the community, it’s with the community, stresses Shawn McCaney, Executive Director of the William Penn Foundation. “Everyone doesn’t walk away when the last brick is laid. The people living in these neighborhoods have been involved in this work, they own it, and they are the people who will protect and steward these projects.”

“Investing in civic commons is one way we can improve the city for everyone.  Studies show how better public spaces improve crime and economic development,” adds Ott Lovell, who was in the thick of Civic Commons planning as Director of the Fairmont Park Conservancy, a civic group supporting public parks.  “When you make a place more inviting, it helps out local businesses, it creates healthier communities, it changes the way people relate to one other.”

Philadelphia’s Civic Commons  focuses on five public spaces shared by the whole city, which are located in or near disadvantaged communities: 1) a nature and youth leadership center being built by Audubon Society and Outward Bound; 2) an urban trail connecting 10 diverse neighborhoods; 3) a new bike and pedestrian path linking America’s oldest botanical garden with the rest of the city; 4) a cluster of three recreation facilities on the site of Philadelphia’s 1876 World’s Fair; and 5) a library expansion and new park in the heart of racially mixed neighborhood.

Map of civic commons locations

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With the promise of these projects beginning to shine, the City of Philadelphia is launching a major expansion of the civic commons by investing $500 million to reinvigorate parks, libraries, playgrounds and recreation centers. Called Rebuild, the program is a cornerstone of Mayor Jim Kenney’s goal to “move all of Philadelphia’s neighborhoods forward”—and paid for in part by a new tax on sugar-laden drinks. It’s notable that while “soda taxes” have been rebuffed elsewhere (including Michael Bloomberg’s unsuccessful push in New York City), linking the tax to the popular idea of strengthening civic commons got the bill passed in Philadelphia—the first big city to do so.

“Civic commons are valuable assets that we already own and want to reimagine for the benefit of everyone,” explains Carol Coletta, who helped start Philadelphia’s Civic Commons initiative while at the Knight Foundation and now leads Reimagining the Civic Commons as Senior Fellow at the Kresge Foundation.

Launched last year by the JPB Foundation, Knight Foundation, Kresge Foundation and Rockefeller Foundation working in partnership with local funders in Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit, Memphis and Akron, Reimagining the Civic Commons’ mission is “to foster community, social mobility and economic opportunity by creating experiences and spaces where people of all backgrounds can exchange ideas and address common problems while making cities more environmentally sustainable in the process.”

“What can people can do together that they can’t do alone?”—that question is the essence of the civic commons approach to revitalizing neighborhoods, says Coletta.

Civic Commons in Action

Here are Philadelphia’s five original civic commons projects, now in various stages of planning or building:

1. Discovery Center: Reclaiming a Community Gathering Spot for Everyone

A 37-acre man-made lake in in Fairmount Park, fenced off for decades, will become Discovery Center—an education resource jointly run by the Audubon Society and Outward Bound offering nature and leadership programs for youth from across the city.

The nearby Strawberry Mansions community—a low-income area where handsome Victorian homes stand next to vacant lots—is working with the Discovery Center and Fairmount Park Conservancy to ensure local people feel welcome at the new $18 million facility. “It’s going to reengage a generation of park users,” says Tonnetta Graham, president of the Strawberry Mansions Community Development Corporation.  “And we are working to see that it will spark more private investment in our neighborhood without gentrifying it.”

2. Rail Park: Connecting 10 Diverse Neighborhoods

Construction has begun on this one-of-kind park, transforming an abandoned rail line into a landscaped community space that runs three miles along an overhead viaduct, then through a tunnel and open-air cut beneath the streets.

The Rail Park was conjured by artist Sarah McEneany more than 30 years ago, when she moved into the area. She shared the idea with friends and neighbors, slowly building support for a vision that many initially dismissed as pie-in-the-sky. One of the people she convinced was Melissa Kim, who worked with the Asian Arts Initiative at the time. “It’s a diverse area with homeless shelters and high rise lofts, Chinese families and artists,” Kim says. “The Rail Park can offer an amenity for people in these neighborhoods connecting them with each other and the rest of the city.”

3. Bartram’s Mile: Opening Up an Urban Oasis to the Community

Tucked away on the Schuylkill River lies Bartram’s Garden, the oldest botanical center in the Americas, founded by naturalist John Bartram (a close friend of Benjamin Franklin’s) in the early 1700s.  Every year, this 45-acre sanctuary attracts more than 50,000 school children and nature lovers from across the region. But until recently, lower-income people living nearby in Southwest Philadelphia seldom stopped in to explore its gardens, woods and riverfront.

“Local people tell me they thought it was just for gardening enthusiasts or that they did not feel welcome,” explains Bartram’s Garden Director Maitreyi Roy.  But that’s changing with new programming and the just-opened Bartram’s Mile, a riverside walking and bike path.  When a rail bridge refurbished for bikes and walkers opens next fall, connecting Bartram’s Mile with heavily traveled bike trails on the other side of the river, Southwest Philadelphia “will be just a 20-minute ride from the Center City on park trails,” Roy says.

4. Centennial Commons: Recovering History, Reviving a Neighborhood

Centennial Commons commemorates the first US World’s Fair, which celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence,  attracting 10 million visitors  and introducing bananas, popcorn and Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone to Americans. A grand stone gateway and the fair’s art gallery, now a Children’s Museum, are all that’s left of the historic 1876 event in what’s now a sleepy corner of Fairmount Park.

The area is generally empty—except for the museum, which is pricey for neighborhood residents—because there’s not much to do here. The Fairmount Park Conservancy is working with the community make Centennial Commons feel more inviting. Initial plans, drafted after months of community-driven discussion, call for traffic calming on busy streets bordering the area, new landscape architecture and three deluxe recreation areas with climbing structures, nature attractions, a sprayground (think playground crossed with water park) and ice skating rinks. Neighborhood residents will be hired to work on the project and receive mentoring to help them climb the ladder in the construction trades.

5. Lovett Library & Park: Strengthening a Community Hub

The Mount Airy neighborhood in northwest Philadelphia—which is about 60 percent African-American and 30 percent white—is recognized as one of the most stable racially integrated communities in America. The Lovett Public Library has long been a spot where the whole community comes together—a distinction that is sure to increase next fall with the opening of a library addition featuring a larger children’s section, increased technology capacity, improved ADA accessibility and a teen center.   The library grounds will be upgraded into a full-fledged park, creating a lively civic center for Mount Airy.

Philadelphia’s Lessons for Other Cities


“We’ve had a lot of success with pop-ups,” notes Patrick Morgan, the Knight Foundation’s Program Director for National and Community Initiatives. “Let people do something and see what happens.” Because Philadelphia’s first five civic commons initiatives are lengthy undertakings, experimentation reassures communities that things are actually happening and turns up innovations that can be incorporated into the finished project.

Identify Tomorrow’s Leaders

The Civic Commons presents a prime good opportunity to “daylight” future leaders in neighborhoods and organizations, recommends Parks Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell.

Jennifer Mahar, director of Civic Initiatives at the Fairmont Park Conservancy, underscores the importance of recognizing “field leaders”— second and third tier leaders in community and non-profit groups. “Find ways to resource them,” she urges.

Make Sure Community Involvement Goes Deep

Philadelphia’s Civic Commons employs a number of tools to make sure grassroots people stay involved with the projects—which include forging strong connections to peers in other neighborhoods and organizations, and empowering them through new experiences and expertise. Mahar outlines three  programs in which more than 40 community organizations are involved:

  • Learning Labs, in which community revitalization leaders from around the country worked with local people;
  • Learning Exchanges, in which community activists across the city shared their knowledge and stories with one another;
  • Learning Journeys, in which delegations of community leaders visited other cities to gather ideas and inspiration.

Never Underestimate the Power of Civic Engagement

“It’s the unmined gold in our cities,” declares Philadelphia’s General Manager Michael DiBernardinis. “That’s why we want to become the most civically engaged city in America.”

“We needed a grassroots, ground-up way of working to make sure improvements reflect what the people really want—that’s important because it’s how the community will take ownership of these places,” explains David Gould, who worked on the Civic Commons with the William Penn Foundation and is now Deputy Director of Community Engagement for the City’s Rebuild initiative.

Community engagement is the heart of civic commons work, adds Patrick Morgan.  “You don’t just invest in the places, but in the people who are doing the work. This takes the idea of engagement to a whole new level. You have an actual agreement between the city and the community around the unique needs of these places where people come together with people who aren’t just like them.”

Jay Walljasper—author of The Great Neighborhood Book—consults, writes and speaks about creating vital, equitable, beloved communities.

Credit:  Courtesy of Reimagining the Civic Commons-Philadelphia

GIS Shows Where to Effectively Target Infrastructure Spending

This post was written by Terry Bills. It was originally published in the ESRI blog on January 19, 2017.

During rush hour on August 1, 2007, sections of the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis, Minnesota, began to collapse and fall into the Mississippi River, killing 13 people and injuring another 145. This was only one of a series of high-profile bridge failures that have resulted in lives being lost. The cause, according to many experts, is that the United States has been systematically underinvesting in infrastructure and maintenance for some time. In fact, recent figures indicate that state and local spending on infrastructure is at a 30-year low.

Click the map to zoom to your area.

Effectively addressing America’s infrastructure needs begins with knowing where to make the most strategic investments. And that is where GIS can play an important role in understanding the condition of our infrastructure, where the largest bottlenecks occur, and where dollars should be targeted for the greatest benefit to the nation’s economy.

With the incoming presidential administration’s commitment to improving America’s infrastructure, Esri’s unique geographic information system (GIS) capabilities present an opportunity for national government figures to launch a forward-thinking program to restore the nation’s vast system of highways, bridges, airports, and ports.

Click the map to zoom to your area.

GIS can provide a common platform that would allow the US Congress, the administration, and the various state departments of transportation to share an understanding of the current condition of our nation’s assets, where the needs are greatest, and how we can identify the most strategic infrastructure investments to deliver the greatest benefit. Additionally, GIS provides an effective way to monitor the progress and performance of such investments and communicate the benefits to the public in an easy-to-understand fashion.

Maintaining our critical infrastructure over time is also less costly when best practices in asset management are followed. And a precondition to effective asset management is having solid asset inventory and condition assessments, all managed and maintained in GIS. Analysis supported by GIS can help us understand trade-offs between different investments, ensuring that we target dollars to deliver the greatest impact. As such, GIS is a platform of insight that helps agencies make smarter investments in the future of American infrastructure.

Learn more about how GIS can restore infrastructure—see the story map Strengthening America’s Infrastructure.

2010-2014 ACS Data Now Available in the Map Room

The team at Community Commons has been working hard in recent months to roll out all the latest American Community Survey data. We’re pleased to announce that at this time, all ACS data in the Community Commons Map Room is updated.

Next, our team will continue to incorporate the ACS data in our publicly available reports, like the Community Health Needs Assessment (CHNA), over the next month, so stay tuned!

In the meantime, check out a few of our ACS favorites below.

Public Transport Commute 2014

See how public transit use has changed since the last release. Click the map to explore changes in the areas around Terre Haute and Bloomington, IN, for example.

Why does the Census collect this information?

  • For mass transportation and metropolitan planning
  • For employment planning, define banking and housing markets, and planning emergency response
  • To plan programs and services for the disabled population, bicycle commuters, carpool and ride shares, and many other groups.
  • To estimate and study the effects of long commutes on health (obesity, hypertension, etc.), and on the environment (emissions, contaminants, etc.).

Learn more from the American Community Survey.

Uninsured Population

Uninsured populations have decreased across Kentucky. Click the map to toggle between 2010-2014 and 2009-2013 data to see the changes.

What’s so interesting about health insurance data?

  • Helps identify vulnerable populations that may be at disproportionate risk of experiencing limitations in health care access, poor health quality, and sub-optimal health outcomes
  • To project the demand for VA extended health care services
  • To determine where health insurance is lacking as part of research into infectious disease and contaminants
  • To review and analyze the unmet needs of people with disabilities and to identify the characteristics of the target service population

Learn more from the American Community Survey.

Average Rent

Average rent has increased in several counties in New Mexico. Click the map to see rent prices in your area.

How can you use housing data in your work?

  • To identify rental distribution of housing units used to determine Fair Market Rents (FMRs)
  • To describe the balance of owners and renters
  • If you are a grantee receiving block grant funds from the Community Development Block Grants, HOME Investment Partnership Program, Emergency Solutions Grant and Housing Opportunities for Persons with AIDS programs, you can use these maps to describe housing needs
  • To advocate for the allocation of low-income housing assistance in a fair and equitable manner
  • Businesses and mortgage lenders use these statistics to guide future operations.

Learn more from the American Community Survey.

Have questions about what is available now or what will be available later? Check out our “What’s New” page or contact us.

Walking Equity in Low-Income, Minority and Immigrant Communities

This is the first in a three part series by Jay Walljasper that discusses walking as an equity issue and how to address it.

People have walked for justice and economic opportunity throughout American history.

Slaves seeking freedom hiked hundreds of miles on the Underground Railroad, guided by heroes like Harriet Tubman. Workers wanting a better life for their families walked on picket lines and at protests, rallied by advocates like Cesar Chavez. People demanding civil rights marched in Selma, Alabama and the National Mall in Washington, led by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Walking is a powerful tool to change the world as well as a fundamental human right. To be restrained from free movement is an injustice, a denial of our liberties, a betrayal of American ideals.

Yet many people across the country now think twice before traveling on foot due to dangerous traffic, street crime, racial profiling, or a lack of stores and public places within walking distance. Forty percent of all Americans say their neighborhood is not very walkable, according to a survey commissioned by Kaiser Permanente, one of America’s largest healthcare providers. A full quarter of Americans report they are deterred from walking by speeding traffic or lack of sidewalks, and 13 percent say crime keeps them indoors.


Maps like these visually tell the story of a community and its health. Click on the map and zoom to your location to see this data for your area or visit our Map Room to create your own maps.

These numbers rise even higher in disadvantaged communities, compounding already serious problems of poor health, limited transportation options, and overall disillusionment.

Poor conditions for walking among low-income households, people of color and some immigrant communities limit their access to jobs and education. One-third of all African-Americans and one-quarter of all Latinos live without access to a car, according to a report by the Leadership Conference Education Fund, which means walking and public transit (which involves a walk) represent important pathways to opportunity.

Improving walking options can also help ease the financial burdens on poor families, which spend 42 percent of their income on transportation compared to 22 percent among middle-income Americans. That’s because the average cost of owning and operating one car is $8700 a year .

“This is an issue of equity,” says Gil Peñalosa, founder of 8 80 Cities and an immigrant from Colombia. “A big thing we could do to help low-income families is to make it easier to live without a car. And it would help middle-class families to switch from two cars to one.”

“I was in Brownsville, Texas, which is majority Hispanic and one of the poorest communities in America, where the average income is half the national average,” remarks Peñalosa. “Yet over 90 percent of trips there are still by car. That’s why the city’s new plans for biking, walking and trails can make a difference.”

Barriers to Walking

So what stops people of color and those living low-income communities from walking more?

There are “disproportionately high pedestrian deaths in low-income communities,” according to US Department of Transportation specialist Paul Heberling. He notes that pedestrians in the poorest one-third of urban census tracts are twice as likely to be killed as those in other neighborhoods. African-Americans are 60 percent more likely to be killed by cars while walking, and Latinos 43 percent.

Click on the interactive map to see what the data looks like for your own community or visit our Map Room to create your own maps.

Click on the interactive map to see what the data look like for your own community or visit our Map Room to create your own maps.

That’s because people walking in “low-income communities are less likely to encounter sidewalks, street/sidewalk lighting, marked crosswalks and traffic calming measures,” concluded a health report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

This disparity helped spur US Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx to launch his Safer People, Safer Streets initiative to help everyone walk and bike more. “This is the safest time for transportation in history, except for pedestrians and bicyclists,” he said.

In addition to traffic injuries, other barriers to walking for low-income people and racial minorities include: inadequate infrastructure, fear of crime, no appealing destinations to walk to and a stigma that people on foot are “losers, ” explains Yolanda Savage-Narva, Director of Health Equity at the Association of State & Territorial Health Officials.

Growing up in African-American communities in both the North and South, Savage-Narva recalls, “We walked very seldom on the South Side of Chicago because of crime. And in Mississippi, it wasn’t normal to walk. It was something that only really poor people did. I never walked except when I drove to the park to take a walk.”

How you travel looms large as an emotional issue in disadvantaged communities, according to Peñalosa. “Walking is seen as a symbol of failure. And you can see why when you look at the places where many people are forced to walk– deteriorating infrastructure, dangerous intersections. It’s like we are telling these people every day that they are second class citizens.” Indeed, sidewalks in heavily African-American neighborhoods are 38 times more likely to be in poor shape, according to Active Living Research.

Savage-Narva stresses that cultural attitudes also affect how people view walking in low-income communities in other ways. “The word ‘exercise’ carries a different meaning. Some people will think you’re crazy if you suggest taking a walk after they’ve worked a 12-hour shift.”

“It’s important to get at the root of what will inspire all people to walk,” Savage-Narva says about promoting walking in poor neighborhoods. “Emphasize the freedom of taking a walk to where you want to go. It’s a civil right that people have died for—and, of course, it also has many health benefits too.”

“Walking for fun has not been a big part of the experience of people of color and low-income people,” concurs Anita Hairston, Associate Director and transportation specialist at Policy Link, a national institute focused on social equity. “They walk because they need to get to work or somewhere else.”

She offers another reason straight out of today’s headlines to explain why many African-Americans, Latinos and immigrants are wary about taking a stroll. “The issue of racial profiling is front and center. Who’s got the right to be on the streets? If a group of young black men are dressed casually, people think: Where is this gang going?   What are they going to do?”

Despite all these roadblocks, people in disadvantaged communities still walk more than other Americans. “The fact is that we have twice as many low-income children who are walking or biking to school than those in affluent neighborhoods, even lacking the infrastructure to protect the children who walk and bicycle,” reports Keith Benjamin, a Campaign Manager for the Safe Routes to Schools National Partnership.

Part two, Overcoming Barriers to Walking. Part three, Suburban and Rural Walking Issues.

Jay Walljasper, author of the Great Neighborhood Book, is a writer, speaker and consultant on making communities better places to live for everyone. He is the Urban-Writer-in-Residence at Augsburg College in Minneapolis.

Feature photo credit: Fibonacci Blue