Material Epidemiology: health, segregation, and building and cyber-physical infrastructure

Environmental Health (Public Health); Public Policy; Urban Studies; American Art and Architecture

This study examines the role that regulation of building and cyber-physical infrastructure plays in reinforcing segregation and impacting health outcomes.

Research Interests
  • Health and the built environment
  • Material speculations as cultural critique
  • Cyber-Physical Systems
  • segregation

Historically, residential segregation has been constructed utilizingrisk and profitability assessments as instruments of implementation. Usingstate and local policy combined with privatized financial processes, social andeconomic patterns of racial inequity took root and can still be seen within thephysical characteristics of the built environment. For example, differences inallowable building stock material patterns and access to infrastructure create physicaldisinvestment patterns that fall along racial lines. Additionally, residentialsegregation has been called “the principal organizational feature of Americansociety”[1]because where people live matters for nearly every life outcome. Segregationoperates as a structural barrier to equal opportunity, undermines the notionthat anyone can achieve the “American Dream”, and weakens the meritocraticideal.[2] 

This study will build on the emergent literature in “legalepidemiology,” the scientific study of the etiology and deployment of lawas a factor in the cause, distribution, and prevention of disease and injurydue to residential segregation of Virginia’s African-American population.[3]This link between health outcomes and segregation is based on the well-acceptedpremise that an inequitable distribution of resources that include socialdeterminants of health––where people work, live, eat, and recreate––moredirectly explain health disparities than any biological explanation alone.[4]Yet, legal scholars, social scientists, and architects who study the reciprocitybetween socio-economics, cyber-physical, and building systems have notsuccessfully integrated the knowledge of their respective disciplines. Thisstudy aims to bridge the disciplinary boundaries that exist between the legal,architectural, and social studies of technology in an effort to moresystematically and holistically understand the role that governmental regulationof the built environment and cyber-physical systems play in reinforcingsegregation and impacting negative health outcomes.

[1] Massey, D. S., & Denton, N. A.(1993). American apartheid:Segregation and the making of the underclass. Harvard University Press.

[2] KwateNOA, Meyer IH. The Myth of Meritocracy and African American Health. AmericanJournal of Public Health. 2010;100(10):1831-1834. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2009.186445.

[3] Burris,S., Ashe, M., Levin, D., Penn, M., & Larkin, M. (2016). A transdisciplinaryapproach to public health law: the emerging practice of legalepidemiology. Annual review of public health37,135-148.

[4] Marmot, M. (2004). Status syndrome.Significance, 1(4), 150 – 154.

Desired outcomes

We will study laws andpolicies governing the built environment and cyber-physical infrastructure thathave reinforced, perpetuated, and exacerbated racial segregation at thecity-scale in New York City and the metropolitan region of Hampton Roads, VA, using two of their neighborhoods as case studies to explore more granularquestions and garner community-input. The focus neighborhoods will include UpperManhattan (aka Harlem) and East Hampton in Hampton, VA.  These two areas have largetraditionally disadvantaged communities, with accompanying health disparities.The data from these communities will provide good outcome variability and alsoa strong contrast between communities with varied urban density.

Both historical and contemporary data will beused to compare built environments and their association withdisproportionately adverse population health outcomes. Our study has fourspecific aims:

1.       We willmap the historic and contemporary location of segregated residentialneighborhoods (using residential racial covenants and zoning ordinances) that resultedfrom legally created and enforced discrimination in case study neighborhoods.

2.       We willmap the neighborhood-level material distinctions created by policies governingthe built environment. Categories of distinction include: materialclassifications, blight classifications, fire risk classifications, and lendingrisk classifications. Policies impacting these categories include: buildingcodes, minimum property standards, insurance risk assessments, and lending riskassessments.

3.       Our analysiswill examine the association between disparate population health outcomes amongracially segregated populations, and among the distinct neighborhoods asdetermined by the neighborhood’s built and cyber-physical environment.

4.       Finally,we will correlate the disparate health outcomes, segregated neighborhoods, andenvironmentally distinct neighborhoods.