Is there a school, supermarket, or health clinic in your neighborhood? Is there a bus stop on your street, a tiny home village around the corner, or an interstate interchange down the block? Are people moving in or moving out? Where are the police and would you call them in case of emergency?
Researchers across many departments, schools, and colleges at CU Denver are investigating these and other urban-related questions that deserve deliberation. Professors and students are conducting research about the city, employing everything from surveys of academic literature to historical data collection, community-based questionnaires to smartphone apps.
The streets where you live reflect the city’s cultural, economic, and civic priorities. And the population density of urban areas forces citizens to take a direct look at social equity issues—precisely because they are on display right in front of you. Your neighborhood highlights equality as well as inequality. Ultimately, your address directly affects how you receive public services, where your kids go to school, what you eat, and even why you’re happy (or not).
How Neighborhood Infrastructure Affects Wellbeing
There is a reason Denver’s I-70 expansion and National Western Complex redevelopment projects cut right through the Globeville, Elyria Swansea, and Cole (GESC) neighborhoods. These communities have historically had low socio-economic status and limited resources. Throughout the United States, large infrastructure projects often disrupt what researchers call environmental justice communities. EJ communities, which typically have low-income and/or minority populations, disproportionately face environmental and health hazards. Thanks to an $1.8 million grant from the National Science Foundation, CU Denver sociologist Esther Sullivan, PhD, and colleagues at CU Boulder are seeking to give a voice to disempowered residents.
“EJ communities are constantly assaulted by environmental disruptions, often with little consideration of the impact to residents,” Sullivan said. Sullivan, working with faculty in computer science, air quality engineering, and engineering education, seeks to improve the quality of life for people living in these three Denver neighborhoods by involving them in real-time data collection. Using a socio-technical system (STS) composed of environmental sensors, smartphone platforms, and a data analytics server equipped with predictive modeling, Sullivan and her colleagues seek to understand how the EJ communities are impacted during planned disruptions, how to mitigate negative impacts, and how to provide policy-/decision-makers with predictive information about potential negative impacts so they can plan accordingly.
“This is a unique application of smart and connected technology; it is designed to enable communities to conduct their own science using specialized apps and low-cost sensors to track environmental and social impacts to their immediate environment,” Sullivan explains. The research project should be especially impactful for GESC residents, who live in the most polluted zip code in the country, according to a recent national environmental risk index.
“Our vision is that providing communities access to data with smart, connected, cutting-edge tools will improve their personal environment, wellbeing, and social relations while their built environment is torn down and redeveloped,” Sullivan said. This neighborhood citizen science project could then serve as a model for planned infrastructure projects in other EJ communities throughout the country. Sullivan urges CU Denver students who are residents of the GESC neighborhoods to contact her if they wish to get involved in this research.
Public Services and the Equity Imperative
What do public services like trash collection and transportation have to do with social equity? A lot, it turns out. While public administration has long been concerned with efficiency, it has sometimes done so at the cost of fairness. Professor Mary Guy, PhD, who teaches in the School of Public Affairs, covers the connection between services and citizens in Achieving Social Equity (co-edited by Sean A. McCandless).
Take law enforcement, for instance. Guy points out that the killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd have made disparities in policing more apparent to the public. “Local police departments in Colorado and across the country are taking another look at how they train officers, how they supervise and discipline them, and who they hire,” Guy said.
But it goes beyond policing. “Persons of color are disproportionately arrested, sentenced, and incarcerated,” she said. “The record then hangs around their necks, making it difficult to get a job once released.” Guy notes that Colorado responded to this inequity when the state legislature passed a Ban the Box bill prohibiting employers from inquiring into a job applicant’s criminal history on an initial employment application.
More quotidian administration services like public transportation must also be concerned with fairness. For example, cities need to consider which demographic groups are disadvantaged by where public transit stops are located. “In Denver, the new general manager of RTD, Debra Johnson, is aware of transit equity concerns and speaks to the necessity to identify bus stops where there are no benches, the need for more mobility options for those who have physical disabilities, and the need for access to transit for everyone,” Guy said.
Achieving Social Equity includes research by additional CU Denver faculty: Sebawit G. Bishu writes about gender equity in the workforce, and John C. Ronquillo looks at Indigenous Americans and social equity. Public administration is far-reaching, affecting everything from child welfare and homelessness to immigration and the environment. “Simply put, social equity’s effects reveal themselves in every policy domain and in the daily work of all public service professionals,” Guy writes.
Why Criminalizing Homelessness Is Unconstitutional
Doctoral student Marisa Westbrook, MPH, and Associate Professor Tony Robinson recently published their research on the negative effects of criminalizing homelessness. They conducted a community-based survey of people experiencing homelessness in Denver and published their findings in the Journal of Social Distress and Homelessness, finding that respondents are at greater risk of illness and assault when police enforce “anti-homeless” legislation.
Although some lawmakers argue that camping bans and laws against public sleeping will “compel people experiencing homelessness to improve their health by leaving the streets and using services,” the evidence does not support this assertion. In fact, police sweeps of homeless encampments can actually lead people experiencing homelessness to become victims of crimes like robbery and assault.
Recently, Westbrook discussed her research as an expert witness in Denver Homeless Out Loud v. Denver, Colorado: Class-Action Lawsuit Against Homeless Sweeps in the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado, arguing that homeless sweeps and camping bans negatively impact the health and wellbeing of people experiencing homelessness. Westbrook said, “64% of our survey participants reported that they have been separated from a group due to police telling their group to break up or move along. In response to this, homeless residents frequently report leaving behind the security of groups and the safety of well-lit downtown areas for more isolated locations.”
There are alternatives to criminalizing homelessness. Robinson is currently conducting research on housing and homelessness in Seoul, South Korea. “Though the area has about 26 million people, it only has about 5,000 people experiencing homelessness—a far better record than Denver,” he said. “One reason is that there are several communities of informal housing allowed in Seoul, whereas Denver has for years bulldozed and destroyed informal housing wherever they found it.”
“Housing first” is a viable alternative. “The evidence is clear that these kinds of communities [tiny house villages and tent city locations] will improve health and quality-of-life outcomes for homeless individuals, while saving the city money in terms of policing resources and emergency health care,” Robinson said.
But perhaps the greatest reason to stop anti-homeless legislation is moral. “Any university, especially an urban university, must be committed to the civic mission of fostering a just and humane society,” Robinson said. “When confronted with fundamental human challenges like inadequate shelter and food for tens of thousands in their community, university researchers are called to respond.”