Review: Street Science: Community Knowledge and Environmental Health Justice

Article excerpt

Review: Street Science: Community Knowledge and Environmental Health Justice By Jason Coburn Reviewed by Susan Maret University of Denver, USA Jason Coburn. Street Science: Community Knowledge and Environmental Health Justice. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005. ISBN 0-262-03333-X. $60.00 Cloth. (271p.)

Street science is described by Jason Coburn (p.8) as a practice of knowledge production that embraces a "co-production framework," and is a "process that emphasizes the need to open up both problem framing and subsequent methods of inquiry to local knowledge and community participation." Coburn, Assistant Professor in the School of International and Public Affairs, and the Urban Planning Program in the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation at Columbia University, and former Senior Environmental Planner with the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, wrote much of Street Science during a dissertation fellowship (p. ix).

Street science springs in part from local (community) knowledge, which Coburn (p.12) describes as "the scripts, images, narratives, and understandings we use to make sense of the world in which we live." Street science is a practice of science, political inquiry, and action, which is situated and evolves in a community (Coburn, p.44). Community case studies such as the population-dense and polluted Greenpoint-Willamsburg section of Brooklyn, El Puente efforts to monitor asthma in its community, Cari Comart and her community's fight to prevent lead poisoning resulting from the fallout of sandblasting the Williamsburg Bridge, and the Toxic Avengers, a group of high school students who organized to raise community awareness of the Radiac Corporation, illustrate the practice of street science. These particular case studies support Coburn's (p.71) theory that local knowledge informs environmental health research and environmental policy making in four related ways: 1. by making a cognitive contribution by rectifying the tendency towards reductionism; 2. by fostering of a "hybridizing" of professional discourse with local experience; 3. pointing out low-cost and more effective interventions or remedies; and 4. by raising previously unacknowledged distributive justice concerns that disadvantaged communities far too often face.

In reporting on street science practices, which range "from missing hazard information to detailed cultural practices that influence human exposures to pollution," Coburn shows that citizens act as change agents. This situation is suggestive of Ulrich Beck's complex theory of reflexive modernization, which postulates that as people become less constrained by social institutions, they are in a position to mold the process of modernization rather than remain passive observers of a system in which they hold no stake (Irwin p. 44). …