To deconstruct the structural inequity built into the human environment, engineering needs a better understanding of the ways in which infrastructure holds people back.
An hour south of the nation’s capital of Washington, D.C., in rural Charles County lies Nanjemoy, Maryland, where 70 families live without indoor plumbing and rely on purchased or donated water for drinking, bathing, and sanitation.
To the north, Baltimore’s sole subway line avoids the predominantly Black communities of the city’s western reaches—an area of the city that is home to the 1.4-mile “highway to nowhere,” the construction of which slashed across a Black neighborhood and displaced 1,500 residents and dozens of businesses.
In the United States, services and facilities we know as infrastructure are often applied and maintained unequally, and often along starkly socioeconomic and racial lines. Low-income communities and people of color shoulder a disproportionate impact of the nation’s neglected corridors, inefficient transportation networks, inadequate water systems, lacking telecommunications services, and risk from air pollution-producing hazards.
Engineers—both applied and academic—will no doubt drive the ideas and innovations needed for a revitalization of the national infrastructure. But in order to deconstruct the structural inequity built into the human environment, many say that the discipline needs a better understanding of the blisteringly complex ways in which engineering solutions continue to hold people back.
“For more than 30 years, people have been studying inequities that arise as a result of engineering decisions. The topic is not new, but it’s just begun to filter through discussions in education and practice” throughout the field of engineering, says Deb Niemeier, Clark Distinguished Chair and co-director of the Maryland Transportation Institute at the A. James Clark School of Engineering.
One signal of this breakthrough: the recent creation of the Committee on Racial Justice and Equity by the National Academy of Engineering (NAE). The goals of the committee—which is chaired by member and Clark School Glenn L. Martin Endowed Professor Percy Pierre, who is recognized as the first African American Ph.D. in electrical engineering—include developing strategies to increase the percentage of Black scholars in engineering, recommending ways technology can be used to improve racial justice, and making the broader NAE community more aware of racial injustice and inequity.
Consider, for example, household spending on energy. As a fraction of their earnings, low-income families spend more—as much as three times more—on energy than non-low-income households. Black, Hispanic, Native American, and older adult households, as well as those living in low-income multifamily housing, are burdened by disproportionally high energy bills nationally, regionally, and in metro areas.
Engineers can help reduce that energy and economic inequity: by studying and developing new, more affordable forms of weatherization, energy generation and delivery, and even billing schemes, Niemeier says. Engineers also play an important role in creating equitable access—to clean water, transportation, affordable housing, good schools, and more.
“These all fall under the umbrella of infrastructure,” Niemeier says. “We need to talk about how we address access and equitable opportunity questions that arise with each one of these sectors.”
Donna Riley, head of Purdue’s School of Engineering Education and a leading voice on issues of social justice in engineering and engineering education, says that just the ability to have a conversation about how engineering perpetuates bias in the built environment is a huge shift for engineers, who, she says, “are invested in the idea of an apolitical profession.”
“When you look at today’s problems, they are complex on steroids,” Riley says, drawing the phrase from a talk by Stephanie Adams, dean of engineering at the University of Texas at Dallas and a past president of the American Society for Engineering Education. “Take climate change,” explains Riley. “It’s about systems of systems that layer on each other. It has to be understood in a social context; you can’t separate the social from the technical.”
In (Social) Context
It almost sounds like the setup of a pub joke: What happens when three University of Maryland students—a civil engineer, a biological scientist, and a geospatial researcher—collaborate on an idea for a COVID-19 research project?
What you get, as it turns out, is gravely serious.
In March 2020, Kristen Croft, a Clark School Ph.D. student; Nora Hamovit, a Ph.D. candidate in the College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences; and Guangxiao Hu, a Ph.D. student in the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences, decided to explore the racial inequities of COVID-19 impacts.
With the guidance of their senior mentors—Niemeier and Jennifer Roberts, an associate professor in UMD’s School of Public Health whose work focuses on the impact of the built environment on marginalized communities, with an eye toward health outcomes and physical activity—the three junior researchers began to overlay Louisiana census and state demographic data on a map to graphically depict stressors in a variety of categories.
They created six indexes: housing stress (homeownership rates, whether homes had kitchens and proper ventilation, housing debt); healthcare (premature death rates, low birth weight data, access to primary care physicians, insurance status); economic data (median household income, children living in poverty, single-parent households); environmental stress (number and location of toxic releases, air pollution, green space, drinking water contamination); health risk (stroke, asthma, obesity, diabetes); and COVID-19-related data points (positivity and mortality rate, number of essential workers in a community, change in year-over-year unemployment status).
By Spring 2021, the group’s preliminary data visualization showed clear hotspots of mortality early in the pandemic clustered in heavily Black, lower-income urban communities in New Orleans and Baton Rouge and in areas along the Mississippi River with histories of toxic pollutant releases. Their research also showed that later in the summer of 2020, areas of rural northern Louisiana had secondary hotspots, also in Black, heavily segregated communities with inferior housing and limited access to healthcare.
“If you can identify the stressors, levels of stress, and vulnerability within a community, it’s easier to put action on the ground,” Hamovit says. “The more data you have and the more you can highlight where the long-lasting impacts are, the better.”
The researchers’ preliminary findings are framed by Louisiana’s complex history of racial segregation and how location and funding of hospital facilities impact healthcare access for Black citizens. After Hurricane Katrina forced the 2005 closure of two New Orleans hospitals that primarily served Black and uninsured residents, the community went without a hospital for nearly 10 years. Though the city’s Black communities now have a new (but smaller) hospital and growing network of primary-care clinics as a result of increased investment and community activism, a “two-tiered” healthcare system—rooted in Louisiana’s history of slavery and racial segregation—is still visible in the Crescent City.
The siting of hospitals and healthcare facilities may seem to be social and political work, but engineers play a major role in engaging with impacted communities who stand to benefit from investment.
“Having engineers engage with both sides of the data is a way of growing the profession to be sensitive to contextual factors, like socioeconomics, that can expand or constrain access to opportunities via surrounding infrastructure,” Niemeier says.
Engineering has traditionally focused on numbers and taken a top-down, outside-in approach. But to develop appropriate solutions for people living with and within infrastructure systems, many engineers will need to work from the inside out.
“This is a problem of engineers not knowing their social systems,” says Birthe Kjellerup, an associate professor at the Clark School and chair of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee. “Engineers need to understand that we make decisions and create technologies that have consequences for communities and people. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated inequities that will follow society for the next couple of generations if we’re not really, really careful.”
In southern North Carolina, hog and poultry farms are big business. Encompassing big barns and even bigger pits to contain the waste of millions of animals, these facilities are most often sited in the state’s most rural landscapes and at the fringes of towns—areas where Black communities are more likely to be found than white. A lawsuit filed in 2014 claimed that people of color are 1.5 times more likely to live within three miles of a hog farm than whites, and are also overwhelmingly more likely to have lived on those lands for many generations prior to the arrival of the farms.
In 2018, the arrival of Hurricane Florence helped illustrate the impacts that these farms can have on their non-white neighbors. Waste pits overflowed their berms, spilling raw animal waste into fields and streets alike, despite farmers’ attempts to remove waste in advance of the storm. The farms have other, longer-lasting health impacts: In Duplin County, where many hog farms are concentrated, one study found that local populations experienced higher rates of infant mortality, anemia, kidney disease, and tuberculosis, as well as a markedly lower life expectancy, compared with other areas of North Carolina.
In a Maryland-led collaboration with Duke University engineers, technical expertise and community knowledge are working hand-in-hand to empower communities to better defend themselves against these kinds of environmental insults. The team—led by Marccus Hendricks, an affiliate of the Clark School’s Center for Disaster Resilience and assistant professor in UMD’s School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, and Sacoby Wilson, an associate professor in UMD’s School of Public Health—is helping communities along the North and South Carolina borders increase their resilience against chemical and hazardous waste releases that can occur during severe storms and flooding.
By combining aerial and satellite imagery with ground-truthing data supplied by area residents, Hendricks, Wilson, and engineers help these largely Black communities develop disaster preparedness guidebooks and strategies to advocate for services they don’t currently have.
“We should be aiming for a sense of cultural humility—that we can’t possibly know what someone experiences in their daily life,” Hendricks says. “We can talk about built environments and communities from a scientific perspective, but whether or not you’re a researcher, you live in a community somewhere. We sometimes forget that. I can’t think of any other sort of question that makes an individual’s eyes light up than when talking about where they live.”
That kind of discussion carries incredible nuance from local residents—the history of a place and how it’s shaped traditions and systems, and something far less tangible: an intuition about the nature of the built environment and its processes, procedures, and basic services.
“Engineers need to know enough to be conversant in and responsive to other ways of knowing,” says Riley. “Those engineers can better empower governments and communities to decide what kind of technologies we want, what kind of sociotechnical systems we want, and the kind of world we want to live in. We’ve got to be educating engineers for that world.”
In her work on the impacts of mercury releases related to illegal gold mines in the Peruvian Amazon, says Alba Torrents, the ability to build trust with people is paramount, and requires introductions from community leaders—people who can act as bridges between residents in need and engineers. Building community trust is a familiar exercise in many of the social sciences, but less so in engineering projects or approaches.
“Sometimes as engineers, we have a preconceived idea of what will work, what will be best. But we don’t go and listen to what the community may want,” says Torrents, professor and interim chair of the Clark School’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. “We need to listen first, consider options, and engage in dialogue.”
By talking to communities and committing the time it takes to understand local nuance and needs, says Hendricks, engineers will be better able to recognize inequities that exist, as well as the drivers of disadvantage.
He adds that engineers are often trained to have siloed thinking about how systems—stormwater management, sewage systems, electric generation, and delivery—are built and function, and view them as separate from social functions. But just as artificial intelligence algorithms have revealed the bias of their creators in disastrous social demonstrations, the design, siting, and installation of infrastructure systems are likewise biased by the people who drive the decisions behind them.
And finally, with their long lifespans that transcend generations, infrastructure management is also fundamentally a social process—yet requires engineering decision trees to function well over those time scales.
“Understanding the historical distribution of resources and investments is critical to understanding the current status of communities today,” Hendricks says. “We need to be asking those social questions in the context of physical problems or taking a social lens to what’s largely been studied as a physical problem.”
The Work Ahead
Difficult questions remain for university engineering programs committed to addressing the societal injustices built into the human environment. From increasing representation of diverse students in STEM, to adopting more diverse curricula, to enacting a culture shift that values socially oriented engineering work as much as it does academic publications: Campuses have their work cut out for them.
But efforts are underway, and examples abound. At the Clark School, one approach seeks to build empathy among engineers-in-training.
Nicole Mogul, a senior lecturer and assistant director of the Science, Technology and Society Scholars program, teaches a course on infrastructure and society. A primary goal is for students to gain a deeper, more nuanced understanding of the different elements of infrastructure and how people use and interact with it.
The process involves deep and sometimes taxing reflection. Mogul’s students have interviewed people about what their lawns mean to them, investigated the impact of the odors of a place, participated in community meetings, and researched previous peoples who have used a geography throughout history. Students gain a keener sense of how engineering decisions and design influence the human experience in and of a space.
“It starts with seeing your own lived experience as data, and then you start to see: This is someone else’s lived experience,” Mogul says. “And then you’re curious. This means one thing to me, but it might not mean the same thing to someone else.”
Developing an engineer’s sociological eye is key, says Daniel Armanios, an associate professor in the Department of Engineering and Public Policy who teaches a course in engineering and social justice at Carnegie Mellon University.
“The way to address equity issues [is to be aware of] people who historically didn’t have a voice,” Armanios says. “Who’s not in the room, who’s missing, who should be there? All of that is a social structure, not a technical one. That’s why historically it’s been difficult for engineers to do this; engineers are not trained to look at social structures.”
For his course, Armanios sourced all classroom readings and materials from Black, Indigenous, and other authors of color to encourage and empower the diversity of the classroom itself. It elicited strong and valuable responses from some students.
“It was a pleasant surprise to hear from students, especially those from underrepresented backgrounds, that they felt they had a voice to talk about issues they really cared about,” Armanios says.
He adds that being able to assess and measure how well pedagogical and applied solutions are working to correct or address injustices is a critical challenge.
“This is an exciting and promising challenge to figure out,” Armanios says. “We need to be able to evaluate outcomes and define the scope of the community that is included or excluded from the analysis.”
Social responsibility is at the root of a course-based initiative led by Professor Elisabeth Smela who, with fellow Clark School colleagues Natasha Andrade, David Bigio, and Vincent Nguyen, was awarded a grant by the Lemelson Foundation to train future engineers in socially responsible design and application.
“As educators, our levers of change are the students we teach and help empower,” says Smela. “We know our students care about the bigger picture and want to make a difference. Now is the time to emphasize the ‘why’ of engineering and how each student can apply what they learn in the classroom as professional engineers.”
Their goal, says Andrade, is to graduate Maryland engineers who are both empowered and energized to think and act beyond business as usual: “A big part of what we want to do as a team is to change the culture of engineering. To stop thinking that we’re the rational numbers kind of people, and to start thinking that we work with society, for society.”
This story is featured in the Fall 2021 issue of Engineering at Maryland magazine.