De-Provincializing Development

By Britt Dahlberg

This entry in our “De-Provincializing Development” series examines SDG #11: Cities.

“It breaks my heart,” Miranda told me as we looked out the window of the car at the fenced-off park. “This makes no sense, because they’re building stuff up so quick. I could go up there [to the wealthier neighborhoods] tomorrow, they’ll have something else built, and we’ve been fighting for this one little thing down here and don’t get nothing. And it’s sad.”

I met Miranda in 2009 in West Ambler, a mostly African American working-class neighborhood within an otherwise predominantly white and upper-middle-class late-industrial town outside of Philadelphia that had developed around asbestos manufacturing from the 1880s through the 1970s. I had been invited to attend a public meeting in which federal government officials met with residents to assess potential environmental risks of the leftover asbestos waste and explore possible reuse of the large community park built on top of the waste.

Ruth Weeks, who grew up in West Ambler and collaborated on the REACH Ambler project, talks about broader community histories and memories that are part of the newly listed BoRit Asbestos Site, 2010. (Photograph by author)

The United Nation (UN) Sustainable Development Goal #11 focuses on the development of cities that are environmentally safe and sustainable, with affordable housing, inclusive public spaces, and participatory urban planning processes. Examining how people navigate complex issues like these in practice, in cases like Ambler, reveals how the United States is faring and what it will take to reach those goals.

In the first participatory planning meeting I attended, people seemed to agree on the issues facing their town, and the discussion was narrowly focused on the proper techniques for assessing whether asbestos particles were making it into the air and threatening public health. But at one meeting, Miranda stood up to talk about the things that were being left out: the massive increase in flooding in her neighborhood and the asbestos site (which both sit at the bottom of the hill), the major impacts the closure of the neighborhood park had had on the community, the need to create new public spaces for the community to gather, and increased harassment of residents by police. “We’re not here to talk about the community,” another resident replied, “we’re here to talk about the asbestos.” Why, I wondered, did one preclude the other, when all of these issues were intertwined?

By 2012, Miranda had stopped participating in the neighborhood planning meetings. She recalled to me later that another resident had pulled her aside after a meeting once and said, “We love you coming and all, but you’ve got to stop talking about the community all the time.” It seemed that particles in the air were deemed “universal” issues affecting an undifferentiated “everyone”—and thus relevant for a government-led planning meeting—in ways that the impacts felt disproportionately by black residents, including ways that local history and development, intertwined with materials, infrastructure, and tensions around race and class, were not. The question, as Catherine Fennell names in her analysis of responses to lead contamination in Flint, Michigan, is “about the kinds of risks that a . . . group of citizens can recognize as shared, and thus worthy of collective concern and action, and those that will, despite their ubiquity, seem isolated events that will never break the surface of widespread attention.” While she was writing on a national scale, the observation, and questions of which concerns rise to gather attention, play out locally as well.

In assessing and mobilizing toward UN goals of inclusive and safe cities, two lessons stand out. First, the question of which “we’s” are being protected and included at various stages, from defining problems and solutions to looking at actual (and unintended) impacts, is paramount. Second, discussions here about asbestos, and of technical infrastructures and urban planning more broadly, serve as proxies for many unaddressed issues (Anand 2017; Reno 2016; Shapiro, Zakariya, Roberts 2017; Storey 2016). Material landscapes and city infrastructures are directly intertwined with—and become sites for working out—complex societal challenges around race, class, and gender, including being places of working out which issues are deemed worthwhile or possible to name in the first place.

For me, these ethnographic experiences called for cultivating broader spaces of dialogue, which, unlike the public planning meetings, could perhaps start but not end with attention to the physical properties of asbestos and cleanup. What if the sense of urgency around public issues in cities could open up dialogues, rather than prematurely limit their scope? I started exploring other forms that anthropological research could take in addition to academic writing. My colleagues, our collaborators from West Ambler, and I created the NIH-funded “REACH Ambler” project as one such outlet, conducting oral history interviews with residents, government officials, and developers, which became the basis of exhibit banners, newspaper inserts, and a series of short plays performed in Ambler (and elsewhere since).[1] Oral histories became a way to talk about scientific assessment and urban planning within the context of actual lives. Theater allowed people to sit in co-presence without instantly responding, to absorb different experiences, and to have a shared experience to which to point. The night of the play was the first time I heard race and gentrification asked about and discussed in public, or really anywhere other than within families around kitchen tables. It was also a first time I saw many intertwined issues allowed to rise and sit side by side in one place—where experiences could be engaged in the intertwined forms they actually take, rather than separating out material infrastructure, health, risk, and society, in an attempt to tackle each separately, but systematically leaving out pieces in the process.

Attendees share memories and ask questions following the “White Mountains” play at Act II Playhouse Theater, April 25, 2015. (Photograph by Conrad Erb)

In our Center for Applied History at the Science History Institute, we have since created a public seminar series, beginning last summer, in which I was thrilled to find city officials and residents of Philadelphia resonate with oral histories from Ambler in a discussion about how the kinds of data that are collected about a place shape how people see those neighborhoods and their futures.[2] And all around us, public humanities projects—such as the recent Monument Lab here in Philadelphia—continue to inspire.

These dialogues may happen at a slower pace and not result in immediate clear “interventions.” But there is value in opening up and reframing questions and definitions of the “problem” in the first place, and to see and contend with, as Deborah Thomas put it, the “complicated and sometimes surprising ways” in which the past “lives on in the present” in order that more of us may be present to consciously remake contemporary choices.

“Thank you for doing this work,” one woman from Ambler wrote us after seeing the website and videos of oral histories. “It’s the first time I’ve seen voice given to the sociocultural pain I’ve seen first-hand out here. I’d like to be connected with others to have a dialogue that’s missing here.”

Britt Dahlberg is the director of the Center for Applied History at the Science History Institute.


[1] Oral history transcripts, video clips, and scripts from the plays, can be found online for use in community dialogues, training, or school programs:

[2] For more on the History Lab public seminar series, see Rebecca Ortenberg’s piece:

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