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Environmental concerns, awareness grow in South Wilmington community

UD students staff a display at last summer's Southbridge Weekend community event, where they distributed a survey and information about sea level rise to residents.

An interdisciplinary research team from the University of Delaware, which is working with Wilmington’s Southbridge community on environmental issues, has released results of a survey showing that more than half the residents have serious concerns about pollution and sea level rise.

The survey, which was administered at various community events in the South Wilmington neighborhood, found that 50.6 percent of residents who responded were greatly concerned about pollution and that about 59 percent described sea level rise as a very serious or extremely serious issue.

The low-income, largely African-American community of about 2,000 residents is the type of neighborhood that often is left out of discussions about topics such as sea level rise, said Victor Perez, assistant professor of sociology and criminal justice, who has been working with the team and local residents for about 18 months.

“Coastal communities with higher-priced homes are more often at the center of sea level rise concerns,” Perez said. “But it’s well documented that Southbridge is extremely vulnerable to sea level rise.”

Not only would much of the area be flooded if water levels rose significantly, he said, but Southbridge already has a large amount of pollution in its soil from industries such as tanneries and chemical companies once located there. The community, which is the oldest historically African-American neighborhood in the city, is south of the Christina River.

The UD research team is exploring the complex, interrelated issues involving sea level rise, environmental pollution and human health in Southbridge. The potential for sea level rise in the area is a pressing issue, Perez said, which is gaining more attention and awareness with the work of state agencies, as well as local organizations, community members and the researchers from the University’s Delaware Environmental Institute (DENIN).

The research team — made up of experts in soil chemistry, hydrology, engineering, economics and sociology — is attempting a novel interdisciplinary approach to study the potential for pollution in the soil to become mobile by way of projected sea level rise in the area. The approach seeks to integrate each respective discipline into the research design, complementing and informing each other, and has a strong community focus, Perez said. 

Members of the team, led by Donald Sparks, S. Hallock du Pont Professor of Plant and Soil Sciences and DENIN director, also includes Kent Messer, associate professor of applied economics and statistics, and Holly Michael, associate professor of geological sciences, in addition to Perez.

Perez’s focus in working with residents is to determine their level of concern and awareness of sea level rise, flooding and pollution in the area, as well as the community’s perceptions of the health effects of their local environmental burdens. 

The community’s battles with pollution are well known to many in the area, and residents have completed surveys and participated in focus groups. The research efforts are intended to also inform the community and will be reported back to residents on an ongoing basis, Perez said, noting that about 63 percent of those sampled reported knowing nothing to only a little about the specifics of sea level rise.

UD researchers also are creating a baseline of knowledge of the environmental burdens in the community by way of state reports, soil sampling and local community knowledge and experiences of these issues; this knowledge will continue to inform research approaches and policy recommendations for sea level rise and pollution mitigation and remediation.

The goal is to allow the community’s perspective to help inform the research approach, which considers the local knowledge of these issues vital to the success of the research, Perez said.

The research is funded by NSF-EPSCoR, the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, grant No. IIA-1301765, and the state of Delaware. EPSCoR is a federal grant program led by the National Science Foundation to help states develop their research capabilities and institutions. 

More about the community

Though Southbridge struggles with environmental and health issues, unemployment and a level of poverty nearly four times that of the state’s, in recent years it has made significant gains in addressing these issues, Perez said. He gave these statistics:

  • From 2000 to 2010, South Wilmington saw a significant decline in unemployment, from 15.7 percent to 7.5 percent, though unemployment did return to 14 percent in 2012. 
  • While South Wilmington’s high school graduate rate of 60 percent (of those 25 and older) was considerably less than that of the entire city of Wilmington in 2000, it has increased to 78 percent in 2012, nearly even with the city as a whole.
  • The percentage of households with a female head and no husband present has declined precipitously, from 50 percent in 2000 to 29 percent today.
  • Southbridge is now one of the safest communities in Wilmington, with low crime rates attributed to the efforts of generations of families living there and community police officers.
  • Southbridge is a well-organized community with a rich history and deep ties between citizens, and for the past six years, the community and service agencies have held a free, well-attended community event, “Southbridge Weekend,” every summer.

For more information on the community and its recent accomplishments, check out the links available on Perez’s website

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UD researchers have found that most residents of Wilmington's Southbridge community have serious concerns about pollution and sea level rise.
A UD research team, working with Wilmington’s Southbridge community on environmental issues, has found that more than half the residents have serious concerns about pollution and sea level rise.
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