Racial Disparities in 21st Century Water and Sanitation Service Provision in the United States: History, Current Conditions and Implications for Community Health

This thinking is the basis for an integrated environmental engineering × public health curriculum. This curriculum is intended to focus on the reality that falls mostly invisibly into the space between disciplines and arises from the question of what if this reality were front and center in teaching and practice in these fields?

Undergraduate Curriculum Framework – University of Maine College of Engineering (Summer 2021) – Organization | Conceptual Approach

The fields of civil and environmental engineering are primarily responsible for planning, designing, and constructing facilities to serve and provide for the health and safety of society. Within the field of civil engineering, these facilities include highways, railroads, bridges, tunnels, airports, harbors, hydroelectric dams and power plants and the foundations and frames of buildings. Within environmental engineering, responsibility and focus include planning and design of water treatment plants, pollution control facilities including wastewater treatment as well as other infrastructure and technologies with a focus on environmental protection and/or remediation.

Undergraduate training in civil and environmental engineering includes the technical content of the engineering degree program as well as coursework that contextualizes engineering within a framework of Human Values and Social Context. Courses that satisfy requirements for competency in values/social context include ethics in engineering as well as courses focused on writing and public presentation. With respect to ethics in engineering, the coursework focuses on ethical principles and behaviors for guiding one’s career as a professional engineer, and as such, principally centers engineers themselves.

What appears to be lacking in this approach to teaching Human Values and Social Context within engineering is a framework for centering the relational aspect of this topic, namely, the role that cultural history – and the intersection of that history with industry and engineering – has played in defining and perpetuating societal perceptions of Human Value. That is, where engineering is applied – where infrastructure is built (or not) and how it is maintained (or not) – profoundly influences the quality of environments in which communities live. If there are differences in the application and quality of that infrastructure that orient along cultural fault lines of race and socio-economic status (which there are and do), then the question of what constitutes ethical behavior in engineering should extend beyond the behaviors of individuals to include the social orientation of the profession itself.

Specifically, Social Context for ethical behavior in engineering should center an understanding of the role that engineering, infrastructure and the built environment have played in creating, exacerbating and perpetuating inequalities in access to clean water, clean air, supportive transportation, flood control and drainage management, functioning sanitation, physical safety and the structural soundness and health-safety of materials used in construction in this country. Being poor and/or Black or Brown should not mean needing to accept a home, a neighborhood or a community environment that is actively damaging to health as a parenthetical aside to the broader American cultural narrative of technological improvement as proof and/or manifestation of progress in society.

What is wanting then within the engineering curriculum is a more explicit linking of engineering as technology (the how) with public and community health as an orienting principle (the why). Although sanitary engineering – the integration of the how and the why with respect to water and waste removal/treatment service provision – does exist (at least historically) as a discrete field within the engineering profession, its instruction and practice have been subsumed – and often with a loss of the explicit focus on public health as a discipline with its own organizational approach and pedagogy – within the broader contemporary field categorization of environmental engineering. Importantly, to the extent that there is a legacy-oriented focus on community health within the environmental engineering curriculum, this focus does not sufficiently center the role that engineering has played in creating and perpetuating health disparities within U.S. society.

Although newly emerging fields in engineering instruction (including Humanitarian and Development Engineering) do center contemporary human health needs as the basis for programmatic focus on water and/or sanitation service provision, the orientation of these programs is predominantly international. Acknowledging fundamentally that the technical training in disaster relief and/or the provision of access and sanitary services in locations in which infrastructure does not currently exist have profound and critically important Human Value, this disciplinary focus on global engineering begs a critical question, namely: how do we center civil and environmental engineering instruction in the United States not just on the how, but also on the why and for whom here at home? This question is not one of how to ‘do good out there’ as individual engineers under emergency conditions and/or with limited field resources, but rather how to orient the profession itself toward addressing the challenges, biases and inequalities in how services are provided (or not) and health consequences are distributed within already-built environments in the U.S.; environments that the field of engineering continues to play a role in planning, designing, constructing and ultimately remediating or – with some types of infrastructure – removing entirely. [03.30.21]


Past | Present | Future (in progress):

Federal | Regulatory (in progress):

Contextual | Re-Framing | Perspective (in progress):

  • How the Streets Were Made – Yelena Bailey (2020)
  • Race, Place and Environmental Justice After Hurricane Katrina – Robert Bullard and Beverly Wright (2009)
  • Waste – Catherine Coleman Flowers (2020)
  • CRT – An Introduction (Chapter 1) – Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic (2011)
  • Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America – Updated Edition -Mindy Thompson Fullilove (2016)
  • Demolition Means Progress – Andrew Highsmith (2016)
  • The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America  – Richard Rothstein (2017)
  • The Origins of the Urban Crisis – Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit – Updated Edition – Thomas Sugrue (2014)
  • Healing Earth: An Ecologist’s Journey of Innovation and Environmental Stewardship – John Todd (2019)
  • Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in the United States – Carl Zimring (2015)
  • The Activist History Review – 2019

Technical | Textbook (in progress):

  • Introduction to Urban Water Distribution (2006) Author: N. Trifunovic
  • Water Treatment: Principles and Design 3rd Ed. (2014) Authors:  J. C. Crittenden, R. R. Trussell, D. W. Hand, K. J. Howe, G. Tchobanoglous
  • Wastewater Engineering: Treatment and Resource Recovery 5th Ed. (2013) Authors: F. L. Burton, H. D. Stensel, G. Tchobanoglous, R. Tsuchihashi 

[And a shoutout to 44th & 3rd – https://www.44thand3rdbookseller.com]

photograph: Boulware Springs Water Works, Gainesville, FL (circa 1984)