Community Mapping” project

An online map highlights areas of significant trash buildup.

Mapping for Change: A Collective Effort for a Healthier Bethlehem Environment

Lehigh students and Bethlehem community collaborate to address persistent waste challenges.

The relentless challenges of littering, accumulated waste and unlawful dumping are everyday realities in communities in the Lehigh Valley, sparking an ongoing quest for effective solutions to create cleaner, more health-conscious environments.

To ease the problem in South Bethlehem, a Mountaintop team, "Community Mapping for Environmental Justice," has formed a partnership with South Side residents to address the issue.

The team—Shelby Carr, a Ph.D. candidate majoring in English, and Amy Zimmerman '25, studying psychology and health, medicine, & society—aims to identify pressing environmental concerns, collaboratively generate a map to spotlight environmental justice hotspots (areas experiencing recurrent illegal dumping), and propel efforts to enhance the holistic health and well-being of the South Side community.

The project has its roots in a community-based participatory research project led by Kate Jackson, an assistant professor in the College of Health and a South Side resident. She attuned herself to the concerns and interests of fellow South Side Bethlehem residents and business owners. The rampant accumulation of trash prominently stood out among the issues raised.

Drawing on her expertise in environmental justice, Jackson ideated with residents, leading to a collective solution: an online map highlighting areas of significant trash buildup. This tool would serve as a guide to identify critical zones of need, allowing for targeted strategies to clean and improve these hotspots.

"The Community Mapping team strives to build a foundation where city policy, neighborhood advocacy, and communal efforts converge for the common good. Situated in the community, we, as Lehigh University professors and students, have the time and resources to delve into trash policies, observe trash handling practices, and research how diverse communities navigate multi-hauler issues. It's about gathering insights and fostering dialogue to collaboratively explore sustainable solutions for prevalent waste management issues," Jackson said.

Community mapping trash project

Lehigh students and the Bethlehem community are collaborating to address persistent waste challenges.

In response, the Bethlehem Health Bureau, Recycling Bureau, and dedicated local non-profit cleanup organizations such as Lehigh Valley Clean Up, have committed to addressing the problem areas identified on a mapped area.

Janine Carambot Santoro, director of equity and inclusion in the Bethlehem Mayor's office, highlighted the importance of clean neighborhoods in promoting pride, ownership and mental well-being. She emphasized Mayor Willie Reynold's commitment to addressing trash issues and lauded the Community Mapping project.

"The Mayor's office will continue to dedicate staff time and resources to addressing trash complaints," Santoro said. "This project (Community Mapping) stands as a testament, complementing community stories with evidence-based insights, especially highlighting the needs of frontline communities.”

In summer 2023, the Mayor's office, in partnership with Community Action Development Bethlehem (CADB), initiated a series of neighborhood dialogues. These meetings focused on understanding residents' perceptions of their quality of life and the daily environmental issues they encounter.

The Community Mapping Mountaintop team members, Carr and Zimmerman, were present at most of these neighborhood gatherings, fostering a connection with the residents and gaining insights into the prevailing issues.

Through the conversations, Carr gathered that the inhabitants of South Side recognize trash as a prominent problem but are hamstrung by limited resources to report or address it.

"Addressing the trash issue is no easy task, but our online map serves as a substantial initial step," said Carr. By engaging with residents and walking around the neighborhood, the team could identify and photograph trash hotspots and map the locations.

The team is in the process of developing a software solution that allows users to mark locations where they observe trash accumulation. Although the design has not yet been finalized, the team has already distributed a QR code that links to a Google form, allowing residents to report areas where they've noticed trash accumulation. Carr and Zimmerman then verify and incorporate these reported locations onto the map.

Anna Smith, director of CADB, said the approach serves as a prime example of effective collaboration between Lehigh and the community.

"Students are immersed in the environment,” Smith said. “They possess the knowledge and engage in regular research; it's seamless for them to undertake and advance such projects. The substantial benefit we usually perceive from partnering with Lehigh is acquiring support in areas we lack the time, energy and resources to address."

"Furthermore, these partnerships yield enriching learning experiences for the students, enabling them to effect tangible, positive changes within the community," she added.

The “Community Mapping” project will continue as part of the Lehigh Valley Social Impact Fellowship (LVSIF) in Spring 2024. Discussing the project's next steps, Zimmerman shared that they are conducting a literature review to explore the pros and cons of communities using multiple private trash hauler companies. In addition to maintaining the online map, they are analyzing various case studies to gain further insights.

Story by Haidan Hu

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