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Community Engaged Research for Healthier Communities near Highways

Monday, March 16, 2015

The CAFEH project, supported by Tisch College, recently released a report on the health risks of living near freeways.

Poster presentation of CAFEH research

Recently, Tisch College and several partners released “Improving the Health of Near-Highway Communities,” a report by the Community Assessment of Freeway Exposure and Health (CAFEH) project. Produced with support from the Kresge Foundation, Design Solutions from a Charrette explores design strategies for mitigating the health impacts of living near highways.

The CAFEH study is a series of community-based participatory research projects about localized pollution near highways and majors roadways in the Boston area. Supported initially and now in part by Tisch College, CAFEH is a university-community partnership that places special emphasis on near highway neighborhoods in Somerville and Boston Chinatown. With the Kresge-funded initiative, CAFEH seeks to develop policies and design practices to reduce exposure to traffic-related air pollution.

“Improving the Health of Near-Highway Communities” seeks to promote positive changes at the community level and disseminate research results regionally. Last Spring, the project team organized a design charrette to introduce environmental health research results to the local design community. The charrette engaged participants in developing design solutions to minimize the negative health effects of near-roadway air pollution for two case studies, one in Somerville and the other in Boston Chinatown.

Packed into the community room at Somerville’s Assembly Square, local leaders and designers joined with Tufts faculty to discuss the recent findings that exposure to ultrafine particles near the highway is linked to higher rates of heart disease, asthma, and lung cancer. People living near highways who breathe in this pollution may suffer illness and premature death as a result.

In opening the program, Peter Levine, Tisch College Associate Dean for Research, commented that “the CAFEH study is a true community-based participatory research project. The research question came from the community, and every step of the way community members and Tufts faculty have closely partnered on the effort.”

Local residents spoke to the importance of this work. Somerville Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone recounted his childhood growing up in close proximity to I-93, and shared his vision for Somerville to serve as a model for sustainable and healthy community development.

Ellin Reisner, of the Somerville Transportation Equity Partnership, commented, “As community members, we always want to know ‘what can we do about it?’ But before we can answer that question, we need to collect data and understand what we are dealing with. This research is allowing us to identify solutions and make the case for why those solutions are important.”

Area developers and architects added that the research has helped them understand how to make their buildings better and safer.

Attendees also heard from speakers such as Jack Englert of Criterion Development Partners, and Wig Zamore of the Somerville Transportation Equity Partnership (STEP), who addressed the history of environmental activism in the Somerville community and lauded the efforts of the CAFEH collaboration to translate research into practice.

Doug Brugge, Professor of Public Health and Family Medicine at the Tufts School of Medicine, and Principal Investigator of CAFEH, said the brought together a group of people invested in protecting residents’ health for an important discussion on the state of the science.

“This event highlighted the coalition forming around this issue that includes university researchers, local elected officials, community-based organizations, as well as architects and urban planners,” Brugge said.

The findings of the CAFEH project are making an impact beyond the research areas of Somerville and Boston’s Chinatown. Following the event, Brugge presented findings at a legislative briefing of the Massachusetts State House. Legislators and their aides learned about the association the study has found between exposure to traffic-related air pollution and increased risk of cardiovascular disease.