For many of us, mosquitos are an annoying fact of life in the summer. But for Dawn Biehler, an associate professor of Geography and Environmental Studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), they are also a symptom of social inequality. I sat down with Dr. Biehler to discuss community-engaged research and the relationship between urban pests, quality housing, and environmental health.
Stream or download the full conversation here. Interview highlights, edited for clarity, follow.
Rebecca Summer: I’d like to start by talking about how you became interested in issues of environmental justice, urban ecology, and public health. Your book, Pests in the City: Flies, Bedbugs, Cockroaches, and Rats, was about public health implications of domestic pests and pest control. How did your personal and intellectual interests bring you to that project?
Dawn Biehler: Pests in the City, under a different name, was my dissertation. Just prior to grad school, I was working with an affordable housing agency that was trying to resist some of the housing so-called reforms that came in under Bill Clinton. I helped organize the first tenants’ rights conference in the state of Hawaii.
One of the things that really interested me when I was working in Hawaii was that a lot of the rhetoric about affordable housing… was to say that it was really poor-quality housing. But the reason it was poor-quality housing was that government had been disinvesting in it for decades. That was one of the big influences in choosing that project about pests. Pests are one sign of disinvestment in housing. When you don’t keep up housing, then you try to use all these stop-gap measures, many of them involving really strong chemicals to try to get the pests out. I was really interested in that dynamic and remembered it when I was thinking about my dissertation topic.
So I’m interested in high-quality affordable housing, and I’m also interested in animals. I was also getting really interested in health. A lot of that came from some influential folks at UW-Madison: Judy Walzer Leavitt and Gregg Mitman were big influences in my early years of [writing] my dissertation. I was starting to become really interested in how the environment affected health. And at the intersection of these three topics—affordable housing, health, and animals—is pests.
RS: Your research subjects—rats, bed bugs, flies, cockroaches, and now mosquitos—are what many people would probably consider gross, for lack of a better word. Is part of your project to change people’s perceptions about urban wildlife? Why do you think people feel that way about it in the first place?
DB: I think there is a common cultural expectation that humans control the inside, and the outside is where we don’t necessarily control, and that our buildings are supposed to be sound and modern and not permeable to nature. When we bring nature in, it’s supposed to be under these controlled conditions. House plants and our domestic companions like cats and dogs, they’re supposed to be controlled in certain ways when we bring them within our home. The truth is that our homes are permeable. I think people are very uncomfortable with the idea that their homes are part of nature, and they decay, and they have holes in them.
In another sense, I think there’s also a big stigma on all of these animals. They’ve become associated over the years with poverty, as well as a perception that people aren’t taking care of their homes properly and that’s why they have these creatures in their homes. That affects people who haven’t experienced infestation perceiving those who do, and it also affects the people who do experience infestation in that they feel that stigma and they’re very eager to rid themselves of it.
As an example of this, I spoke with a woman who was involved with a public housing project in Chicago that had extreme conditions of infestation. The folks there were just so ashamed of that. She talked about people who wouldn’t invite family over for Thanksgiving because they didn’t want them to see the cockroaches. She talked about a woman who went for a job interview and a cockroach climbed out of her purse during the job interview; the interviewer saw it and [the woman was] mortified by this. I think the stigma that goes along with these creatures is a…really important cultural factor.
RS: In your recent work, you’ve been studying mosquito ecology in Baltimore. I had the chance to join you and a research team this summer to survey housing and mosquito breeding conditions in one of Baltimore’s neighborhoods. Could you talk about who’s involved in this project and what some of your research goals are?
DB: I’m affiliated with the Baltimore Ecosystem Study, and through that I met a couple of collaborators: Shannon LaDeau is an ecologist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies up in Millbrook, New York, and Paul Leisnham studies mosquitos and environmental engineering at [the University of Maryland,] College Park. I got to know them [and] did a little pilot project in Washington. Through that project, we’re really talking about how social and ecological processes feed into one another and how we might study interventions into that system.
In D.C., Paul’s group, which was studying mosquitos in folks’ backyards, was handing out educational materials. I did interviews with the people whose yards we studied and discovered that there was this definite sense of ecology about mosquitos and how they related to all these other things. The idea with going to Baltimore was to see if we can tap into that—I guess I would call it a lay ecology. That’s a term that’s coming up in some geography circles, this idea that lay folk have their own ecological knowledge that they construct. [We wondered] whether tapping into that lay ecology would also lead to more interesting and robust interventions to help reduce mosquitos.
I thought that it might also reveal more interesting things about human-environment interactions in a city where the housing market has been declining for a long time. When we’re in D.C. we’re in a boom housing market. There are very few vacant lots. In Baltimore, there’s a very high density of vacant lots, especially in the neighborhoods that we eventually chose. We wanted to see how the environmental effects of those vacant lots and all of the social processes surrounding those vacant lots might affect mosquito ecologies.
RS: What are some of the preliminary findings in Baltimore?
DB: Well, before I answer that question directly, I think it’s important to understand the really long history of neighborhood change that’s been going on in Baltimore. We can take this back probably over a hundred years in order to understand how Baltimore has been segregated by black versus white residents for decades. Some of the processes, including redlining that began in the 1930s, urban renewal that began in the 1960s, and highway construction that also began in the 1960s, have resulted in disinvestment—really massive disinvestment—in certain neighborhoods, almost all of them African American neighborhoods.
Those processes of social and political and economic change have at the same time been linked into processes of ecological change. What we see is the rise of vacant lots. The neighborhoods where we are working include a couple of neighborhoods that have the highest density of vacant lots in the city. We’re looking at up to 30-33% vacancies in a couple of the neighborhoods.
Declining property values are both a cause and a consequence of the vacant lots. As property values decline, people are more inclined to abandon homes and not invest any more in them. At a block or neighborhood scale, as you have more abandoned homes, the value of adjacent properties goes down, and people become more inclined to abandon those as well. It’s also gone from a more homeowner-oriented neighborhood to more of a rental-oriented neighborhood.
While those processes are going on, the buildings themselves physically decay. Some of them actually fall apart, and then eventually the city will invest large amounts of money to knock them down and clear them out; that’s where we get the actual vacant lots. But you also have a lot of houses that are still standing but completely gutted. Some of them, you have a façade on the front but the back is open. And within that building, there are lots of little pockets that can collect standing water. So we have mosquitos, we believe, breeding inside of the vacant buildings.
Another process that’s going on is that small-time trash haulers are seeing this neighborhood as a place to dump garbage and save money on tipping fees. [They] come in in the dark of night and will find a stretch of a few adjacent abandoned homes and dump garbage in the back yard. That is another opportunity to create these little pockets that collect standing water and breed mosquitos.
When people see their neighborhood being treated as garbage, their garbage stewardship practices also feed into that. There is a fair amount of littering in that neighborhood, kind of on an individual basis, along with really the abandonment of the neighborhood by city sanitation collections. People put out their trash and their garbage cans get stolen, so they put out their trash outside the garbage cans, dogs rip into the garbage bags, and then you have more garbage strewn all over the place, more breeding spots for mosquitos.
The punchline here in terms of our results is that the neighborhoods that have this history of disinvestment have up to three times as many Aedes albopictus mosquitos as do the upper-income neighborhoods that don’t have that history of disinvestment.
RS: Your work on mosquitos is clearly relevant to more recent conversations that have been happening around the Zika virus and other mosquito-borne diseases. Was that part of the motivation for focusing on mosquitos now?
DB: The Zika thing was a big surprise for us. It certainly increased interest in the project in the past year or so, but there was nobody on the team who was watching Zika, as it appeared in the South Pacific and so on over the past couple of years, and saying, “Oh! Maybe it will come to Baltimore.” But back in 2011, 2012, when we were starting this work, we were definitely concerned about West Nile Virus.
We were also thinking about preparedness for climate change. If Baltimore and Washington’s climate becomes more like that of the Carolinas or Georgia, then we might have mosquitos able to start their breeding season earlier on and build up a greater population during the year, and may be seeing more of these diseases that are borne by the Aedes genus. The chikungunya virus and dengue were some of things that we were thinking about as we connected climate change with the mosquito abundances that we were expecting to see and did ultimately see in Baltimore.
RS: Do you get the sense that other people are also making those connections?
DB: That’s a really interesting question. The City of Baltimore…has done very little to monitor or collect mosquitos in the past several years. We were really the only ones doing this, such that this past summer when Zika was starting to be a concern, the health department really looked to us to understand even how to monitor mosquitos and what the mosquito infestation conditions were in Baltimore. They became interested when Zika became a problem, but I would say prior to that there was very limited interest.
RS: Is there anything else that you want to say related to either your research that you’re doing now, or your book, or the broader interests?
DB: Last summer, in 2016, we wanted to do an intervention experiment to see what types of sanitation work might help reduce mosquito numbers. We found two of the blocks that had the highest abundances of mosquitos and we removed the garbage on those lots. It was about fifteen of us from the team, including the lead investigators, grad students and undergrads, and some community members, who were involved. Our working hypothesis was that we would see a reduction in adult mosquito abundances in these neighborhoods because we were taking away all these breeding containers that could fill up with standing water. It was really hard, it was a lot of logistical work, it was a lot of physical work, and the blocks definitely looked a lot better after we did it.
But then, our research technician found that there was actually somewhat of an increase of adult mosquito abundances on those blocks. Our explanation as to why our intervention didn’t actually succeed is that these are also blocks that have really high densities of vacant buildings. I’d been saying all along—and I felt kind of rewarded but also sad—that the vacant buildings are the problem.
That brings it back to environmental justice for me. It costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to deal with one of these buildings, and possibly more into the millions. When you’ve got dozens of them and hundreds of them in a neighborhood, you’re talking about something far beyond the capacity of individual people to control. This is not an individual problem. It’s a problem that crosses private-public lines. It’s not individual people controlling containers on their property or individual people not littering. It’s a problem of decades of disinvestment in these neighborhoods that have created this high density of vacant buildings.
When we talk to the kids in these neighborhoods, along with adults who are involved with the project,…they come back to the vacant, abandoned buildings again and again. These are sources of stress; they’re sources of health problems for them, and it’s a problem that the people in the neighborhood cannot solve themselves. We need the City of Baltimore, and even better, the federal government, to support doing something about these neighborhoods and giving people hope for a better environment in the future—not where it’s gentrifying, but where people who’ve lived in these neighborhoods can enjoy the benefits of some investment that would make up for the…racialized disinvestment over the course of decades.
RS: Thank you so much.
DB: Thanks Becca. I really enjoyed it.
Editor’s note: Jose Marquina’s name is mistakenly spoken as Jose Marquez in the audio recording.
Featured image: An abandoned building, beginning to fall down, next to an overgrown vacant lot in Baltimore. Photo by Dawn Biehler, 2016.
Podcast music: “Gloves” by Julian Lynch. Used with permission.
Rebecca Summer is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Geography at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is working on a dissertation about the changing functions and cultural meanings of alleys in Washington, D.C. She has also conducted research about the benefits and unintended consequences of historic landmark designation for urban neighborhoods, both in Washington, D.C., and in Madison, Wisconsin. Website. Contact.
Dawn Biehler is Associate Professor of Geography and Environmental Studies and affiliate faculty in Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. She is author of the book Pests in the City: Flies, Bedbugs, Cockroaches, and Rats (University of Washington Press, 2013). She is currently working on a book about animals in New York’s Central Park and on articles based on community-engaged research in Baltimore. Website. Contact.