Society for Social Work and Research

Sixteenth Annual Conference Research That Makes A Difference: Advancing Practice and Shaping Public Policy
11-15 January 2012 I Grand Hyatt Washington I Washington, DC

15661 Assessing Neighborhoods' Physical and Social Environments: Experiences From the Detroit Neighborhood Health Study

Saturday, January 14, 2012: 10:00 AM
Constitution E (Grand Hyatt Washington)
* noted as presenting author
Sandra Momper, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Ann Arbor, MI
Anne Bain Nordberg, MSW, PhD Student, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Ann Arbor, MI
Leah James, MS, MSW, Doctoral Candidate, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Ann Arbor, MI
Jorge Delva, PhD, Professor, University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Ann Arbor, MI


In this presentation, we describe and reflect upon the process of conducting a systematic assessment of the physical (i.e. abandoned homes) and social environment (i.e. social disorder, social trust) of Detroit neighborhoods. The overall study aim was to assess whether ecologic stressors (concentrated disadvantage, residential segregation, quality of the built environment) influence the risk of PTSD and drug abuse/dependence among neighborhood residents. Neighborhood assessment was conducted by both Detroit residents and non-Detroit university students.  We found that involving local community members in essential roles within the research team was critical in allowing us to meet our research objectives. We propose that both the methods and results of this study have important implications for effective community intervention. Specifically, this work can help policy makers identify community-level targets of interventions to enhance the mental health of community residents. 



A structured assessment of Detroit's 54 neighborhoods – as defined by the City of Detroit Planning and Development Department – was conducted to systematically characterize features of the  local environment of over 1500 adults participating  in a large NIDA-funded population based longitudinal study.  These participants completed a 40 minute telephone interview designed to assess exposure to trauma, PTSD, depression symptoms, cigarette and alcohol use, and perceptions of participants' neighborhoods.  

We then conducted neighborhood observations to allow us to examine the relationship between ecological factors and the participants' mental health and substance use. In June 2008, a team of surveyors composed of 7 adults from the University (faculty and students, mainly white females), and 16 adults (mainly African Americans with ages ranging from low 20s to the 60s) from the city of Detroit assessed a representative sample of nearly 150 neighborhoods in Detroit. The neighborhood evaluation instrument consisted of 24 yes/no questions regarding various aspects of the environment such as quality of housing exteriors; presence of graffiti, abandoned cars, alcohol/tobacco advertisements; street and sidewalk condition; vacant buildings and construction; and street noise and traffic volume. 



A number of individual and social dynamics had to be addressed throughout the study to successfully carry out the systematic neighborhood assessment component of the project. These dynamics involved the interaction of privileged single white young female university students committed to social justice with unemployed, older minority men and women residents of low-income Detroit neighborhoods with distrust of researchers.  Utilizing surveyors from the Detroit neighborhoods significantly improved the ability of the team to collect data in a timely and efficient manner due to their knowledge of neighborhoods and ability to interpret conditions. 


Conclusions and Implications

Research in communities benefits from the inclusion of community members, not only as research subjects, but as research team members who significantly contribute to the project goals. We report on methods utilized to recruit, train, and learn from Detroit resident researchers, and present their feedback about the university/community collaboration, lessons learned, and implications for future projects.  We provide examples of the ways by which the involvement of both university and non-university residents served to strengthen the study.

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