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Dawn Biehler spotlights link between urban pests and housing inequality

The last year has brought increased attention to mosquito-borne diseases, including the Zika virus, West Nile virus, and malaria. Dawn Biehler recently brought this discussion closer to home in a wide-ranging interview in Edge Effects about her work to better understand the prevalence of mosquitoes in low-income neighborhoods.

Biehler, an associate professor of geography and environmental systems, is leading the social science component of a major research project where she is examining the connections between mosquito ecology and social inequality in Baltimore. Her team is canvassing Baltimore neighborhoods to collect data on mosquito populations and residents’ contact with mosquitoes as part of the Baltimore Ecosystem Study.

“We’re really talking about how social and ecological processes feed into one another and how we might study interventions into that system,” says Biehler. “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 discussing the preliminary findings of the project, Biehler noted that it’s important to understand the historical context of neighborhood change 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,” says Biehler. “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.”

Biehler also discussed the potential impact of climate change should Baltimore’s climate become similar to the Carolinas or Georgia, and she explained changes in public focus on different mosquito-borne diseases over time. But ultimately, Biehler says, when looking at Baltimore the biggest issue to focus on today is disinvestment in neighborhoods.

“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 mosquitoes as do the upper-income neighborhoods that don’t have that history of disinvestment,” she says.

Biehler researches historical geography and environmental history of public health in U.S. cities, environmental justice, urban and feminist political ecology, housing, and human-animal interactions. She is author of Pests in the City: Flies, Bedbugs, Cockroaches, and Rats (University of Washington Press). See this recent interview, in full, in Edge Effects.