An interdisciplinary research team from
the University of Delaware, which is working with Wilmington’s
Southbridge community on environmental issues, has released results of a
survey showing that more than half the residents have serious concerns
about pollution and sea level rise.
The survey, which was administered at various community events in the
South Wilmington neighborhood, found that 50.6 percent of residents who
responded were greatly concerned about pollution and that about 59
percent described sea level rise as a very serious or extremely serious
The low-income, largely African-American community of about 2,000
residents is the type of neighborhood that often is left out of
discussions about topics such as sea level rise, said Victor Perez,
assistant professor of sociology and criminal justice, who has been working with the team and local residents for about 18 months.
“Coastal communities with higher-priced homes are more often at the
center of sea level rise concerns,” Perez said. “But it’s well
documented that Southbridge is extremely vulnerable to sea level rise.”
Not only would much of the area be flooded if water levels rose
significantly, he said, but Southbridge already has a large amount of
pollution in its soil from industries such as tanneries and chemical
companies once located there. The community, which is the oldest
historically African-American neighborhood in the city, is south of the
The UD research team is exploring the complex, interrelated issues
involving sea level rise, environmental pollution and human health in
Southbridge. The potential for sea level rise in the area is a pressing
issue, Perez said, which is gaining more attention and awareness with
the work of state agencies, as well as local organizations, community
members and the researchers from the University’s Delaware Environmental Institute (DENIN).
The research team — made up of experts in soil chemistry, hydrology,
engineering, economics and sociology — is attempting a novel
interdisciplinary approach to study the potential for pollution in the
soil to become mobile by way of projected sea level rise in the area.
The approach seeks to integrate each respective discipline into the
research design, complementing and informing each other, and has a
strong community focus, Perez said.
Members of the team, led by Donald Sparks, S. Hallock du Pont Professor of Plant and Soil Sciences and DENIN director, also includes Kent Messer, associate professor of applied economics and statistics, and Holly Michael, associate professor of geological sciences, in addition to Perez.
Perez’s focus in working with residents is to determine their level
of concern and awareness of sea level rise, flooding and pollution in
the area, as well as the community’s perceptions of the health effects
of their local environmental burdens.
The community’s battles with pollution are well known to many in the
area, and residents have completed surveys and participated in focus
groups. The research efforts are intended to also inform the community
and will be reported back to residents on an ongoing basis, Perez said,
noting that about 63 percent of those sampled reported knowing nothing
to only a little about the specifics of sea level rise.
UD researchers also are creating a baseline of knowledge of the
environmental burdens in the community by way of state reports, soil
sampling and local community knowledge and experiences of these issues;
this knowledge will continue to inform research approaches and policy
recommendations for sea level rise and pollution mitigation and
The goal is to allow the community’s perspective to help inform the
research approach, which considers the local knowledge of these issues
vital to the success of the research, Perez said.
The research is funded by NSF-EPSCoR,
the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, grant No.
IIA-1301765, and the state of Delaware. EPSCoR is a federal grant
program led by the National Science Foundation to help states develop
their research capabilities and institutions.
More about the community
Though Southbridge struggles with environmental and health issues,
unemployment and a level of poverty nearly four times that of the
state’s, in recent years it has made significant gains in addressing
these issues, Perez said. He gave these statistics:
- From 2000 to 2010, South Wilmington saw a significant decline in
unemployment, from 15.7 percent to 7.5 percent, though unemployment did
return to 14 percent in 2012.
- While South Wilmington’s high school graduate rate of 60 percent
(of those 25 and older) was considerably less than that of the entire
city of Wilmington in 2000, it has increased to 78 percent in 2012,
nearly even with the city as a whole.
- The percentage of households with a female head and no husband
present has declined precipitously, from 50 percent in 2000 to 29
- Southbridge is now one of the safest communities in Wilmington,
with low crime rates attributed to the efforts of generations of
families living there and community police officers.
- Southbridge is a well-organized community with a rich history and
deep ties between citizens, and for the past six years, the community
and service agencies have held a free, well-attended community event,
“Southbridge Weekend,” every summer.
For more information on the community and its recent accomplishments, check out the links available on Perez’s website.