EiJ Case Study Framework: Question 1

What is the setting of this case?

What is a Setting?

The setting of your case study should paint a detailed picture of the community you are interested in, whether that is a county, a city, or a school. This may include descriptions of:

  • The physical landscape: is it coastal or mountainous? What are the typical temperatures?
  • The built environment: how old are buildings, on average? Are they densely packed or spread out? Are there spaces for people to gather in public?
  • Demographic characteristics: racial breakdowns, median income, health indicators
  • The social environment: how isolated are people? Do strangers interact with each other?
  • Historical context: how has the location's unique history contributed to what it looks like today? Are there important historical tensions between certain groups of residents?

Note: these questions are not an exhaustive list of what should be in a setting description. Imagine that you are explaining your community to someone who has never seen it (or any community like it) before and include everything you think would be important for them to know.

Why is this important?

A detailed description of the setting of a case forms the foundation of a case study. The setting gives us preliminary information about what kinds of hazards might be present or why particular hazards might be more severe, and what kinds of vulnerable populations are present in a setting.

A thorough description of the setting is particularly important when presenting research to an audience that is unfamiliar with the setting--for example, if a group of students from a small town in California wanted to present their case study to state lawmakers or if residents of a town in Texas and a city in Vietnam that both have hazardous facilities run by the same company wanted to orient each other to their local contexts.

What are its assets?

What are community assets?

Community assets are resources that can be leveraged to solve problems and develop effective pathways for community development. They can take a wide range of forms, including but not limited to the following:

  • People: community activists, promotoras, especially influential/proactive politicans
  • Organizations: environmental organizations, community air monitoring networks, legal aid, community-based activist organizations working on other issues
  • Institutions: schools, libraries, churches
  • Social networks: shared cultural traditions
  • Technical infrastructure: internet connectivity, public transportation systems
  • Public spaces: community centers, parks
  • Skills of people in the community: organizing, fundraising
  • Community history (especially if people actively recall it)

Why is this important?

Identifying community assets helps outside researchers and activists and community members alike avoid slipping into a deficit (or damage-centered) mindset about the communities they work in.

Community assets are also potential resources and allies in environmental justice movements. For example, working with churches that are deeply embedded in a community's social networks can be an effective way to reach and mobilize community members.


Prerna Srigyan produced this list of community assets in Santa Ana, California.

What opportunities and challenges will there be in this setting in coming years?

Future Thinking

In addition to critically considering how the past has shaped a community, environmental justice work requires attention to the community's short- and long-term future. Important future developments might include the construction of major new infrastructure or facilities like factories, warehouses, stadiums, and hospitals, looming water shortages, or shifts in the political party in control of local government.

Why is this important?

Environmental justice calls for adherence to the precautionary principle, or the idea that we should not wait until after disaster has struck to take action. Similarly, looking to the future allows activists, researchers, and community members to identify future threats (like a new factory with a permit to emit toxic chemicals) and mobilize to challenge them before they have had the opportunity to do harm to the community.

Example: Fontana Warehouses

In Fontana, CA, a group of residents pushed the state attorney general to sue the city over the approval of a new warehouse planned to be built directly next to a high school. Partially because this happened before the warehouse was actually built, the attorney general reached a settlement that strengthened Fontana's environmental standards for warehouses and required the company building the new warehouse to take significant steps to reduce its impact on the neighboring school and homes.