Environmental risk perception and well-being: effects of the landfill siting process in two southern Ontario communities
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In the context of siting (environmentally) noxious land uses, recent research suggests that the well-being of individuals and communities is impacted as much by the decision-making process as the outcome itself. The study results presented in this paper stem from an ongoing, two-stage quantitative/qualitative investigation of impacts on individual and community well-being associated with the environmental assessment process in Ontario, Canada. This research uses a parallel case-study design to investigate two proposed landfill sites in southern Ontario. Qualitative in-depth interviews (n = 36), conducted across a variety of stakeholder groups, were used to address the following objectives: to explore the nature of concerns experienced by individuals faced with a local landfill site proposal; to explore the effects of the siting process on individuals and communities; and to examine the coping strategies employed by individuals in response to impacts experienced. The work attempts to apply theories of risk society (as conceptualised by Beck and Giddens) at a community scale. In so doing, we build on the work of health geographers attempting to link the social and contextual with the medical. Overall, substantial impacts on individual and community well-being were reported across all stakeholder groups interviewed: these included stress, disempowerment, hostility and divisions within the community. The experience of psychosocial impacts and effectiveness of coping strategies is shaped by certain factors associated with the site and the siting process (including uncertainty and the perceived lack of meaningful participation). The links between risk, process and impacts are theorized using a conceptual framework which incorporates site and process factors, effects on daily life (e.g. feelings of losing control, mistrust), and Gidden's conception of 'ontological security'. These findings have implications for environmental decision-making, as they suggest a need to locate the delicate balance point between community involvement and an expedient decision-making process within variable community contexts.
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