Conventional wisdom often holds that concern for the environmental is concentrated among residents of wealthier and predominantly white communities who can afford to make quality of life issues, such as environmental quality, a high priority. Poorer, ethnically mixed communities are assumed to be more preoccupied with satisfying basic needs than with protecting the environment. This conventional wisdom assumes that these disempowered groups consider environmental quality a "luxury good" to be provided after basic needs are met.
However, BES comparisons of public attitudes across income levels and ethnic groups have shown that environmental concerns are not the preserve of affluent white neighborhoods. BES researchers found that residents of both wealthy and poor urban communities share concern for environmental quality. For example, a telephone survey of 1274 randomly selected residents of the Baltimore region found no statistically significant difference between residents' awareness of or concern for air quality despite a wide range of household income. Clearly, people in poorer communities do perceive a problem when the condition of their environment degrades and threatens their health, just like their wealthier counterparts.
Addressing a fundamental question in environmental justice research, the BES researchers further examined the question of which comes first, inequitable patterns of environmental amenities and disamenities, or the patterns of racial settlement. By mapping the history of neighborhood change and zoning requests and permits for Baltimore City from 1920 to the present, the researchers showed conclusively that there has been a history of racial bias in locating environmental disamenities closer to predominantly African-American communities than white communities. These findings highlight the fact that while concern for the environment may be a shared concern among diverse urban communities, access to and the sharing of public resources and protections may be not equal.