Von Nebbitt: Exploring the Impact of Place

Faculty; Social Work

Von Nebbitt was a social worker in the St. Louis juvenile justice system when he noticed that the trouble kids got into was connected to the troubled places in which they lived.

“The vast majority of kids lived in public housing,” he recalled. “There was something about the world they were living in every day. I began to understand how important place is. That really made me think about housing as a potential intervention.”

That experience led him to work in public housing, and eventually to a PhD in Social Work from the Brown School and academic posts in Washington D.C. and Chicago. He returned to the Brown School in July as an associate professor and will be teaching Research Methods.

He’ll also continue to pursue the complicated role of place in people’s lives through his research, seeking to answer the question: “How does housing matter?”

Nebbitt noted that in the 1960s, public-housing policy led to isolation and segregation. Now, he wonders: “How can public housing be used as a solution, to build environments that help people gain upward social mobility? You can use built environment to create more than just a place to sleep.”

Many believe the problems of people in public housing are due to the failure of residents, he said, but that is frequently not the case. “In fact, a lot of what we see going wrong is due to policy decisions and resource allocation,” he said.

Nebbitt is excited about his current project, in which he is looking at data from Washington, D.C. to see “how the lived environment impacts kids’ physical health.” Funded by the MacArthur Foundation, the research examines children who live in what Nebbitt called “harsh neighborhoods.” He will be examining how the youths’ perceptions of their environment relates to risky behavior and depression, as well to biomarkers that signal physical issues such as obesity.

Place matters to Nebbitt as well. He’s excited to be back at the Brown School, a place he calls “my home…. A warm, welcoming place” in which he’s looking forward to working with other scholars.

He’s especially pleased about the opportunity to interact with students. “All the exciting information they bring into the classroom is educational for me,” he said.