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Study: Bay Area's urban planning must address public health

jdnx/FlickrResidents living near the Port of Oakland face health risks due to toxic air.

For nearly four years, Cassandra Martin lived in West Oakland, a few blocks from two freeways and the city’s port. This has made her an accidental expert on air pollution.

“I used to wonder what that black stuff was on the windowsill,” said Martin, who was diagnosed with asthma in 2009. “I would constantly wipe the walls and windowsills, but it would get so caked with soot. That’s a reason I was wondering about particulate matter.”

Martin now works part time collecting air-quality data for a West Oakland environmental group. 

As the hub of a busy port and freeways, much of West Oakland has been designated by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District as a Community Air Risk Evaluation site, which means residents living there face some of the greatest health risks due to toxic air.

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West Oakland also has been identified as a priority development area under a 2008 state law that requires regional agencies to draft urban plans aimed at reducing greenhouse gases. Public meetings are being held in the Bay Area this year to draft its plan, which could be finalized by 2013.

But according to a recent analysis by Oakland’s Pacific Institute and a group of public health and air-quality advocates known as the Ditching Dirty Diesel Collaborative, California’s efforts to build sustainable communities as mandated by the state law could unintentionally threaten the health of Bay Area residents.

“Unless health-protective measures are incorporated into infill and transit-oriented development policies, these forms of development may actually exacerbate the adverse impacts of freight transport on community health and quality of life,” the report said.

According to the Pacific Institute analysis, about a quarter of Bay Area land prioritized for smart-growth development under the 2008 law intersects with the air district’s high health risk communities.

“Infill development could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by locating more housing near job centers and public transportation, making it easier for people to avoid driving long distances to meet their everyday needs,” the report stated. “However, infill development could also expose more people to toxic air pollution if more housing is sited near freeways and other freight-related land uses without accounting for the risks that this poses to human health.”

It’s a scenario that has created unexpected tensions between public health advocates and smart-growth- oriented urban planners.

“What we’re faced with are some difficult tradeoffs between short-term respiratory health concerns and concerns related to the long-term habitability of our earth,” said Gabriel Metcalf, executive director of the San Francisco Planning + Urban Research Association.

East Bay neighborhoods along the I-880 corridor and near Port of Oakland activities are among the Bay Area communities that face the most severe air quality-related health risks, according to the air district.

“There is a far-reaching impact from freight transportation in these neighborhoods,” said Catalina Garzón of the Pacific Institute. “Toxic diesel pollution is a harmful substance that has been shown to contribute to additional cancer risk in these communities and which has contributed to respiratory conditions like asthma.”

To address these air-quality concerns, the Pacific Institute recommended building new Bay Area housing and schools “far away from polluting land uses to protect the health of current and future residents,” said Garzón, lead author of the report. In cases in which housing is built near freeways or freight-related industry, Garzón said, “potential health impacts should be assessed and mitigation measures should be included in the design,” such as the installation of indoor air filtration systems.

Increasingly, modern urban design is seen as playing a crucial role in improving public health.

“We’ve built places that are designed for disease,” said Robert S. Ogilvie, program director of the Planning for Healthy Places initiative of Oakland-based Public Health Law & Policy. “Kids can’t walk to school; people have a hard time accessing healthy food. We’ve designed places like this, and it’s up to us to undo it, and the only way is through urban planning.”

Some land-use experts, however, say the Pacific Institute report doesn’t fully acknowledge some of the realities of Bay Area development.

“Here’s the dilemma: There is an urban ring around the Bay Area where all of the jobs are concentrated, all of the houses are concentrated, and from a land use, transportation and greenhouse gas reduction perspective, what we want to do is direct new growth into the existing urban footprint,” Metcalf said. “I don’t know the right way to resolve all of these tradeoffs. I do know it will not be a good outcome if we unintentionally push new growth into the suburban fringe in the name of promoting public health."

Kate White, executive director of Urban Land Institute San Francisco, said the report also failed to consider the air-quality benefits to creating dense and walkable developments.

She added that public health advocates should target the source of pollution, not developers – especially those building low-income housing.

“It’s backwards to regulate the developers and the community development nonprofits and building professionals who are trying to build good communities that are mixed-income and vital communities,” she said.

But the Pacific Institute’s Garzón said the report does not advocate against infill development.

“It shouldn’t be an either/or,” she said. “We can still reduce greenhouse gases and encourage infill development in these areas and do it in such a way that it creates healthy living conditions for residents. When you look at it in big-picture terms, you can pay on the front end so that there are healthy living conditions for residents, or you can wait until these kinds of living conditions make people sick and you pay in terms of hospitalizations or missed days of work and school.”

Martin, the former West Oakland resident, moved to Alameda last week, but she still spends most of her week working at the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project. Although she no longer lives in the community, she thinks air quality should be considered when new housing and schools are built in West Oakland.

“That would make a lot of sense,” she said. “You see, a lot of low-income residents live near where all of these things are. They don’t think about the impacts, or they should do a better study of the impacts to know if this stuff is harmful before they build residences there.”

Martin said that as she walks through the community to collect air-quality data, she routinely sees five-axle trucks idling in parking lots and on residential streets.

“There is a danger out there, a hidden danger,” she said of the contaminants in diesel exhaust. “Particulate matter, you can’t see it and you’re breathing it. You don’t know it’s there unless it’s brought to your attention.”

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