Saturday, December 13, 2008

Air Pollution

This is an excellent two part article on air pollution and the politics surrounding it, with a focus on Los Angeles—appropriately so—but packed with enough scientific and political information to be of interest to just about anyone.

An excerpt from part one, and here is the link to part two.

“Not long ago, Michael Woo, a former Los Angeles city councilman and current member of the Los Angeles City Planning Commission, took up a case pending approval by that body: a mixed housing-retail development near the intersection of Cahuenga Boulevard and Riverside Drive. Like many of the remaining buildable sites in the city, the property is right next to a roaring motorway; the windows of some apartments would look right out onto the 134 Freeway. To Angelinos, who have grown up in a car culture, it was hardly a remarkable proposal. But Woo, perhaps one of the brainier members of the city’s political elite—after losing a mayoral race to Richard Riordan in the early 1990s he became a professor of public policy at University of Southern California—had a problem with it, and he couldn’t quite let it go.

“Just a few weeks before, the Commission had witnessed a lengthy presentation by a scientist who’d been studying how living within 500 yards of high traffic corridors—freeways and some particularly busy streets—substantially raises the risk for a number of chronic diseases. “We were all sort of sitting there, looking at this proposal and discussing it through the conventional lens we normally use, when I said, `Wait a minute. Didn’t we just hear a pretty compelling argument about this the other day? Can we talk about that for a minute?’ It struck me that it was impossible to read those studies and then continue approving housing that sits that close to freeways.”

“The Commission then asked for the developer’s point of view on the issue. “As I recall, the only real mitigation that they brought up was almost comic,” Woo says. “Their idea was, you know, we’ve got that covered: We’re going to make sure that residents can’t open the windows that face the freeway.” The project was approved.

“Woo doesn’t particularly fault anyone in the exchange, because the implications of the new science of air pollution—much of it driven by pioneering work at USC, the University of California at Los Angeles, and California Institute of Technology—are utterly mind boggling. No one has quite calculated exactly how much buildable land would be excised from use for housing and schools if this growing body of work were to take hold in the policy realm, but, as Woo said, “We can’t hide from this issue anymore. The hard science on the subject is compelling. It makes you fundamentally rethink some pretty key parts of how, where and why we’re building housing in such locations.”