Building Breathable Neighborhoods

PM_Pollution_Diagram FORMAT
Neighborhoods in West Oakland are exposed to elevated levels of air pollution from nearby sources. Diagram by Urban Biofilter with data from the California Air Resources Board.

Regional agencies, housing advocates, and local decision makers recognize that the Bay Area needs more housing to accommodate its population. In figuring out where to build it, many have been promoting infill development to take advantage of established transit corridors and existing infrastructure.

Placing housing near services and facilities allows residents to commute or shop without depending on cars, which in turn improves air quality by reducing emissions from traffic. However, that doesn’t mean such neighborhoods will enjoy especially clean air. Many potential infill sites are located in areas currently affected by air pollution from nearby industrial operations, freeways, ports, or rail facilities.

For example, regional plans call for intensified development within approximately 170 designated Priority Development Areas, most of which involve some infill. There is significant overlap between Priority Development Areas and another set of areas which experience elevated pollution levels, as identified by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District’s CARE (Community Air Risk Evaluation) Program. “As part of the focus on reducing air pollution, there is a focus on restructuring development patterns to be infill,” said Phil Martien, an air quality engineering manager for the agency. “But,” he added, “there are areas where we think we need to pay particular attention to air pollution.”

Higher air pollution has often meant that CARE communities have been more affordable, so they contain many low-income neighborhoods. Some residents of these have expressed concern that the CARE designation might be an attempt to discourage new development that could improve neighborhoods. Definitely not, according to Martien, who asserted that “we do support strategic infill in these communities.”

To navigate the potential conflict between creating needed infill development and placing people in locations that may be less healthy for them, the Air District has taken two types of related actions. First, it has developed planning tools and strategies for use by the agency and by local jurisdictions, including guidelines to help planners evaluate local air quality impacts from proposed projects and plans under the California Environmental Quality Act. Second, expanding on its work to identify CARE areas, it has created interactive maps which define and locate areas of concern.

The most recent planning tool, released in May 2016, is a guidance document entitled Planning Healthy Places, which complements the interactive maps and provides the Air District’s recommendations on the best ways to reduce exposures and emissions from local sources of air pollution. It incorporates three strategies: 1) reduce or prevent emissions from pollution sources when possible; 2) implement best practices to reduce residents’ exposure to pollution; and 3) do more study on an area where necessary.

Examples of ways to reduce emissions include many transportation-related policies, such as truck idling limits and traffic management strategies, as well as requirements for cleaner construction vehicles and practices, and operating restrictions on diesel generators. Exposure reduction techniques include air filters for residential buildings. Adding vegetation or solid barriers between residences and pollution sources, placing facilities for children or the elderly above ground level, and otherwise separating residents from pollution sources as much as possible are other measures. “The primary recommendation is distance, but communities can’t always do that,” said the Air District’s Dave Vintze, who is responsible for Planning Healthy Places.

A number of jurisdictions are already implementing these concepts, adding air pollution concerns as an extra layer of issues that planners need to consider. San Francisco’s Community Risk Reduction Plan has been in place for over five years. As part of implementing the plan, Article 38 of its city code requires air filters for developments over a certain size, and city construction projects must use extra-clean construction equipment. The city has developed a set of fine-grained maps which govern development and add predictability for developers on environmental requirements; meanwhile, the city has streamlined the environmental review process for affordable housing units, so healthier doesn’t have to mean pricier.

Hayward has also adopted a Community Risk Reduction Plan, while other communities are in the initial stages. Vintze has presented Planning Healthy Places to all Contra Costa County planners, and foresees more presentations in the coming year. He noted, “It’s a tool that allows planners to be more informed and knowledgeable in their recommendations when going to a board of supervisors or city council.”

In addition to more outreach and follow-up to see how Planning Healthy Places is being used and whether it’s making a difference, both Martien and Vintze cited additional work to be done. For example, the “further study areas” identified by the interactive maps usually include large facilities such as refineries, and better air modeling is needed to determine health risks and identify risk reduction strategies. The Air District is currently developing a new regulation, Rule 11-18, which would require a comprehensive evaluation of all permitted facilities that emit toxic air contaminants, and require those facilities above a certain threshold to install technically and economically feasible risk reduction measures. These Health Risk Assessments would add to the data available to developers and planners to make even more informed land use decisions for many of the study areas.

Distance from pollution sources may mean planning for the right time, not place. The Air District continues to contribute to efforts to get closer to zero-emission vehicle fleets; for example, over $100 million has been spent for cleaner trucks that serve the Port of Oakland, a major pollution source. The expectation is that pollution from freeway traffic will decline over the next few years due to cleaner vehicles, so a recommended strategy is to construct large development projects in phases, with those sections closest to the freeway scheduled to be built last.

Martien is also working on more precise recommendations for vegetation barriers between development and pollution sources. There have been many studies at the national level, but the most effective plantings depend on species, density, and location specifics. “We have enough information to know the types that work and are effective, but we don’t know how effective they are,” Martien explained. For example, Urban Biofilter, an Earth Island Institute project, is evaluating various tree and bamboo varieties in planters at a West Oakland EPA superfund site. The goal is to provide specific recommendations for local communities.

“The tools are out there if communities want to use them,” said Vintze.

Leslie Stewart covers air quality and energy for the Monitor.