USC Price School of Public Policy

USC Study Charts Pollution in Compact Regions

USC Study Charts Pollution in Compact Regions

Lisa Schweitzer Study author Lisa Schweitzer, associate professor at SPPD
Photo by Tom Queally

By Alexandra Dann

A study in the latest issue of the Journal of the American Planning Association concludes that contrary to current thinking, exposure to poor air quality is higher in compact U.S. regions than in sprawled locations.

Public health researchers have encouraged urban planners to reduce sprawl as part of addressing poor air quality and the impacts of climate change. Smarter, more compact development can reduce driving and the resulting levels of particulates and pollution.

Study author Lisa Schweitzer, associate professor at the USC School of Policy, Planning and Development, reported that the amount of pollution or driving in a region is only part of the story.

In Los Angeles, for example, compact developments have been built in order to ensure that residents have environmentally smart transit access. But some of those apartment buildings have been built next to freeways where pollutants can be at their peak. With multi-family housing and low-income residents, those developments earned the title of “Black Lung Lofts” from LA Weekly.

Schweitzer’s study illustrates that the problem can be worse in compact regions than in sprawl. In addition, the study said, compact regions have higher exposures among impoverished seniors and children have higher exposures to pollution in compact regions.

Compact development or infill is a good strategy, but location matters. High-population density is not a problem if the air is, on average, as good as it is in Santa Monica. It only becomes a problem when the air quality is already poor – high-population density in a city like Long Beach will simply increase the number of people exposed to high concentrations of particulate matter.

Schweitzer contends that policy and planning needs to take note of recent studies in the fields of engineering and climate science in order to acquire a better understanding of how pollution affects neighborhoods. Planners, she reported, cannot treat compact development as a way to solve the respiratory health problems associated with poor air quality – as concentration and emissions go down with compactness, residential exposures go up.

To view the Schweitzer study, please click here.

The Journal of American Planning Association publishes peer-reviewed, original research and analysis. For more than 75 years, it has published research, commentaries and book reviews useful to practicing planners, policymakers, scholars, students and citizens of urban, suburban and rural areas.