Vectorhealth.me

A stark picture of the geographic relationship between the city's top polluters and its most vulnerable places.

We often picture urban pollution as a monolithic smear of smog. It looks that way, after all, from a descending airplane (or, in extreme circumstances, from an orbiting satellite). Yet actual levels of pollution experienced by people on the ground vary from neighborhood to neighborhood, even from one block to the next. The methane that comes from landfills and the carbon dioxide from refineries of course contribute to the poor air quality hovering over an entire metropolitan region. But live right next to one of those places – or send your kid to school there – and your problem is even worse. Then, factor in the wind.

This is the premise behind an interactive map of the Los Angeles region (best viewed in Chrome) created by Ted Timmons and Tom Marthaler. They've plotted on a single map many of the region's worst polluters: its airports, oil fields, refineries, wastewater treatment plants, superfund sites and oil fields (on a particularly depressing note, there are so many of these last two offenders in the region that Timmons and Marthaler warn the data overload might crash your browser).

Simultaneously, they've mapped those places in the community that are most vulnerable to pollution: schools, hospitals, and parks. The juxtaposition is dispiriting. Here, for instance, is the band of oil wells just west of downtown L.A. (random trivia: the Los Angeles Basin produced one-fifth of the nation's oil supply back in the 1920s). All of the blue houses here are schools, and the crosses hospitals. Each little black smudge below is an oil well that has been capped or buried, some of which are still producing today. Even the inactive, paved-over sites have been prone to seeping toxic gases.

Elsewhere in the city, major oil fields marked on the map by oil rigs are still actively in production.

Timmons and Marthaler would ultimately like to beef up the map to factor in the movement of pollution through wind patterns, to give an even more fine-grained sense of who's at risk not just near polluters but downwind of them.

As our own John Metcalfe has reported, NASA scientists in the L.A. area are already at work trying to map how emissions move through the Los Angeles metro area, in an effort to come up with a precise measurement of the region's carbon footprint. At a more intimate scale, though, this Vector Health map could show how that same picture of pollution impacts the places we should worry about the most.

About the Author

Emily Badger

Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific StandardGOODThe Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.

Most Popular

  1. The price of bananas is displayed on a digital price tag at a 365 by Whole Foods Market grocery store.
    How To

    The Past and Future of Urban Grocery Shopping

    In his new book, Michael Ruhlman charts the overlap of food, commerce, and identity.

  2. Life

    Where Are America's Real Arts Capitals?

    Big coastal cities might have iconic, profitable, and well-funded scenes. But the economic impact of the cultural sector can be larger in some surprising places.

  3. A street vendor hanging cans of Coke to a customer in a sunny park
    Equity

    What L.A. Can Learn From Its Failed Experiment in Legalized Street Vending

    It fizzled out 20 years ago, but the city can do better this time around.

  4. Design

    The Military Declares War on Sprawl

    The Pentagon thinks better designed, more walkable bases can help curb obesity and improve troops’ fitness.

  5. Modest two-bedroom apartments are unaffordable to full-time minimum wage workers in every U.S. county.
    Maps

    Rent Is Affordable to Low-Wage Workers in Exactly 12 U.S. Counties

    America’s mismatch between wages and rental prices is more perverse than ever.