News / Canada

Metro Cities: Air pollution is what keeps 'east sides' down, study finds

A worldwide pattern been spotted: lower-income 'east sides' that form in cities like New York, Paris, Vancouver, Casablanca, and Helsinki can be explained by poor air quality.

A recent study shows air pollution may be to blame for the global pattern of disadvantaged downtown east sides.

The Canadian Press

A recent study shows air pollution may be to blame for the global pattern of disadvantaged downtown east sides.

It’s an inescapable pattern that around the world, the east side of cities tends to be the less desirable place to live. But why? In a recent study, Stephan Heblich, Alex Trew and Yanos Zylbergerg believe they have the answer: it’s all in the air. 

Lower-income east sides are widespread. Major cities that fit the pattern include New York, Paris, Vancouver, Casablanca and Helsinki. 

The low-income east side phenomenon starts with industrialization in the 19th century, argue the study authors. In middle latitude cities, the winds are westerlies, which pushes air pollutants from the smoke stacks that dotted city skylines towards the east. 

Even after coal fell out of fashion and most factories moved away from downtowns, the east side phenomenon persisted through what’s called “neighbourhood sorting.” The authors write this is partly because low-income areas didn’t accumulate as many amenities, like libraries and community centres, which in turn limited upward mobility.

While some cities, like London and Toronto, are finally seeing east side revitalizations, the study say what looks like a turnaround is just these areas finally catching up to where they would be without their polluted history. 

Lower-income east sides are more than just a quirk of history or piece of trivia. The study authors point to a bigger lesson for how we think about cities and how health shapes geography.

While pollution has obvious negative short-term health effects, they observe that when it’s focused on a community it may also create long-term geographic inequalities. 

And while that's really difficult to undo — the lower-income east side has been an issue for over 150 years — figuring out how it happens is an important first step to creating healthier and more sustainable cities.   

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