Richmond institution, city volunteers to monitor air pollution in urban neighborhoods
Summer temperatures in Richmond can be 16 degrees hotter in a downtown ward than in a wealthy, tree-lined neighborhood five miles away. But the citizen scientists who found that out in 2017 now hope to answer a new question: Does the quality of air that citizens breathe also depend on their ZIP codes?
The project, led by the Science Museum of Virginia in Richmond, aims to again harness the data-collection efforts of volunteers to paint a more accurate picture of the air around them and the ways urban development and climate change could be altering it.
“It’s amazing how much you can learn from a data set that the people who live in [the area] generate,” said Jeremy Hoffman, chief scientist at the museum.
And there is still a lot to learn about air quality in the city.
The Virginia Department of Environmental Quality has been measuring ozone pollution outside of Richmond at one of 40 stations in the state since the early 1970s. But those stations, which once focused on industrial pollutants outside the city, are far away from the capital’s urban core, where air quality can vary widely.
And while industrial pollution controls have lowered harmful emissions in some areas, a movement of residents into the city could be increasing air pollution elsewhere. Studies have shown that the factors that make parts of the city hotter — such as more paved surfaces, more cars and fewer trees — can worsen air quality, too.
“You can’t surmise that it’s the same on every single block,” Hoffman said. “I think that’s where our study will be useful: identifying places where people are disproportionately exposed to air pollution, so we can make informed decisions.”
The data about city heat and air quality will eventually be projected as a map-based display on a large wall inside the museum as part of a new exhibit. And — if the use of the museum’s urban heat island data is any indication — it will also be used to inform decision makers and help reduce temperatures and air pollution in the city’s hotspots.
So far, the heat data has spawned a volunteer group called Throwing Shade RVA, run by Groundwork RVA, which plants trees and designs shade structures to lower the temperature in densely urban areas. The data from both the heat and air quality projects also will play a role in the city’s climate resilience plan, RVAgreen 2050, which strives to reduce inequitable impacts.
Alicia Zatcoff, Richmond’s sustainability manager, said she’s glad to see another project “that enables residents who are most affected by climate change impacts to participate in citizen science projects.”
A $250,000 grant from the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services will make the air-testing project possible, putting 30 air sensors into volunteers’ hands and installing another 30 around the city. Data collection will begin in the spring and results will be disseminated throughout the three-year project. The money also will support the data-projection exhibit and fund a full-time staffer to spearhead the monitoring work.
Museum officials say the funds will help them continue to interpret the impact of a warming climate on Richmond residents.
“Our personal health is intimately linked to the health of the environment,” said the museum’s chief wonder officer Richard Conti. He added that the funds help the museum “explore the backyard impacts of global climate change” and help residents “build more resilient communities.”
Hoffman, who came to the museum in 2016 from Oregon, got the idea to measure temperatures in Richmond from a professor of urban studies and planning at Portland State University, Vivek Shandas. The professor’s data collection in the West Coast city has shown a correlation between lower-income neighborhoods and higher temperatures. The urban heat island, he found, was more like several islands where temperature could differ from block to block.
But, working at a museum whose mission is to connect people to science, Hoffman wasn’t interested in conducting the study entirely by himself. The museum worked with Groundwork RVA, a nonprofit that engages young people in environmental issues, to enlist nearly 40 citizen scientists in the effort.
“The results of that study have kind of elevated the museum’s place in the city’s discourse about the environment,” Hoffman said, “because we enabled residents of the city to discover something for themselves that was also useful to the city.”
Baltimore and the District of Columbia conducted their own heat studies in 2018, and 10 more cities followed suit this summer with the help of grants from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The air quality monitoring will take place in neighborhoods close to the museum. “We thought, ‘Why not start in our backyard?’” explained Jennifer Guild, the museum’s manager of communications.
The surrounding area includes a range of neighborhoods that represent some of the block-by-block diversity across Richmond. Across Broad Street, which passes the front of the museum, is the city’s sought-after Fan District neighborhood, with shaded streets and historic homes that sold for an average of $456,000 in September, according to Redfin, a real estate brokerage.
And just northwest of the museum is Scott’s Addition, an industrial-turned-urban enclave that has added 3,500 residents over the last seven years, according to its business association. The average house there sold for $280,000 last month, according to Redfin. Redeveloped to include additional housing and more than a dozen breweries, the Richmond Times-Dispatch called the neighborhood a “magnet” for millennials.
But all of those low-lying buildings and brick-and-asphalt surfaces make this neighborhood one of the city’s hottest. Other studies indicate those same factors could make the air quality worse there, but Hoffman says he’s keeping an “open mind.”
“My favorite way to frame studies like ours is under the idea that there’s no difference between one place and another,” he said. “If we walk into it thinking Scott’s Addition is going to have poorer air quality than everywhere else, then we’re not really testing something. We’re seeking something.”
The stationary sensors the museum will be using can record various sizes of particulate matter in the air, from ash and soot to dust and pollen. The handheld sensors go a bit further by also recording the presence of volatile organic compounds. That includes nitrogen dioxide, a precursor to ozone that doesn’t always turn into ozone — and, therefore, wouldn’t be detected by some tests.
But nitrogen dioxide has increasingly been linked to environmental health hazards, such as airway inflammation and reduced lung function, according to the American Lung Association. Poor air quality, overall, can exacerbate allergy symptoms and asthma, inhibit lung function and contribute to diseases such as bronchitis.
Some of the particulates that are a concern for public health can also be a concern for local water quality when they fall onto paved surfaces and are washed into the nearest stream.
“It’s all kind of tied together,” Hoffman said. “So by understanding air quality, you can actually do a lot to better understand the health of the whole environmental system.”