infrastructures of Port Richmond air


(Old yellow factory building to be torn down for Richmond Ave to be moved eastward. Making space for an expanded interstate 95. Photo: Chris Mizes)

Port Richmond is under construction. Walking through the streets in this old, working-class neighborhood in Philadelphia, it is hard to miss a ripped up sewer plates, diverted traffic, or the large plumes of dust coming off a nearby construction site. Much of Philadelphia’s infrastructure funnels through this neighborhood and, apparently, much of it needs to be replaced. Reconstruction, replacement, and decay are fantastic moments to rethink exactly what our infrastructure does to us. That is, not only what it does for us—as we commonly think about infrastructure—but what it does to us as well.

Clean Air Council (where I work) has been working with engineers, scientists, planners, and neighborhood residents in Port Richmond to collect air quality data in the area, attempting to remedy one giant urban problem: What are the air quality impacts—and, by association, health impacts—of port operations and heavy traffic along the I-95 corridor? We know from other research in other places that infrastructure affects health: ports and highways are major sources of hazardous pollutants, such as particulate matter and ozone, that pose significant health risks to those who live nearby. However, we can’t say the same thing about the actual air we actually breath in places like Port Richmond. We can look outside and speculate on what might be in the air, but if we aren’t standing directly next to one of Philadelphia’s 10 air monitoring stations, we have absolutely no idea.

The world health organization recently designated diesel exhaust as a known carcinogen, citing recent studies on the effects of high concentrations of exhaust on coal miners’ health. Diesel exhaust is one of those things in cities that produces high levels of particulate matter and NOX (a precursor to ozone). There has been some discussion over whether a study on miner’s is relevant to the topographically different cityscape (we’re not locked in a mine! We’re in a wide-open city where air can actually move!). This is a good point. We still don’t know, though, where it moves, how concentrated it actually is, and who is bearing most of the burden of diesel emissions in Philadelphia.


(Street construction in Port Richmond with traffic steadily cruising along I-95 in the background. Photo: Chris Mizes)

Back to infrastructure. This is all a result of a nearly unending list of infrastructural failures, changes, anomalies, decisions and so on: port worker housing developed in the places closest to ports; I-95 was built along the river and is still growing in this same direction; Philadelphia’s air monitoring network is not extensive enough to understand ALL air quality patterns in the area; the Panama canal is expanding, prompting an expected increase in goods to the east coast; diesel trucks in the port are old and many truck-drivers can’t afford to replace them; and, finally, our bodies are vulnerable to many of the emissions that result from these infrastructural processes (this is what infrastructure can do to us).

There is invisible dust in the air around us. It feels immaterial, fluid, and certainly difficult to see. It is often only apparent in our occasional smog clouds over the city, a plume of black smoke from a diesel truck, or a short wheeze from a young asthmatic Philadelphian.  The purpose of this blog—and the purpose of our air monitoring project in Port Richmond—is to increase our understanding of the health and air quality effects of Philadelphia’s critical infrastructures in an effort to do them in different, healthier ways. We’ll update regularly with stories, thoughts, news, histories, sounds, photos, research, and ideas about air quality, Port Richmond, health, and infrastructure.


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