Photo: Hidden City Daily

I recently interviewed Diane Sicotte, an environmental sociologist at Drexel University, about her upcoming research on environmental hazards in Philadelphia. Sicotte has written on the topic before, publishing an article in which she mapped the locations of the many different known toxic hazards in the city. Her research is an interesting approach to thinking about pollution in urban areas, asking a fairly simple question: where is pollution concentrated in Philadelphia and why? Here is the article I wrote for Hidden City Daily on Sicotte’s research and what it means for planning towards reducing environmental burden in the city.


Project planning cards for engineering the future in/of the field.

Earlier in the summer, Clean Air Council worked with Port Richmond residents and our academic partners to collect data on the concentration of black carbon in the neighborhood. Climbing up 12 ft ladders in the dead heat of Philadelphia summer, we put up monitors on homes, businesses, schools, and parks around Port Richmond and collected air quality data for four weeks.

Air monitoring fieldwork takes a huge effort on the part of all our researchers: scheduling pick-ups, climbing buildings, asking permission, leaving home, building equipment in the field, filling out forms, etc. But our fieldwork doesn’t stop at monitoring… Read More

Trucks heading south on I-95 passing Port Richmond, leaving a trail of exhaust along the way


Next week Michelle Kondo, a member of the air quality research team at portrichmondAIR, will be presenting some of the findings from our most recent air quality monitoring deployment at the November meeting of the Philadelphia Diesel Difference Working Group. The working group consists of air quality experts, local policy makers, and regional air quality advocates, and we’re looking forward to getting the word out about our air research in Philly. The details are below. E-mail Chris at cmizes(at) if you are interested in attending.

“Scattered fixed-site measurements of black carbon concentrations in a port neighborhood of Philadelphia, PA”

10:00 AM Monday, November 19th
DVRPC: 190 North Independence Mall West, 8th Floor

Communities along the Delaware River in Philadelphia, such as Port Richmond, are host to goods movement industry. While these industries provide a vital source of employment and revenues for urban communities, port-related goods movement can pose health consequences for adjacent communities and surrounding regions. Exposure to particles and gases from diesel truck traffic in particular is associated with increased incidence of asthma and respiratory infections among other health outcomes.

In Port Richmond in 2010, 26% of children and 23% of adults suffered from asthma. At present, it is not possible to assess whether elevated asthma levels are related to air pollution. Air Management Services currently monitors air pollution in Philadelphia at just 10 sites, and this data cannot detect variation in pollution levels at the neighborhood, street, or individual level even though these differences could have a meaningful impact on health. Neighborhood-scale monitoring is an effective way to determine the spatial patterns of pollutant concentrations throughout a neighborhood and identify pollution sources.

Dr. Kondo will describe a study to characterize spatial and temporal variation in concentrations of black carbon (BC) in Port Richmond, and its relationship to expected sources such as truck traffic using outdoor stationary monitoring over a 4-week period during the summer of 2012. Preliminary results show elevated BC concentrations closer to diesel traffic routes, and in morning hours. This study represents a collaborative effort between Port Richmond residents, Clean Air Council, University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University (with assistance from DVRPC and Philadelphia’s Air Management Services).


Streets in and around Port Richmond officially prohibited to truck traffic. (Map by .chris & SEENO)

I recently gave a short presentation at a Port Richmond neighborhood group on some updates from the air quality monitoring we completed this summer. We do air monitoring in the hopes of improving air quality in the neighborhood, and as I’ve mentioned quite a bit, a lot of the air quality issues in the area we assume are related to the highway and truck traffic.

Above is a map of streets that trucks are not allowed to drive on and below is a guide for making those restrictions. Many of these restrictions are either unknown to drivers or unenforced by local authorities. Many of the routes haven’t been amended in decades and are usually scattered throughout the community, only established when residents petition to the City.

Trucks snake in and out of the neighborhood, blow past truck route signs, and clog even the large arterial streets with extreme amounts of traffic congestion. There hasn’t been much planning dedicated to addressing this issue, and we are unsure what affect the highway expansion will have on congestion.

Traffic has to move through and along the neighborhood, but Philadelphia hasn’t really thought about exactly where it should go. Truckers, too, are unsure, meandering through the neighborhood looking for the correct truck entry point, burning more fuel and releasing more particles than they need to in the process.

So, where do we want to put these trucks?




If you are in the Port Richmond area this weekend, come check out our Photo Exhibition. Clean Air Council and Portside Arts worked with neighborhood residents and youth to photograph our perceptions of the local environment. Bright green parrots, large diesel trucks, lush green parkscapes, lost and abandoned car tires: our contributing photographers present the neighborhood in every way, both good and bad.

We think this is a great contribution to thinking more about environmental quality in the Port Richmond area. Air monitoring collects useful data on the amount and type of particles floating around in the air, but it doesn’t tell us how it affects the everyday lives of those breathing that air. It also tells us only about air, and tends to forget things like discarded iced tea cartons, mosquitoes, railway underpasses, flowers, city skylines, and sidewalk etchings: all important parts of the neighborhood environment.

We’re looking forward to this event and hope that you are, too.



Air quality in Philly neighborhoods is mostly determined by proximity (how close are you to some of our city’s largest polluters). It is reasonable to believe that distance from where you are to the Sunoco refinery or I-95 has a significant impact on the quality of air you breathe. But, as I mentioned before, the current air quality monitoring network doesn’t give us a clear picture of this. This isn’t true for the whole of the city, as air pollution from places outside of Philadelphia can travel into the city by way of large-scale air currents. The heavy pollution from Beijing hanging in the Los Angeles basin is a good example of this type of air quality travel. At the neighborhood level, though, what you are close to means a lot for what you breathe.

Above is a land-use map of Philadelphia I made depicting the variety of different uses in the city. For those of us that spend quite a bit of time looking at maps and thinking about space in Philadelphia, it isn’t much of a surprise: a long stretch on industrial use on the western edge of the Delaware river that snakes down around the expanding southport; dense commercial and transportation use in our very own central business district, center city; a sea of yellow and orange residential and vacant land in our urban neighborhoods; and large tracts of contiguous industrial and transportation in the southwest marking the space of food terminals, the refinery, and our somewhat international airport. The pie chart of land use by square mile included here shows that just over half of land in the city is taken up by residences and transportation alone. Read More

Heavy duty truck traffic driving down a restricted road in Port Richmond.

Part of living next to an international port means living next to the massive amounts of truck traffic coming in and out of the neighborhood. This is perhaps not surprising at all: if you live close to such a massive node of transportation infrastructure, you have to deal with the everyday presence of that infrastructure. Light blue cranes line the eastern horizon of Port Richmond, peppering our riverfront views with a reminder of the behemoth of goods transportation it represents. Indeed, this place is called Port Richmond, a bluntly descriptive title for a historically working class port neighborhood. Neighborhood titles and riverfront views are strong reminders of the massive industry sidling this dense Philadelphia neighborhood.

We know what it means to be a port neighborhood or what it means to live next to a heavily trafficked freeway, but it is far more difficult to understand the everyday consequences of living next to such places: sights, sounds, smells, and safety all change in and around Philadelphia’s swarming transportation infrastructure. People who live in this neighborhood regularly cite truck traffic as one of the most persistent, noticeable, and frustrating spill-overs of port operations. Trucks burn dirty exhaust fumes and regularly travel through the neighborhood streets instead of using the main roads more amenable to use by industrial vehicles. This makes a host of safety and health problems for residents in the area, particularly those attempting to walk along city sidewalks.

Google image of a diesel truck driving the wrong way up a street with walk signs that are perpetually red.

Trucks leave heavy traces in the Port Richmond streetscape: deep potholes and broken down curb corners are a regular sight in Port Richmond, and it isn’t uncommon to see a large diesel truck stuck on a sidewalk, poorly navigating a right turn. The 2007 google streetview image above captures the problem nicely: a large FedEx truck is navigating the wrong direction up one of the busiest intersections in the area (located directly next to I-95 and Monkiewicz park), while the perpetually solid red hand walking signal blocks any attempt to cross the street safely. The walk signal is telling of the neighborhoods traffic safety: don’t bother to cross here as the unceasing stream of traffic will never let you through.

Select streets in Port Richmond bear a “NO TRACTOR TRAILORS” sign (such as the one pictured above), but there is incredible lax enforcement or knowledge of what these signs are supposed to enforce. Speaking with a long-term resident who lives along an incredibly buys and fast-moving thoroughfare in the neighborhood, I found that residents petitioned well over twenty years ago to have those signs put up. Enforcement was much heavier shortly after the signs were installed, but simmered to nothing over the past couple decades. Trucks still run through prohibited main streets at the same time that they clog the small one-way roads in the heart of nearby neighborhoods. It isn’t hard to look out from any porch in Port Richmond and watch a diesel truck squeeze its way between cross-walks, parked cars, and pedestrians.

According to an article put out in the Philadelphia Inquirer a couple years ago, there is no real truck route designation put out by the Streets Department and the City of Philadelphia. The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation is responsible for identifying truck routes, but the limited information they put out on the subject is largely related to the highway system and has little to do with the small streets lining our urban neighborhoods. Roads prohibited to truck traffic, such as the northern end of Richmond Ave (pictured above), only come about through neighborhood petition. There seems to be no comprehensive or enforced plan for directing truck traffic in or out of Philadelphia, let alone its international port neighborhoods.

Reporting the lack of enforcement for truck traffic signs to the office of City Councilperson Bobby Henon, using his new City Hall iPhone app.

So, what to do about this? Port infrastructure is spilling over into our neighborhoods and is clogging roads, making the life of pedestrians needlessly dangerous, destroying the streets and sidewalks, and releasing diesel emissions in a densely populated area. Recently, I posted this request on Councilperson Bobby Henon’s City Hall App to enforce some of the existing signage in the neighborhood. Has there been a noticeable decease in trucks along this road since? I don’t know, But moving towards more enforcement and working with neighborhood groups, the City of Philadelphia, and the Port Authority to design a better truck route transportation plan is a much needed step in reducing the everyday effects of living directly next to Philadelphia’s ports.