Media Briefings

EAST SIDE STORY: How historic pollution drove – and still drives – urban segregation

  • Published Date: March 2016

Eastern neighbourhoods of old cities in North America and Western Europe – New York, London and Paris, for example – are notably poorer than Western areas as a result of historic air pollution. That is the central finding of research by Stephan Heblich, Alex Trew and Yanos Zylberberg, to be presented at the Royal Economic Society’s annual conference in Brighton in March 2016.

Their study notes that at the latitude of the United States and Western Europe, westerly winds blow from West to East. Nineteenth century industrial cities with centrally located factories thus had higher pollution in Eastern districts. The well-paid residents of a city could afford to live upwind of the pollution; those in low-paid employment had to live in the East where housing was cheap.

Analysis of data on 10,000 industrial chimneys in 70 English cities in the 1880s confirms that pollution induced neighbourhoods to separate the working class population into the Eastern districts. But this effect has lasted long after the factories closed and coal burning stopped – even 60 years on, historic air pollution explains 20% of modern deprivation. The authors comment:

‘In countries where pollution is heavy today, policy-makers should appreciate that the resulting social segregation may continue long into the future.’

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Cities that were formerly reliant on industry tend to have Eastern suburbs that are notably poorer than the Western suburbs. We already see this reflected in media stories about the East Sides of London, New York, Paris or Vancouver as well as in popular culture (such as in the long- running BBC soap opera, East Enders). But there is surprisingly little analysis of the reasons behind this pattern.

This research finds that this is the result of wind patterns. At the latitude of the United States and Western Europe, westerly winds blow from West to East. Industrial cities with centrally located factories thus had higher pollution in Eastern districts. The well-paid residents of a city could afford to live upwind of the pollution; those in low-paid employment had to live in the East where housing was cheap.

The researchers show this connection empirically by locating nearly 10,000 industrial chimneys in 70 English cities around the year 1880 and use terrain and wind models to predict where the smoke would have drifted. Data for 1881 show that pollution induced neighbourhoods to separate the working class population into the Eastern districts.

While the historical connection is striking, the effect of this historical pollution is highly persistent. Using data for the twenty-first century, long after the highly polluting factories either closed their gates or cleaned up their emissions, the effect of the former concentrations of pollution is still evident. Almost 60 years after the drastic reduction of coal burning in these cities, the former concentrations of pollution from historical factories explain 20% of current deprivation.

These findings have an unfortunate parallel with a famous story of evolutionary change among moths in the UK. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, the dominant form of the peppered moth was the lighter form as it was camouflaged against predation when on light trees and lichens. As the intensity of pollution caused trees to blacken under layers of soot, so the darker form of moth emerged as the dominant form by the end of the nineteenth century.

Following the Clean Air Acts of the mid-twentieth century, pollution has been abated and now lighter form of the peppered moth has once again become dominant. While the peppered moth was able to recover following the recovery of the environment, the human consequences in terms of segregated areas of high social deprivation are so resilient that they have, in many places, still not recovered to this day.

This research has two important implications:

• First, in those countries where pollution is heavy today, policy-makers should appreciate that the resulting social segregation is not just for the short run but may persist long into the future.

• Second, in those cities where segregation exists as a result of the historical pollution, the researchers hope to identify the channels by which the persistence operates. Doing so will help us to understand how to reverse some of the consequences of the pollution that long since ceased.

ENDS


East Side Story: Historic Pollution and Neighbourhood Segregation
Stephan Heblich (Bristol), Alex Trew (St Andrews) and Yanos Zylberberg (Bristol)