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Correlating air quality, land use and socioeconomic status

High-resolution analysis reveals connections between economic and environmental disparities.

As data improve in resolution, researchers can start asking new questions. In an urban area, for example, how do meter-by-meter patterns in land use correlate with zip code-level variations in air quality? And how do both of those dimensions tie into socioeconomic disparities?

That’s exactly the question University of Utah researcher Daniel Mendoza asked as he explored the correlations between land, air and society in Salt Lake County. His results are published in Urban Science.

Land cover data came from a 1m-resolution LiDAR survey of Salt Lake County, showing with high resolution what areas feature tree cover, bare soil, built cover or open water. Air quality data came from a growing network of stationary and mobile particulate matter sensors throughout the county that is providing an ever-sharpening picture of how air quality differs across an urban area.

“This facilitates an analysis that shows disparities in environmental health along socioeconomic lines,” Mendoza says.

PHOTO CREDIT: Daniel Mendoza/University of Utah

Spatial distribution of sociodemographic and land cover categories at the block group level: (a) Per capita income; (b) Tree cover; (c) Minority population; and (d) Built cover.

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The major findings were unsurprising: a higher proportion of tree cover was correlated with higher per capita income, and higher particulate matter exposure was correlated to increased built cover and higher amounts of households living under poverty.

But Mendoza was surprised by how closely tree cover correlated with per capita income, and how closely that tree cover also correlated with longitude, highlighting Salt Lake County’s east-west economic divide that becomes an environmental divide when air quality is also factored in.

The results can inform public health policy, since they show that the structure of a city is connected to the prosperity and health hazards of its residents.

“Socioeconomically challenged communities suffer from both a lack of green spaces and their related mental and physical health benefits,” Mendoza says, “in addition to worse environmental conditions shown by elevated pollutant levels.”

Find the full study here.

Mendoza is a research assistant professor in the Department of Atmospheric Sciences, a visiting assistant professor in the Department of City & Metropolitan Planning, an adjunct assistant professor in the Pulmonary Division in the School of Medicine and a senior scientist at the Interdisciplinary Exchange for Utah Science (NEXUS).