For several cities in the southeastern United States, urban sprawl, vehicular traffic, and the resulting air pollution represent existential challenges to growth, economic development, and their population’s health. As cities continue to spread across massive areas of space, commutes to and from work become longer, industrial sites become larger and more regular and the air people breathe on a daily basis becomes more toxic. The city of Atlanta, one of the fastest growing cities in the U.S. in both population and size, represents both the environmental dangers of unchecked expansion and the possibility for change through responsible policy-making.
Historically, Atlanta’s struggle with air pollution has been tied to the city’s infamous problems with heavy traffic. People working in Atlanta face an average commute of 35 miles each day, the lengthiest in the country. This reality of urban sprawl, combined with the city’s massive investment in roads, has incentivized more commuters to use personal vehicles, slowing traffic and increasing the amount of toxic emissions being released into the air.
In addition to the city’s traffic problems, Atlanta is also home to several power plants and industrial facilities that further exacerbate its high rates of air pollution and health hazards. Tellingly, 11% of Atlanta’s children suffer from asthma, which is double the national average. Additionally, there is an alarming number of “code orange” warnings each year in the metro area, which indicates dangerous air conditions for vulnerable groups such as the elderly and those suffering from respiratory diseases.
However, recent statistics on Atlanta’s quality of air display a promising trend. In July of 2017, the city successfully met ozone standards set by the federal government in 2008 for the first time. Additionally, the number of “code orange” days per year has steadily decreased since 2000 despite the EPA broadening its definition in 2016. Most experts agree these positive changes correlate with tighter restrictions on coal-burning power plants implemented during the Obama administration and improvements in efficiency standards within the automobile industry. Additionally, city officials cite a mandate on less toxic fuel sources and a growing emphasis on public transport as contributors to the city’s progress. As a whole, these changes have successfully limited the city’s carbon emissions and led to a safer and more healthy community, all while maintaining consistently impressive economic growth.
Of course, the Trump Administration’s environmental policies have brought the longevity of these strides into question. In October of 2017, Scott Pruitt, the chief of the Environmental Protection Agency, signed a repeal of the Obama-era “Clean-Power Plan,” which would have reduced power-sector emissions by 33%. President Trump’s decision for the U.S. to leave the Paris Climate Accord could indicate future rollbacks of more environmentally protective policies in the future. Atlanta’s officials publicly opposed the decision and pledged to continue reducing carbon emissions and improving air quality. Moving forward, Atlanta will serve as an interesting case study for whether cities can maintain their environmental progress in the midst of deregulation and active opposition from Washington. Atlanta and other cities are facing a crossroads in their efforts to combat air pollution.
Therefore, it is up to the people of Atlanta, and every other city in the Southeast, to maintain persistent pressure on their local governments to keep fighting for cleaner air, safer cities and a better environment for generations to come.