Written By: Monika Shankar and Sanna Alas

What images come to mind when you think of historic Los Angeles? From vintage post cards, to old Hollywood movies, our vision of LA is flooded with images of sunny beaches and quaint bungalows dotting picturesque coastal drives. We think of snow-capped mountain peaks set as a backdrop to shiny downtown high rises, reflecting clear blue skies. Although these are parts of LA’s history, it’s not the complete story.

20th century Los Angeles can also be defined as a city of oil fields and smoke stacks, of crisscrossing freeways and railroad thoroughfares. It is easy for the modern-day Angeleno, whose imagination of the city has been co-opted by billboards and lines of palm trees, to forget that Los Angeles grew more out of industrialization, housing industries such as steel mills, automobile manufacturers, and oil refineries. And although this brought tremendous wealth to the city – in the 1920s and 30s, LA rivaled Akron Ohio in rubber production, and Detroit Michigan in auto production – it also planted the seeds for long standing pollution and environmental contamination.

As industry sprouted in and around residential areas, the city recognized it needed to address the consequences of living near polluting sites. With the city growing exponentially, zoning laws were enacted to separate the most noxious industrial uses from residential areas. Yet even with planning tools like zoning, the burden of pollution and the benefit of clean environments were not distributed equally. Industries were often placed in low-income communities and communities of color, such as historic South Central. Institutionalized discrimination such as housing segregation ensured that that these communities received the environmental burden associated with industrial growth, but not the economic viability.

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By the 1960s, Los Angeles was a city of extreme economic and racial divides—as reflected in an incredible 31% unemployment among Black residents of Watts in comparison to the 9% national unemployment. In the wake of these closures came social instability – for example, in the form of the Watts Uprisings – as well as a host of environmental contamination challenges, which even today continues to plague communities of color disproportionately.

This consideration of LA’s industrial, racial, and environmental history begs an important question for the future of our city today: as LA grows and development increases, how do advocates and policy makers ensure that vulnerable communities are not disproportionately exposed to the industrial legacies of the past and potential hazards of the future?

The answer to this question is complex and invokes discussions on state and regional pollution regulation, industrial permitting and enforcement policies, efforts to transition away from fossil fuels, and greening our industries, amongst other topics. One part of the answer lies in identifying and solving the challenge of incompatible land uses. The Air Resource Board defines an incompatible land use as locating a polluting source (such as a heavily trafficked roadway or industrial facility) near a sensitive use, or a land use where sensitive individuals are found (schools, hospitals, homes).

These sensitive uses are essential to consider because the children, pregnant women, and elderly who occupy these spaces are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of pollution. The cumulative impacts of exposure can manifest in health problems such as asthma, impaired development, cancer, and other chronic conditions. Though research differs on what is defined as a safe distance between sensitive and industrial uses, the EPA recommends a minimum-500 foot buffer to minimize potential health impacts.

Enter the 500 Feet Mapping Project. Inspired by the framework of Liberty Hill’s Hidden Hazards Project and building on the Environmental Justice Screening Method, PSR-LA in 2015 began gathering data to create a unique tool that identifies incompatible land uses in South and Southeast Los Angeles – areas that have been historically burdened by environmental injustice and health disparities. The tool allows the user to see polluting industries and sensitive uses across South Central LA, and can generate a 500-foot buffer by clicking either on a sensitive or industrial use. This allows us to see potential harm by showing where and how often sensitive land uses fall within 500 feet of a polluting facility.

By visualizing these incompatible land uses, advocates and residents can discover which communities are disproportionately affected by pollution, identify EPA violators, and begin mobilizing around policy solutions to address incompatible land uses. The 500 Feet Project is one crucial step among many towards a healthier, more equitable, and environmentally sound South Los Angeles. The tool will be released in July 2016.