Improving air quality in Boston

user research, co-design, data, built environment, systems, human-centered design, social justice, environment & sustainability, project management

I was part of a team that pursues individual, community, and program-driven ways to improve air quality through the reduction of Ultrafine Particle (UFP) concentration. These particles cause significant negative long-term health impacts and are a leading cause of death in the world according to the World Health Organization. People who live close to highways and airports are exposed to significant concentrations of UFP generated by combustion engines. Often, the neighborhoods which are closest to major roadways and airports are inhabited by underrepresented populations and low-income households, meaning that residents are disproportionately affected by poor air quality.

Through design and technical research, my team was developing a social venture to create sustainable and healthy change in indoor air quality conditions in East Boston and Chinatown, two Boston neighborhoods at the intersection of poor air quality and high rates of poverty.

Identifying the problem

UFPs are produced during combustion, which means they occur in greater concentrations in areas near transportation: highways, train stations, airports, shipping lanes, and ports. As real estate near transportation tends to be cheaper, the population living in those areas tends to have less wealth.

Our team focused our work on two Boston neighborhoods at the intersection of poor air quality and high rates of poverty, Chinatown and East Boston.

Zooming in

UFPs are really small. Most air filters are rated to remove particles of at least 300 nm in diameter, but UFPs are less than 100 nm in diameter. If you imagine the large arc in this graphic as a whole circle, that would be the size of a human hair relative (50,000 nm in diameter) to the tiny dot in the blue region, a UFP.

Designing for outdoor community spaces

Our team received a grant from the Kresge Foundation to develop community-approved air quality improvement interventions for Reggie Wong Park, a community hub of Chinatown where residents gather to play 9-man and basketball. The park is steeped in Chinese-American immigrant tradition, and is also a place of refuge for a number of people experiencing homelessness. The park is located between highways I-90, I-93, and South Station.

Developing a design research strategy

As project manager, I led my team as we embarked on our design research process. We conducted user research with residents of Chinatown and park users, and collaborated with neighborhood organizations to design solutions that are culturally appropriate and desirable. We worked with translators to communicate with Chinese- and Cantonese-speaking users.

Proposing design requirements for solutions

Work on this project continued beyond my time on the team. When I left, we were working to define design requirements and identify possible solutions for improving air quality in Reggie Wong Park that community organization Chinatown Community Land Trust could use to make a healthier recreation space reality.

Modeling an indoor air quality system

The average American spends 90% of their time indoors according to the Environmental Protection Agency. For our work in East Boston, we modeled how UFPs enter buildings and homes, and used our model to predict the effectiveness of various interventions at preventing UFPs from entering or removing them from the air once they are already inside.

Testing indoor interventions

We tested possible interventions for improving air quality in real Boston homes and parks, and collected data on their effectiveness at reducing indoor UFP concentrations.

Project details
Project manager and design strategist, Spring 2018
Fall 2017 - Spring 2018
Affordable Design and Entrepreneurship
Olin College of Engineering / Babson College
Team: Daniela Casas, April Chen, Christine Dimke, Bradley Ditch, Isabel Harrison, Scott Hersey, Mimi Kome, Andrew Lidington, Aidan McLaughlin, Caz Nichols, Louise Nielsen, Cesar Santana

Collaborators: Doug Brugge from Community Assessment of Freeway Exposure and Health (CAFEH) at Tufts University, Gloria Devine and Justin Pasquariello from the East Boston Social Center, Lydia Lowe from the Chinatown Community Land Trust, Gail Miller from AIR, Inc., Marilyn Garcia and Shaquor Sandiford from the Chelsea Restoration Corporation