Story Map: Histories of Environmental Health in the South Bronx
Research + Methodology

Design and Urban Ecologies - The New School, Parsons

Background + Historical Context

Health equity and issues of environmental justice and racism are inextricably linked. These linkages create cycles of generational harm that impact entire communities' quality of life. The South Bronx is a clear example of these linkages and of how systemic neglect, environmental injustice and racism impact individuals and communities as a whole.

The Bronx is the northmost borough of NYC. It is a peninsula that borders the Hudson, Harlem, and East Rivers. Residents are cut off to their waterfront due to highway routes along the Bronx’s borders.

The South Bronx is a neighborhood that includes communities south of the Cross-Bronx Expressway and west of the Bronx River.(1) Mott Haven and Port Morris are the two main neighborhoods of the South Bronx, with the former also being known by the alias “Asthma Alley.”(2)

Multiple studies corroborate residents’ lived experience of asthma and other common health issues being caused by environmental injustices. Excessive pollution caused by industrial activity and the emissions from the major trucking routes that cut through the borough contribute to poor health outcomes for residents. Not to mention the dearth of public space, accentuated by the trucking routes cutting off access to the waterfront.

Construction of the Cross Bronx Expressway was built under the rule of Robert Moses starting in 1948. More than 60,000 people were directly displaced by its construction - the most of any single infrastructure project in American history.(3) The resulting reduction in property value and the lure of suburbia resulted in white flight.

The residents that remained in the Bronx after the construction of the expressway were largely black and brown and their mobility was further constrained by the implementation of racist housing policies and redlining. Redlining was a racist government practice in which the government created maps determining and assigning grades to a neighborhood’s investment worthiness based on race in the late 1930s. The grades were color coded: A was green and “Best”, B was blue and “Still Desirable”, C was yellow and “Declining”, and D was red and “Hazardous”.

The Morrisania neighborhood of the South Bronx was given a D rating and the following remarks were made about the area, “There is a steady infiltration of negro Spanish and Puerto Rican into the area. Population is very unstable and the relief load is heavy. Section is very congested with considerable small business scattered everywhere. One of the poorest areas in the Bronx.” These gradings and remarks about specific neighborhoods and census tracts based off of racist assumptions and stereotypes still impact the area today. (8)

Pollution Advantage is a term coined by professor Christopher W. Tessum to denote the racial disparities between pollution exposure and the consumption of goods and services within the United States. His accompanying report reveals that black Americans are exposed to 56% more pollution than they cause and Hispanics are exposed to 63% more pollution than they cause. However, non-hispanic white people are exposed to 17% less pollution than they cause; this is what the study defines as a “pollution advantage”.(5) This research is tangibly expressed through the environmental health injustices experienced in the South Bronx, which has higher rates of pollution than New York City the Bronx as a whole(6), Asthma rates three times higher than the city average(7), An average life expectancy four years shorter than other parts of the city(7), and a 39% black and 60 % hispanic population(6)

Air pollution in the South Bronx has many sources; emissions from the Cross Bronx Expressway Traffic, Waste Transfer Stations, Peaker Power Plants, and last-mile truck facilities. One of the most visble and symbolic sources of pollution advantage is the Fresh Direct operational facility in Mott Haven. From here, trucks deliver fresh produce to wealthier parts of the Bronx and NYC. However, the air and noise pollution emitted from this vehicle activity is concentrated in the South Bronx, which is also ironically one of the most food insecure parts of NYC; in 2017 only 4% of South Bronx residents eat 5 or more fruit and vegetables a day  vs. 11% in NYC. (9)

While the relationship between air pollution and asthma is not fully understood, evidence implies that air pollution can suppress the immune system's ability to differentiate harmless allergens from dangerous viruses or bacteria, causing an inflammatory response when it is not necessary. There is a positive correlation between having low-income and dying from asthma. This can be attributed to a variety of factors, including higher exposure to pollutants in poorer neighborhoods. Consequentially, in the South Bronx neighborhoods of Hunts Point-Mott Haven and High Bridge- Morrisania, asthma-related emergency department visits among 5 to 17 year-olds were nearly 20 times higher than the rates of asthma-related ED visits among the same age group residing in Bayside-Little Neck, a wealthy neighborhood in Queens.(14)


The goal of this project was and continues to be creating an interactive, educational, and motivational audio map to generate awarenes and action on the environmental burdens put onto minortized and marginalized communities like the South Bronx. We have achieved this by recording and making accessible the oral histories of those willing to share the struggles and potential solutions communities have experienced and conceived of in response to poor air quality and intersecting environmental injustices.

Our original goal was for our project to be in collaboration with South Bronx Unite, contributing to their existing work on raising awarenes of environmental injustice in the South Bronx and advocating for positive change. Time and resource constraints prevented this from occurring at the outset, however Leslie Vasquez, Clean Air Coordinator at SBU, features as an interviewee in our project. Furthermore, we will be in communication regarding how their work on developing a similar oral history map might take inspiration from, and build on our existing work. We are also in communication with South Bronx Unite and Leslie about how our story map may be embedded onto their organization’s website.

  • Site visits to South Bronx community events; Finca del Sur Community Composting + the annual South Bronx Community Banquet.
  • Interviews with residents + community activists.
  • Video and photographic footage of the area and of residents.
  • Data visualization + analysis
  • Scholarly + news articles.
  • Information from South Bronx-based organizations

Key Insights

Upon our first visit to the South Bronx, we were confronted with the sheer number and concentration of polluting facilities and truck routes juxtaposed with a stark lack of public green space. This insight was corroborated by further research and our own data analysis and visualization. 

We also recognized that the current situation was not created in a vaccum but was an extension of racist housing policies such as redlining and zoning, that turned the neighborhood into a manufacturing area where black and brown people lived but were prevented from buying homes and building generational wealth due to high mortage rates in "Hazardous" areas. This was part of a larger history of disinvestment in the South Bronx

The fact that the best-kept and most beautiful parks we came accross were lots revitalized and tended for by residents rather than city employees was a reminder that grass-roots engagement and activism is the lifeblood of the community. Not only do these parks exist as green space for residents to have some respite from the concrete and smog, but also as venues for all sorts of educational, cultural, and artistic events.

Futher desk research and operational researvh such as interviews with South Bronx residents revealed that where there is investment in the neighborhood, it benefits private entities. Conversely, this investment has a negative impact on residents by way of construction and increased business-related traffic increasing pollution. As Leslie Vasquez notes, "residents pay for the area they live in with their health."

Despite the issues residents expanded on in their oral histories, all  of them had a great pride for the culture of the South Bronx, citing food, fashion, and - critically - community. It is in part due to this pride that they want to see other people, including those with decision-making power, recognize what the South Bronx already has to offer and invest in the community by making it liveable for current residents.

To articulate the existing challenges and preferred outcomes with regards to envrionemntal health in the South Bronx, quotes presented here have been pulled from oral histories that express both the difficulties and the desired solutions to these issues that residents envision. Our role in achieving the preferred outcomes is to help raise awareness of environmental justice and health issues in the South Bronx. We aim to contribute to the existing arsenal of evidence that makes an unequivocal case for increased investment in community based solutions instead of pandering to dislocated corporate interests.

Process Diagram

︎︎︎ Project Overview