Monday, August 21, 2023
The Road to Improving Air Quality Includes Business Location Decisions
By Joan Chase, Senior Direction of Strategic Initiatives
For the first time in a generation, our region has had to grapple with consistent air quality issues impacting our daily lives. The City Club's Forum on Friday "The Air We Breathe: Examining Climate Change's Impact on Air Quality" unpacked the serious impacts of poor air quality and a myriad of potential mitigations.
Air quality has enormous human and economic costs. As we all learned this summer, the impacts of air quality can be quite personal, from cancelled outdoor concerts and family pool days to sitting up all night with an asthmatic child. But air quality does not just affect family barbeques, it also impacts our economy. The National Weather Service estimates the cost of air pollution related illness to be $150 billion annually and, as Divya Sridhar said on Friday "economic development happens when workers are healthy and happy." Where we develop and grow our economic activity also substantially affects our overall air quality– and, subsequently, the happiness and health of our workers.
While many of us understand that the manufacturing base of our economy is a major driver of air pollution, fewer may understand that the way we build our cities and our region contributes heavily to air pollution. According to Grace Gallucci, in NOACA's five county region, the transportation sector is the highest contributor of emissions. A major contributor to these transportation emissions is our historic development patterns in Northeast Ohio and Northeast Ohio's long, freeway-based commutes, exurban retail and housing development, and incentivizing development on previously undeveloped locations for new production facilities contribute to these emissions. However, high emission generating development patterns do not have to continue– as a region, we can make different choices as we move forward.
Strategic location decisions can improve our region's air quality and make our economy and communities more resilient. For too long, “time, risk and money” has served as the decision-making mantra for industrial site selectors searching for low-cost, easy-to-develop land. This overly narrow set of factors has prioritized the investment of public resources like economic development incentives into “greenfield” or previously undeveloped sites. However, collecting and analyzing the data to strategically guide location decisions beyond time, risk, and money has historically required an experienced data analyst and thousands of dollars for each location.
Not anymore! The Fund for Our Economic Future, where I work, developed the ESG^P tool (read: ESG to the Power of Place), a location decision tool that enables location decisions that are sustainable in the long run for both businesses and communities. The tool, launched in partnership with Team NEO in early 2022, provides rich data to inform location decisions that are sustainable in the long run for both businesses and communities for 21 counties across Northeast Ohio. The tool allows decision makers to compare potential locations across a range of factors: from the size of the workforce within a 30-minute commute (both by car and transit) to the emissions produced by the commute to the diversity of the workforce and it has already begun informing business location decisions.
While events like the Canadian wildfires may feel beyond our control, there are concrete and specific steps that we can take to improve our region's air quality. Right now, on days with air quality alerts, we can follow Bryan Sokolowski’s recommendations from Friday's Forum: skip mowing our grass, fill our gas tanks after sunset, and avoid driving when possible. However, for long term improvement, we need to address no growth sprawl and critically examine where jobs locate. Good news - there's a tool for that!