The work that we have done in the parks with the High School Urban Ecostewards in the 2019-2020 school year has helped stop erosion, and benefitted the forests and streams of the parks.  All of the elements of Pittsburgh; parks, buildings, roads, people, houses, street trees, etc. function together as a part of an ecosystem. Let's take a deeper look at how air quality affects our city.


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Air Quality
Take a deep breath. Let the air fill your lungs, and slowly breathe out. How does the air smell? Does it smell crisp and clean, do you smell something that smells a little like rotten eggs? How about smoke or cooking or flowers? On a hot, sunny day, try comparing the smell of the air on the sidewalk and the air while standing under a tree (in a park if you're able).
Pittsburgh has a long history with poor air quality.  ​And for a long time, that bad air was easy to see. That smoke that you can see in the picture to the right was full of soot and coal dust that would settle on surfaces, stick to buildings, acidify streams, contaminate soils, and get in people's lungs.
Sometimes you can see a haze over Pittsburgh if you are up on top of a hill looking out, but it's nowhere near as smoky as it used to be. So that's good right?

Our air is better than it was, but it's still not good. in fact, ​the Pittsburgh region consistently has some of the worst air quality in the country.

The 2019 state of the air report by the American Lung Association showed that Pittsburgh's air was the 7th worst in the country

Take a moment to think about what you know about air pollution and Pittsburgh. What do you think causes our air to be polluted so consistently?

Before moving to the next section and exploring air quality in Pittsburgh and beyond, try to answer the following questions:

(1) What do you think are the biggest factors affecting air quality?
(2) What effects do you think parks might have on air pollution?
(3) Can you think of activities you participate in that affect air quality?

Explore Pittsburgh's Air
There is a network of air quality sensors all around the world called PurpleAir. These sensors are placed in and around homes and businesses. They collect data very locally and transmit it in real time. That allows us to see very specific air quality.
Begin by clicking on the photo below to go to "View the Map" take a minute to explore and then come back here. Note that sometimes sensors are not working correctly. You can disregard sensors that are reporting 0 or numbers WAY higher than those around them.

We are going to focus on outdoor sensors and their reports of PM2.5
In the "Map Data Layer" box, make sure that "Inside Sensors" is not checked and that you have selected "US EPA PM2.5 AQI"


Check out the sensor that is located at the Frick Environmental Center.
Search for the address 2005 Beechwood Blvd and answer the following questions.
  • Does the air quality change as you move away from the park?
  • Zoom out from Pittsburgh. (Pittsburgh region, country, world) Where is the air quality better/worse? What might be happening in the places with poor air quality? (Try using google maps satellite view to identify what's around)
  • What is the air quality like around where you are?
  • Do you notice any differences in air quality in and out of cities?
  • Thinking broadly about life in the city, what are some benefits and drawbacks that people might consider when deciding where to live? (social benefits, health impacts, ecological benefits, etc)

Looking deeper at PM2.5
"Black carbon (BC) is easily identifiable as black or grey "soot" emitted from a diesel truck, industrial facility, or camp fire. BC is a component of fine particulate matter (PM2.5); breathing fine particles increases risks of asthma attacks, heart attacks, reduced lung function, lung cancer, and death. Allegheny County does not meet federal standards for PM2.5 concentrations, and BC is part of the problem. In Pittsburgh, the major sources of BC are industrial facilities and diesel vehicles. Elevated BC (and PM2.5) concentrations are found in communities in the river valleys, and people living in those communities have higher risks of negative health impacts from pollutant exposures than the county average."
Take a look at this map of Allegheny County that shows levels of black carbon across Allegheny County.
  • What can you see on the map?
  • Are you able to find where you live?
  • Where is your school?
    What features can you see on the map?
Now, try comparing this map to google maps.
  • Do you see any patterns?
  • Based on this map and what you know about black carbon, what are the major contributors to air pollution in the region?
Build Your Own Air Quality Sensor

Click here to download instructions! 



Parks thrive when they have sun, soil, rain…and you. You ensure programs are offered, trees are planted, capital projects are funded, flowers are tended to, research is pursued. There is nothing the parks can’t do with you behind them.