Roadway Pollution in Chinatown and Somerville

Photo via nsub1, Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Photo via nsub1, Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Roadway Pollution in Chinatown and Somerville

Roadway Pollution in Chinatown and Somerville

MAPC is working with CAFEH (Community Assessment of Freeway Exposure and Health) to address pollution from highways and busy roadways in Somerville and Chinatown.  

CAFEH is a larger umbrella for several related air pollution studies in Somerville and other neighborhoods in and around Boston. The CAFEH partnership combines community, government and academic resources to advance scientific understanding of how highway-generated air pollutants, including ultrafine particulates (UFP), impact the health of communities near highways. 

In 2017, CAFEH received a five-year grant from the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences to move research from observational studies to addressing the problem of near-roadway air pollution. Since then, MAPC has been part of the project team exploring community-level interventions in Somerville and Boston's Chinatown. Our goal is to work with communities to develop protective measures in the absence of regulation of near-roadway pollutants.  

Boston's Chinatown

Near the interchange of Interstates 93 and 90 (Mass Pike) and right door to South Station, the residents of Boston’s Chinatown are exposed some of the highest air pollution levels in the state.

Information Gathering

In 2018, MAPC conducted a series of interviews, community meetings, and focus groups with residents, asking the question "How can we plan for a stable and healthy Chinatown?" Community members discussed the risk posed by air pollution as well as the social determinants of health and wellbeing such as housing, economic status, and transportation. A group of students from the Harvard School of Design and T.H. Chan School of Public Health helped support anecdotes from these initial conversations with data.

Healthy Chinatown Design Workshop

In partnership with several Chinatown organizations, MAPC held a Healthy Chinatown Design Workshop on July 20, 2019. Ninety attendees discussed what a healthy Chinatown would look and feel like.

Chinatown Master Plan

From the beginning of the project, MAPC partnered with the Chinatown Master Plan Committee to provide guidance and feedback. As committee members learned about and discussed factors such as housing, economic status, and environmental impacts, work on a Health Lens Analysis for the community evolved into an opportunity to update the community's master plan. Mitigation measures for air pollution are woven throughout the final plan, which also includes urban design-specific interventions.


In the 1970s, a thriving neighborhood and business district in Somerville was demolished for the construction of Interstate 93 (I-93). Residents were uprooted and the local economy displaced. Today, over 200,000 vehicles daily move through these environmental justice neighborhoods. The large volume of traffic creates high levels of traffic related air pollution and noise. 

The Somerville neighborhoods surrounding I-93 are some of the densest areas of the city. They are also the most racially and ethnically diverse areas and home to high numbers of children, foreign-born and low-income residents. At the time of construction, the state agreed to erect noise barriers along I-93 in Somerville, but these promised mitigations never materialized except along one small section of the Ten Hills neighborhood east of I-93. This leaves Somerville’s most vulnerable residents exposed to excessively high levels of air and noise pollution.

In response, MAPC and the CAFEH team proposed a project to identify approaches for reducing the negative health impacts of pollution and noise. The goals of the project were to:


Determine how the proximity of the highway currently impacts the health and well-being of residents.


Assess how noise barriers might mitigate traffic-related pollution and noise for residents living near I-93

To advance these goals, MAPC conducted a Health Lens Analysis (HLA) of noise barrier installation, a near-highway noise monitoring study of I-93 traffic, and a community participatory design charrette. The community-driven process included multiple public meetings with diverse stakeholders. Download the resulting reports below and learn more on the CAFEH website.

It is important to mitigate the air and noise pollution along the I-93 corridor in East Somerville in order to protect vulnerable populations from the effects of noise and air pollution.

The ultimate goal of this work is to see the ideas and recommendations generated by these reports enacted by the city or state. CAFEH will continue to work with local activists and community groups as well as elected officials and government employees to raise awareness of this issue and promote evidence-based solutions.