“Envisioning the End of Smog”

Mar 26, 2009 by Lisa Newton

Is it possible? Yes, it is:

In 1986, James M. Lents, former director of clean air efforts for the State of Colorado, took the helm at AQMD.

In spite of progress in cleaning the air, businesses and even air quality regulators at the time generally believed it was impossible to achieve air quality standards in Los Angeles. The problem was too severe, the cost of cleanup prohibitive and the technology needed was nowhere in sight, they said.

Lents proposed a bold and revolutionary goal: to develop a strategy that would actually clean up the nation’s worst air pollution. Even some of his staff was skeptical.

Talk about bold, forward thinking, and strategic, this story is inspiring and it’s real:

Lents directed the development of the agency’s first Air Quality Management Plan to lay out a step-by-step blueprint identifying the specific control measures needed to attain clean air standards by 2007. AQMD’s Governing Board adopted it in 1989, creating headlines across the nation and in Europe. Achieving clean air would take years of work and major technological breakthroughs, but it was no longer a vague pipe dream.

"One of the unique things the agency has done is create the vision that we can have clean air," Lents said. "The concept of, ‘It’s impossible to meet current standards’ has gone away."

The plan was the first to call for a number of advanced technologies, including zero-emission electric vehicles, and to specify that clean air could not be achieved in the Southland without them.

AQMD’s clean air plan put pressure on other agencies to adopt regulations to require development of the new technology needed to achieve clean air standards, Lents said.

Source: South Coast Air Quality Management Board (AQMD)

All I know is that when I first moved here about 3 years ago—I had heard that Los Angeles had previously unbearable smog, and for decades was practically unlivable because of unhealthy air-quality.

That’s why I decided to write this story because for me, the last few days of photo shoots really was a “gotcha” moment–I had no idea! I was smog virgin!

Last week, I was hiking and researching an upcoming Travelin’ Local story, but the air was low to the ground, hazy, and overall smoggy and foggy. I went ahead and took a few pictures, even though I knew they wouldn’t be very clear.

When I mentioned—and indeed complained about it to a friend, she told me about how Los Angeles used to be. (Yes, LA was known as the “Smog Capital of the World.”)

But no more.

With the successful efforts and continued endeavors that are constantly being and continually made for our collective air quality improvement, great progress has been achieved. Take a look at the numbers:

In 1955, when modern ozone monitoring began, Southland residents suffered the highest ozone level ever recorded — 0.68 parts per million in downtown Los Angeles — nearly three times the highest level in 1996.

And the numbers only continue to get better: South Coast Air Basin Smog Trend

Two days after I shot the smoggy pictures, high winds and rain ensued, thus clearing the air. So I decided to return to the same park, and was shocked at the views I had missed a couple days before. Of course, I took a few more pictures. The distinction is quite striking:

Day One

Day Two

If you follow the arrow, you’ll see the same building in both pictures. On the first day, I couldn’t see the mountains, the sky, or the city. On the second day, my view was crystal clear. Same scene, two different days.

What a difference a day can make!

After seeing this, I have a much greater appreciation for all the efforts to end the smog, and I’m planning on taking steps to help with the challenge.

One way to do that is to ride my bike. The Los Angeles County Bike Coalition (LACBC) has declared the last Friday of every month, which is tomorrow, as a Car-Free Friday. You don’t have to live in LA to appreciate the positive effect that riding your bike one day per month can have for yourself and the environment.

Your neighborhood might not have the smog issues we have in LA, but air pollution is a problem all over the world. Is there something you can do in your neighborhood to keep the smog down while Travelin’ Local?

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11 Responses to ““Envisioning the End of Smog””

  1. Jan says:

    Excellent post. I was born in Long Beach, almost 65 years ago, so I’ve seen many changes in smog levels. One thing not often mentioned is: there was smog in the Los Angels Basin when the Spaniards first sailed into the Bay of Los Angeles. The smog was from cooking fires of natives. As long as we have an inversion layer, and no wind, we’ll have some degree of smog.

    All the efforts that are being made are wonderful, but it’s important to keep in mind, we’ll always have some degree of smog in the Los Angeles Basin. (Don’t forget about the wild fires and arson fires that cause smog, too.)


  2. David says:

    Lisa, fantastic and fascinating story. Your use of pictures to illustrate the visual effect of smog is quite stunning in its accuracy. What a world of difference shown in your two photos.

    I decided to investigate further into the evolvement of the word “smog.”

    In its most basic form you’re correct it’s a symptom of large metropolitan cities primarily since the Industrial revolution. But it’s mostly the creation of the mixture of automobile exhaust that creates ozone, a toxic gas.

    Oh my!

    1. A form of air pollution produced by the reaction of sunlight with hydrocarbons, nitrogen compounds, and other gases primarily released in automobile exhaust. Smog is common in large urban areas, especially during hot, sunny weather, where it appears as a brownish haze that can irritate the eyes and lungs. Ozone, a toxic gas that is not normally produced at lower atmospheric levels, is one of the primary pollutants created in this kind of smog. Also called photochemical smog.



  3. Diane C. says:

    Lisa, The difference in smog levels in just a couple of days is remarkable. I like how you use arrows to show that it’s the same view. I didn’t know LA could look so beautiful. When I lived there the smog was so thick we couldn’t even see mountains that we lived near.

    Where we live now, the air is pretty clear, but we don’t want to add the pollution by driving needlessly. Luckily, we’re retired and don’t need to drive much. I enjoy walking to the store a mile away if I don’t need to buy much.

    Diane C.’s last blog post..Skywatch Friday – Ocotillos


  4. Jannie Funster says:

    Well, that is just fabulous! Every bit does make a difference. I look forward to a day when the whole planet has reduced smog in the same way.

    Jannie Funster’s last blog post..Technical woes


  5. Lisa's Chaos says:

    Your blog hates me today! It wouldn’t let me go anywhere except your home page for the last hour! But finally I am in the comment area! Yay! Frustration has ended. Now, what did I want to say? ;)

    Lisa’s Chaos’s last blog post..Why have just one?


  6. LisaNewton says:

    @ Jan Thank you. I think you’re right about always having some smog, but the efforts to get rid of it have been fantastic.

    @ David Thanks, and yes, lower ozone levels are a breath of fresh air.

    @ Diane C. I hadn’t done anything like the arrows before, but I knew to get the full impact of the smog, I’d need them. One of the advantages of living in the city is that I also can walk to the store.

    @ Jannie Funster I look forward to that day, too.

    @ Lisa’s Chaos I’m sorry about the errors you had on the blog. I hope they’re fixed now……………:)


  7. D. Travis North says:

    Ahh…now you’re touching into my area of expertise. As a Landscape Architect for a Civil Engineering firm, there are a lot of things Joe Homeowner can do to improve the overall environment. There are things that directly limit smog, like your bike riding. But then there are things that help to reduce smog-producing industry. Things like using organic fertilizers or aerating your lawn to avoid the need for chemical fertilizers. This reduces the demand for smog-creating production of chemical fertilizers, but did you know that the air exchange of your air-cleaning plants will be improved? For that matter, plant portions of your lawn as native woody plants and trees (native so you don’t have to irrigate). Not only will you reduce your maintenance (smog-producing lawn mowing, costs and otherwise), but trees and woody shrubs help to clean the air. Have a patio or driveway? Shade it with trees. The ‘heat island effect’ doesn’t necessarily create smog, but it does raise the ambient temperature and reduces the effectiveness of photosynthesizing, air-cleaning plants.

    Did you know that if 1/3rd of New York City’s roofs were planted as “green roofs”, the ambient temperature of the city would drop (on average) 4 degrees? That is a 10% decrease of power-hungry air conditioning needs in the average home. That would reduce the city’s power consumption (another big smog producer) by almost 30% in the summer.

    It’s a lot to think about. But if you’re wondering what you, as a single person, could do – Lisa’s got the simplest idea that also helps you to get in shape: ride a bike.


  8. LisaNewton says:

    @ D. Travis North Great ideas. I wish more cities and individuals took the “green” route. I know that often times going green is a little more expensive, but in the long run, using your ideas, saves time, money, and energy. A win/win situation.

    I love biking, although today, I opted to try the subway train. I was pleasantly surprised at the cleaniness, speed, look, and do-ability. It was great. (More on this to come.)


  9. Henie says:


    You continue to intrigue me about my own backyard! As a runner, I actually developed asthma for a time many years ago when the smog was so thick and unbearable! I had to use an inhaler before each run! Now, I am asthma free and I believe may be an indication that although not completely gone…it is much better!

    Henie’s last blog post..Love Done Right Always Hurts


  10. LisaNewton says:

    @ Henie I totally agree. I’ve seen pictures of how it used to be, and I’m glad it’s better now, especially since you don’t have to use an inhaler anymore.


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