Louisvillians will tell you that three things are true: Their fair city should never be pronounced with three syllables, bourbon is no less than a religion, and the air is … bad.
The problem is announced in bright yellow blinking lights — a highway sign warning of an unhealthy air advisory. I arrived in Louisville on the sixth day of an autumn stretch of temperatures over 90 degrees, to air that was officially deemed unhealthy for sensitive populations, including people living with asthma, allergies or heart disease.
In Louisville, that’s almost everyone.
Start talking to local people about the air quality, and you’ll quickly learn that everybody has a story to tell: A child who developed respiratory problems. A parent who died of heart disease. A cough that miraculously clears up when they leave town but comes creeping back after they land at SDF.
“The air in Louisville takes years off your life, regardless of your overall health status,” says Veronica Combs, director of the Institute for Healthy Air, Water, and Soil, a local nonprofit focused on the connections between environmental and human health. Last year, the city received a failing grade from the American Lung Association in its annual State of the Air report.
Jokes about “the coronary valley” and “the Louisville hack” belie a serious problem that makes Louisville the perfect urban laboratory for seeking new solutions to a pervasive issue that faces cities large and small, from Beijing to Bakersfield: Unhealthy air.
Now, a coalition of public health researchers, conservationists and community organizers are banding together to test the effectiveness of urban trees for cleaning the air and improving public health in Louisville.
Known as the Green Heart Project, this ambitious effort will conduct a first-of-its-kind medical study by planting trees in strategic locations across a cluster of Louisville neighborhoods and observing precisely how they impact residents’ health.
“Essentially, we’re designing a big clinical trial where nature is the pharmaceutical,” says Pascal Mittermaier, head of the Global Cities program at The Nature Conservancy.