The health impacts of urban highways are becoming clear to researchers. Here in New Orleans, the I-10, or "The Monster," has been linked to higher rates of asthma and other lung diseases, as well as heart disease. This week, a group of fourth graders from Phillis Wheatley Community School trekked out to the freeway to collect their own findings on the environmental impacts on their neighborhood.
In a patch of shade on the Lafitte Greenway, a group of fourth graders from Phillis Wheatley were gathered around Mimi Spahn Sattler. Behind them the 1-10, towered overhead. But their eyes were locked on Spahn Sattler, a helium tank, and a giant red balloon. Spahn Sattler is with Public Lab, an organization that teaches citizens how to do their own environmental research.
"Let’s see if it’s working," Spahn Sattler said, giving a knob on the tank a turn. Gas flowed into the balloon with a loud sqeaking sound, that made the students giggle. It grew and grew until finally it was almost as big as some of these students are tall. Student Lawirelle had a tiny computer and a camera.
"I’m going to put it on the balloon so we can see where the balloon is going," she said.
With a few zipties, Lawirelle rigged up the camera onto the line attached to the balloon, and the group walked the giant red balloon out into the field where it floated high up into the air.
"Que alto! Wow!" students exclaimed with their faces turned upward to the sky. Others huddled around several iPads where they could see a bird's-eye-view of the park transmitted from the camera - themselves tiny dots on the big green lawn. Spahn Sattler explained, the main purpose of this exercise was for students to create their own map of the park.
"What they're doing is basically do-it-yourself satellite imagery," Spahn Sattler said. "What they’ve done is take a bunch of pictures of this area, and then after we download those images, they’ll be able to go through and stitch these areas together like a quilt, and make their own map of this area."
On that map, they’ll be able to add other data they collected about the environment. Students walked to the park from their school, and on their way, they used plastic bottles to collect water and soil samples. Later they’ll test them for lead and other pollutants to measure the impact of the I-10 on the environment.
"Not only are we trying to build them up as scientists," their teacher, Kelly Davidson, said, "we’re also trying to build them as advocates for themselves and their neighborhoods."
About half the kids in this group either live in this neighborhood, or have a close family member who does, and what they found on their field trip worried some students - like Nyron who lives nearby. He was using an air-quality monitor to test how safe the air was near this section of the I-10, also known as "the bridge."
"I found out that the cars are dropping gas and pollutions in the air, and that stuff is coming from the bridge, and that’s what we breath," he explained.
Their teacher has explained to them some of the research on the health impacts of urban freeways like this one. Research shows people who live along the I-10 have higher rates of lung and heart disease
"I wanna know why would they build the bridge if they gonna have so much dirt on it," a small student named Morgan asks. "Because right now they got beaucoup cars driving on it that’s making even more pollution, and dirt on top of dirt."
Back in the 1960s, the city initially planned for an expressway to cut through the French Quarter. But after pushback from majority white residents, the city cancelled the project. What did go up was "The Monster" - the raised highway that cut through historically black neighborhoods, like this one, Treme-Lafitte.
Many of these students have decided, if it were up to them, the I-10 bridge would come down, and the old tree-lined boulevard would be restored. That’s what some neighborhood groups want too, including the Claiborne Avenue Alliance, which helped organize this field trip.
A student named Ginnelli was also in favor of tearing down the bridge. But she said there might be a tradeoff.
"A question I’m really focused on is, like if the I-10 would be taken off, then how would it affect us on getting home and everything?" she said.
There were other concerns besides commute times. Some students wondered, if the I-10 gets taken down, where would the homeless people go who live under it? Nyron had one possible solution.
"We thought of a plan to tear down the I-10 and build some shelters for homeless people, and build some hangout places for people to hang out," he explained.
Right now there aren’t plans to tear down the I-10. But some experts say freeways like this one were only built for a life span of 30 or 40 years. That makes this highway well past its prime. Tearing it down would cost millions of dollars, but so will efforts to shore up the aging concrete, steel and rebar its made of.
For now, the city is planning to beautify the underpass with shops, cafes, art, better drainage and more greenspace. It could be years before the city decides what to do with the I-10. Maybe by then, these students will be the ones calling the shots.