Has The Stay-At-Home Order Improved Chicago’s Air Quality?

With less traffic on the roads and some businesses shut, one Curious Citizen wonders if the air we’re breathing is any cleaner.

View of clear city skyline from Lincoln Park apartment
(Courtesy Dan Weese)
View of clear city skyline from Lincoln Park apartment
(Courtesy Dan Weese)

Has The Stay-At-Home Order Improved Chicago’s Air Quality?

With less traffic on the roads and some businesses shut, one Curious Citizen wonders if the air we’re breathing is any cleaner.

As cities around the world shut down in response to the coronavirus pandemic, Dan Weese was struck by the photos he began seeing of normally polluted cities like Los Angeles and Beijing depicting clear skies and pristine views.

Here in Chicago, from the windows of his Lincoln Park apartment, he can see a view of the city reaching all the way out toward O’Hare International Airport. He says normally he can see a hazy layer of smog lying above the horizon, but since the Illinois stay-at-home order went into effect on March 21, he’s noticed the haze has mostly disappeared.

This got Dan wondering if air quality has improved during the pandemic, and if it has, how far back in history would you have to go to find air with such low levels of pollution?

“It struck me that the last time something like this had happened ... when the skies would smell as sweet as they do, could have been from way before the height of the industrial era of Chicago,” he says.

And since COVID-19 is a respiratory virus and pollution affects respiratory health, improved air quality would be particularly important right now.

So in this episode of our podcast we spoke with scientists to find out whether current data confirms if Dan is actually observing cleaner air from his apartment window. Plus, historians weigh in on what air quality was like when the early settlers arrived in the city.

More about our questioner

Dan Weese, Curious City pollution question asker
(Courtesy Dan Weese)

Dan Weese is an architect at a small family business that focuses on institutional and multifamily housing, so thinking about the environment is sort of written into his work.

“Buildings and the construction industry account for such an enormous part of our carbon footprint that it does become something that’s really very much a part of our practice,” he says.

During the stay-at-home order, Dan says he’s observed new things about the city—seemingly clearer skies, sweeter smelling air, and more bird songs—that he thought might be tied to the COVID-induced decrease in traffic and city activity. Sometimes, he says it hasn’t even felt like being in a big city.

“We were looking at a sunset the other day...and the colors and the clarity of the sun as it passed over the horizon was comparable to what we'd see up in Leland County in Michigan,” he says. “And I've never seen anything like that in the city.”

Dan wonders how this current moment is going to make people rethink their relationship to the environment. In a sense, Dan says that air pollution is just one aspect of how we’re going to adjust to “a new life” on earth once the crisis settles.

“Air pollution is one thing, but I think it's part of a broader kind of reassessment of where we are in relation to the rest of the world,” he says.

Jesse Dukes is the Curious City audio producer. You can follow him @CuriousDukesMackenzie Crosson is the interim multimedia producer for Curious City. Isabel Carter is an intern for WBEZ's podcast team. Lynnea Domienik is an intern for Curious City.