Why are the East of Cities usually Poorer?

Smoke / Pollution

Many older cities rapidly expanded during the Industrial Revolution, as workers flocked to the urban centers. As the towns and cities expanded, the residential areas for the workers tended to be in the east, with the middle and upper-classes in the west.

The reason for this is that

in much of the northern hemisphere, the prevailing winds are westerlies – blowing from west to east. The massive, unchecked pollution from these early industries would therefore drift eastward, making the air quality much lower in the east end of cities, lowering the desirability (and price) of the housing. Middle classes preferred the cleaner west ends.

The issue was probably even pre-Industrial Revolution, as smoke from personal chimneys would still have caused problems to the east.

In many cities, this will have been compounded – or confused – by the direction of the main river in the environment, which would have been relied on for many uses, including sewerage. London, as an example, displays a massive east/west divide, caused in large part by both early industry and the west-to-east flow of the River Thames.

Smoke image under Creative Commons license, by Flickr user Señor Codo

Dan Zambonini

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Dan Zambonini is a co-founder at Eighty-Five Technologies Inc. Their most recent project is Docoh - SEC EDGAR Filings Search. He wrote A Practical Guide to Web App Success, the leading web application book. You can usually find him twittering on about something on Twitter at @zambonini.


  1. In many cities that developed post WWII, you see the more expensive suburbs on the Eastern side. One suggestion for this was that in modern cities, most commuting is done by automobile. Drivers in Western suburbs have the sun in their eyes as they drive to work and the sun in their eyes as they drive home from work.

  2. This is interesting data, I’ve always wondered if folks living West of a major city have increased eye problems and skin cancer due to driving to work and back with the sun in their eyes.

  3. Wasn’t workers’ housing, though, often built practically on top of the heavy industry, rather than downwind of it? For example in London the East is where the docks are – because that’s where the river is wide and that’s the direction of the sea. The East End grew up around the docks.

    On the other hand I can see how a previously mixed area in the East might become exclusively working-class as the pollution worsened and those who could, moved West. 

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  5. hmmm….you see, now there’s an interesting idea about urban planning! I never even considered an explanation like that, as to how cities get designed like that. But then, how do you explain places like Manhattan where the Upper East Side is the Glorified Side?

  6. Makes sense to me. Mty only beef is with the picutre. It doesn’t show smoke, it’s steam. Modern stacks do not emit black smoke anymore unless the unit malfunctions serverly or is starting up. The duration in both cases is very brief. Companies realized years ago that the black soot is unburned fuel and a waste of money.

  7. An interesting theory, although I think economics had more to do with it. An additional note is that before modern medicine, air was held in much higher regard to health, people thought even the smell of certain things could cause hysteria and other diseases.

  8. Sydney is another city where the rich live in the east and the poor in the west. WG Sebald (in Rings of Saturn?) comments that cities in general tend to grow westwards.

  9. I saw someone mention post WWII cities having eastern-centric concetrations.

    This is likely due to Urban Renewal. Cincinnati was similar, but forced residents to move into the west side during urban renewal after upheaving them from the east/north/downtown

  10. Yes, but it was true if London – at least – way before the industrial revolution. 
    The tanneries and slaughter housed where East – and outside the city walls. Both bown wind and down stream. 

  11. This assumes a city can expand equally in all directions. Somewhere like Los Angeles or San Francisco cannot. For that matter I’m not sure Baltimore (where I live) fits the bill either. The east side has some awfully run down areas, but the west side has the worst crime rates (The Wire was set in West Baltimore). I;d say baltimore has more of a north-south axis, but that doesnlt quite work either as Federal Hill, perhaps the most desirable neighborhood in the city, is south of downtown.

  12. Do not forget that the location of major railways had a huge influence, especially if they ran north/south through a community.

  13. so many counter-examples: brussels, say. Winds do flow west to east, was an old industrial cities, the city is indeed has a sharp east/west divide, the eastern side of the city is wealthier.

  14. One interesting exception is Cleveland, which blends both poverty and wealth on its east and west sides and its inner ring suburbs…Shaker Heights, Cleveland Heights, University Heights in the east, Lakewood and Rocky River on the west side. In the city, the west side has generally more poverty than the east side. I assume this is directly tied to John D. Rockefeller, who lived on the east side.

  15. This pattern is not consistent in upstate New York. Rochester’s avenue of gilded age mansions is East Avenue, heading east out of downtown. In Buffalo, just 80 miles west, wealth concentrated on the west side and “the east side” is shorthand for crime, poverty,and dysfunction.

  16. The matter of a “favored” side for a city depends many factors. One could be what is upwind amongst the various factors. Among some industrial cities (or former industrial cities as it were), in Youngstown, OH, the major air polluting sources followed the Mahoning River flowing from the northwest to the southeast and the favored location for those with money in the city itself was and still to a great degree is a certain segment of the north side along Fifth Avenue at a higher elevation than the river valley; other locations were the higher elevation townships to the north or south; for Warren, OH, the major polluting sources were along same river mainly to the south and East Side was the favored location as the upwind airshed was primarily residential and some smaller factories along rail lines. One has to dig deeper into the facts at hand and consider the various influences and specifically the attractions, features, and negative factors found in the specific locations. Regarding Cleveland, OH, the original location for those with money was along Euclid Avenue running northeast from the Public Square and this long narrow strip of mansions was rather quickly abandoned within a generation; later locations were Bratenahl on the lake side to the northeast or Lakewood on the lakeside due west (both are still generally favored for lakefront properties); the various suburbs with the word “Heights”,as in Shaker Heights, are at a higher elevation and more or less due east and above the industrial/polluting sources along the Cuyahoga River, which more or less bisects Cleveland from the south to its mouth on the north at Lake Erie; but, not all suburbs with the word “heights” are in this subset of favored communities. Considering another city, in Charlestown, SC, the favored section is right in the center of the metro area with the Ashley and Cooper rivers to east and west flowing into the great harbor. Boston, MA is another one where the historic neighborhood for the rich is right at the center but just to the west of downtown and at a higher elevation – Beacon Hill. In the end, one must look at multiple factors in considering location patterns for the various segments of a community. The quality of the environment, social history, customs & traditions, transportation linkages to the center, and other factors could all figure in why certain groups and/or activities move to certain locations with certain criteria in the decision mix. This is where urban and regional economics join with socio-demographic factors to meet natural, historical and cultural factors guiding location choices. A fascinating question in the end – if one is into urban geography & history.

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