Cities that Breathe

4 min. read
Rosa Shirm is the Content & Communications Intern for BYCS.

Urban dwellers around the world have experienced new daily sensory experiences during the ebb and flow of lockdowns: the absence of the sound and smell of car engines idling in morning traffic, and an improved level of visibility and respiration from better ambient air quality. Around the world, people have recognised this glimpse of cleaner cities as a real-life scenario that provokes us to reimagine our normality; that leaves us re-evaluating what we could achieve in terms of environmental quality; that throws our normalised baseline for air quality out of the window.

What scientists, academics and those with a strong interest in air quality have known for years has now been made available to the public in vivid form. That is, that a dramatic change to the way we go about our daily lives could have an immediate, positive impact on the air which we breathe. The lived experience of a sudden improvement in air quality that many from around the globe have attained during the pandemic, has the potential to be a powerful force in inciting positive change for the future, as more people demand air of a quality they now know is possible to achieve. 

In light of this momentum, we are left with a crucial question: what is the most effective way to harness this ‘powerful force’ in its pursuit for better air quality? Whilst dramatic progress has been made in many areas across the globe over the past few decades, there is no denying the persistency the problem has displayed. For example, the European Environment Agency acknowledges that Europe’s air quality has improved considerably since the European Union introduced policies and measures concerning air quality in the 1970s. However, they highlight that high concentrations of air pollutants still have a significant impact on Europeans’ human health. In other regions of the world this problem is even more acute. In Asia and the Pacific, 92% of the population – about 4 billion people – are exposed to levels of air pollution that pose a significant risk to their health.

Even cities that many of us would automatically offer as a ‘best practice’ example of how to tackle air quality effectively, still struggle to meet the WHO air quality standards there to protect human health. Amsterdam, for example, the cycling capital of the world and known for its strong green agenda, could save over 120 lives each year, were it to consistently meet the WHO standards for ambient air quality.

Why is it that harmful air quality persists? 

Many cities around the world are already in a position in which vast quantities of data on air pollution exists: air quality measurements are continuously recorded and legally-binding air quality standards have been put in place accordingly. We’re also knowledgeable on the extensive breadth of health problems that poor air quality can incur: from respiratory diseases, heart attacks, diabetes and reduced fertility to mental health issues such as depression and dementia.

In addition to this, poor air quality is not an issue that gets swept under the carpet, as we so regularly hear of the political tensions it drives. The breaching of legally-binding air quality standards are a regular news story, particularly in the EU in which the majority of member states are exceeding EU air quality standards. Client Earth, an environmental charity, is frequently on international news for its role in suing national governments for failing to protect its citizens from harmful levels of pollutants. Social media distributes powerful imagery from protests held in pursuit of action against poor air quality. Yet, in spite of the knowledge we have acquired, and the political forces at play, air pollution remains a significant problem globally. 

As we watch many parts of the world react to the threats of COVID-19 with immediacy, drastic action and a fundamental upturning of what we had become accustomed to as normalcy, we pause for a moment of reflection. We ask ourselves, if such radical change is possible as demonstrated by our rapid action against COVID-19, why is it that air pollution, a dire threat to our health, persists?

Whilst we are aware that a monumental number of changes must be made by many sorts of people, and of the fundamentally different ways in which air pollution manifests in cities across the globe, this edition of Perspectives explores the role of active mobility in the fight for better air. We spoke with a number of individuals undertaking inspiring initiatives that work in pursuit of cleaning the air present in some of our most polluted cities. At each turn, this edition of Perspectives gently reminds us of the importance of integrating ‘humanness’ into our work on air quality. It reminds us of the power of storytelling, the richness that can be derived from qualitative data, and the importance of reimagining what is achievable, which, in turn, will help us incite behavioural change and decision-making practices that lead to positive outcomes for air quality.

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