A breath of fresh air…

With a 2018 report by the Health Effects Institute finding that 95 per cent of the world’s population breathes unsafe air (as measured against World Health Organisation standards), it’s no great surprise that this year’s UN World Environment Day is making air pollution its focus.

Taking place on 5 June, the event aims to raise awareness of what is essentially a twofold problem: dealing with the current appalling state of the atmosphere and ensuring that no further damage is done to air quality.

While everyone can do their part to help the situation, the influence of architects and urban planners means they can have a greater impact than the average person. Here are four ways in which they can improve air quality for all.

1) Aim to move traffic out of city centres

A large number of cars in high concentration inevitably leads to poorer air quality, meaning urban centres are liable to some of the worst traffic pollution. A number of big cities have already enacted schemes to address this, from London’s implementation of a congestion charge to the banning of traffic from a two-mile stretch on the Right Bank of the Seine. While sceptics were concerned that closing this road would simply drive cars along the adjacent streets of Paris, the effect has been a drop in traffic of around 50 per cent. Barcelona, meanwhile, has implemented Superblocks; these divide the city into nine-block squares and permit vehicles to drive only around the edges of the grids rather than through them. The result? An estimated 60 per cent of roads becoming almost traffic-free and, doubtless, improved air quality.

2) Provide other transport options

Planning to reduce traffic is one thing, but people still need to get from A to B. Pedestrianisation of the kind mentioned above is an obvious option, whether it be planned from the outset or designed into existing streetscapes but walking only gets you so far. If people are to reduce car use, viable alternatives need to be provided. Infrastructure changes are key, here, whether they be increased availability of public transport options or more radical rethinks such as the promotion and facilitation of cycling. In Copenhagen, for instance, the ease of access to dedicated bike lanes has led to the city boasting more bicycles than it has people. It’s surely no coincidence that, by 2015, the city had the second-best air quality in Europe (it was pipped to the top spot by Zurich…).

3) More efficient building design

Sustainable buildings (and by extension, sustainable cities) will play a crucial role in reducing air pollution, and architects have been at the forefront of addressing these issues for some years now. Everything from use of sustainable materials to reducing the amount of energy needed to keep a building running can drastically curtail emissions. Natural lighting, heating and cooling for example, require less energy; less energy requires less power, requires less fossil fuel to be burned… Agencies such as the World Green Building Council and the Green Building Council of Australia are hard at work promoting such considerations, the better to mitigate toxic air quality. Similarly, bodies such as the International Living Future Institute promote rigorous proven performance standard for buildings through regenerative design frameworks such as the Living Building Challenge.

Beyond changes to standard building practices, however, the last few years have seen a number of innovative new designs that focus on air quality specifically. Buildings in
Milan and Mexico City, for example, have been given facades that passively remove smog from the atmosphere – the UV rays of the sun instigate a chemical reaction with pigments in the tiles that render the toxic elements of smog harmless.

4) Keeping it green

The inclusion of parkland in an urban setting not only provides areas of natural beauty that play a key role in improving mental health for city-dwellers, it also increases the number of trees – essentially nature’s air scrubbers. Of course, the best option is to plan for inclusion of green spaces early in the development process – not every city will take the drastic steps seen in Seoul, where the government authorised the tearing down a 6km expressway in order to unearth the once-buried Cheonggyecheon river and use it as the focal point for linear parkland that both reduced traffic and enhanced urban greenery. But steps can be taken to insert natural air improvement on a smaller scale – planning to include vertical gardens or green walls, for example, can have a cumulative effect on air quality, while enterprising designers have also come up with green benches that each do the air-scrubbing work of 275 trees.

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