On the Brink: A five-point action plan for improving urban air quality

City leaders must sincerely commit to climate adaptation; already there are many pilots and case studies from across the globe which will be instructive. Using the learnings from those examples, I have put together a five-point action plan for cities seeking to address the twin challenges of climate change and atmospheric pollution.

Embrace the data

Data must underpin every step of your air quality improvement journey. To understand the air pollution challenge in your city, you must have access to reliable and representative data, with which you can then support or challenge existing practices and assumptions. In order to collect this data, it will likely be necessary to improve and extend your network of air quality monitoring stations.

From there, you can monitor emissions in real time, track overall air quality levels throughout your city, and pinpoint emissions hotspots. Refined spatial data will give you a thorough understanding of how emissions-based impacts are distributed across the city, and highlight neighbourhood-by-neighbourhood vulnerabilities and inequities.

But air quality data is only one part of the solution; of equal importance is health and economic data.
By overlaying air quality hotspots onto maps of premature morbidity, long-term respiratory illness, and economic disadvantage, you can paint a picture of how urban micro-climates interface with public health. This will ultimately inform effective cost-benefit analysis. While it is true that climate adaptation work may require significant upfront investment, the evidence shows that it reaps enormous long-term economic dividends. It is money well spent; and the data can help you to fully illustrate your case and assure that your investments are well-targeted to earn appropriate returns.

While it is true that climate adaptation work may require significant upfront investment, the evidence shows that it reaps enormous long-term economic dividends. It is money well spent.

Establish strong governance frameworks

The initial data you collect will enable you to better understand the character and severity of the air pollution problem in your city – and thus develop remedial action. Next you should establish Air Quality Improvement Frameworks by which to continue emissions monitoring and the benchmarking processes, and target further actions. 

You can then adopt ambitious emissions reduction targets and outline them in an Air Quality Improvement Plan. Your plan should backed by substantive data and analysis: there can be no room for guesswork. It should also reference World Health Organization standards, and be a highly publicised and publicly available document.

Live pollution data for your city should be tracked continually, and the data stored in an open source, central database with dashboard access for citizens and city leaders. This transparency will build trust in your lines of accountability and provide a reliable data-led backdrop for the assessment of progress, and celebration of successes.

An example of this is the C40 Cities Air Quality Monitoring toolkit for cities, which has already informed clean air policy in 25 cities worldwide. I highly recommend contacting C40 Cities for more information.

Collaborate promiscuously

Governments have the responsibility to take the initiative regarding both air quality and climate change, but they cannot do it alone. You should also establish an Air Quality Task Force that is truly representative of the diverse array of people that populate your city. It should include government officials, public and private sector organisations, climate experts and, crucially, community champions – the voices of the people. Professions working in the built and natural environment must also be well represented. The role of the taskforce will be to hold the right people to account when progress falls short against expectations, celebrate success and raise grassroots awareness. All efforts must be based on two-way communication, open co-operation and co-creation.

Participatory planning is a means by which to involve communities in developments and schemes that will directly impact them. Not only does it give local people a sense of ownership over the work proposed, it also raises awareness of climate issues, and engenders a greater sense of community belonging.

Participatory planning is a means by which to involve communities in schemes that will directly impact them. Not only does it give local people a sense of ownership over the work proposed, it raises awareness of climate issues and engenders a greater sense of community belonging.

It is absolutely essential that this work is done in the spirit of collaboration. This is not gesture politics; local people must be listened to. What they may lack in technical or academic climate expertise, they will more than make up for in their understanding of local needs and circumstances.

Clean up transit networks

Adopting clean air and low emissions zones that limit access to polluting vehicles will be an important initiative for your city. Make these zones as large as possible, centring on the areas of highest exposure to emissions and the worst environment-related health outcomes. Your data collection effort will provide the knowledge to support these policy decisions.

Access to low emissions zones could be flat-tariffed or linked to the emissions performance of individual vehicles. Some streets can even be converted to pedestrian-only access at certain times of the day or week.

You should also convert all modes of public transit to clean fuel so that people feel that public transport is part of the solution, and not an exacerbating factor. Extend active travel networks and increase public awareness of new transit options. In addition, miles of new cycle pathways are useless if nobody is prepared to get out of their cars and into the saddle. As such, you must address the behavioural as well as the technical aspects of change and change management.

Use legislation to support the clean energy transition for buildings and industry

Most cities are now drawing their decarbonisation roadmaps, but some plans are more daring than others. Copenhagen, for instance, is targeting carbon neutrality within five years – far ahead of many similarly sized cities. Is your city ready to be global leader in promoting the public wellbeing and a healthy climate?

From a global perspective, full decarbonisation of electricity grids by 2030 is a realistic ambition across most of the developed world. Renewable heating and cooling for buildings can follow by 2050. Of course, none of this can be achieved without investment, so local and national treasuries will need to get creative about their investments.

It will also be important for you to green infrastructure assets, and support large scale renovation and retrofit programmes across existing and legacy real estate.

Businesses can be incentivised to meet some of this upfront investment requirement with longer-term green tax relief schemes. Planning regulations should be optimised for the low-carbon transition. Regulation is, of course, vitally necessary; but you must regulate “smart”. If you make it easier to build green and harder to build brown in your city, you will provide manifold local benefits for your citizens. What’s more, you will be making a meaningful contribution to the global climate effort.

In conclusion

Victorian art critic John Ruskin once said:

“When we build, let us think that we build forever. Let it not be for present delight, nor for present use alone. Let it be such work as our descendants will thank us for, and let us think, as we lay stone on stone, that a time is to come when those stones will be held sacred because our hands have touched them.”

I’m often reminded of these words, which were etched into the floor of the Chicago Tribune Building decades ago, when considering the crises of the modern age. In Ruskin’s mind, there were two types of people: those who pursued their own advantage at the expense of others, and those who sought others’ advantage at their own expense. In the built environment, we must view the work we do today from the perspective of generations to come. Are we leaving a lasting, sustainable legacy?

I hope that your answer to this question is a resounding “Yes!”