London is one of the most polluted cities in Europe with levels of pollutants exceeding the legal limits set by the EU Air Quality Standards many times. In 2017, hourly levels of nitrogen dioxide were exceeded more than 18 times in the first five days of the year.
Public Health England has associated short-term exposure to pollutants to cardiovascular and respiratory hospital admissions in London. Further studies have also identified short-term exposure to traffic pollution to be related to daily mortality in London. A rising number of buildings are moving from natural to mechanical ventilation systems. Whilst this can produce a certain level of air filtration, it still does not completely solve the problem of pollution as the quality of indoor air depends on its original source.
Air quality is therefore becoming a huge barrier to passive design in dense city centres, causing increased usage of mechanical ventilation and cooling in buildings. This in turn creates a vicious cycle of pollution, energy use and carbon emissions. Tackling air pollution in large cities requires a multidisciplinary approach in order to be solved. Air quality limits and targets are currently set by the European Directive 2008/50/EC, however, no sanctions have been yet implemented by the EU or the UK when these values are exceeded.
The main mitigating actions relate to strategies which reduce pollutants generated by traffic. However, although a reduction of vehicles will certainly bring huge benefits and reduce the main pollutants, this alone is not sufficient and strategies to minimise and manage emissions.
We need better, more holistic planning policies that include built environment based air pollution strategies, localised monitoring and fresh research which can correlate to the impact of human activities, in both outdoor and indoor spaces in the city.
The UK Government has been in breach of EU pollution limits since 2010. Last May, the UK was referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to address the problem. However, despite some efforts to reduce pollution nationally and in London (e.g. Congestion Charge, T Charge and ULEZ), the situation is not getting better, affecting the most vulnerable and those who live and work in particularly congested areas.
The case of Ella Kissi-Debrah, who died in February 2013 following years of coughing fits and seizures, has come back to the fore amid her mother’s request for a second inquest. She hopes to directly link Ella’s death to the illegal levels of pollution present in the area where they were living at the time. If the inquest goes ahead and the link is established, this could have a huge impact in finally establishing the Government accountability and speeding up the rate at which mitigative measures to reduce and prevent air-pollution are applied. The area of Lewisham, where the Kissi-Debrah were living at the time, is one of the worst affected by poor air quality in London.
Currently, it is not yet clear if, following the Brexit proposal and ongoing negotiations, the UK will still abide to the EU standards and regulations, which have driven much of the environmental and energy policies and legislation in this country. However, it is clear that the air quality problem is one of the highest on the environmental and social agenda of most European cities and it would be damaging and counterproductive to the UK, if any relaxation of the current standards was proposed. Nevertheless, it is important that direct accountability is found, and more stringent and comprehensive measures applied.
Dr Rosa Schiano-Phan is Principal Lecturer and Course Leader of the Architecture and Environmental Design MSc at the University of Westminster.