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Tomorrow’s Cities: What Can Be Done to Improve Air Quality?

Part two of our series "A day in the life of a city" looks at the ways in which offices are changing and how cities are coping with the ever-growing problem of pollution. - Reporting Jane Wakefield, Technology reporter


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The morning rush hour is over and, if you live in a city in the developed world, you are likely to be settling down at your desk for the next eight or so hours.

However, the office block and skyscraper, which have been part of our urban landscape since the end of the 19th Century, may also soon become surplus to requirements.

Urban architect Anthony Townsend thinks cities need more creative approaches to how we work and is keen to reclaim the streets by creating pop-up workspaces in the parks and plazas of the financial district in New York.

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“Before the New York Stock Exchange, traders met under a tree on Wall Street to buy and sell shares. It is only in the last 50 years that we have taken that creative energy and sucked it up into office buildings and separated it from public space,” he said.

An atrium filled with natural light and the smell of fresh coffee greets workers at Deloitte’s Edge headquarters in Amsterdam, which also uses an underwater aquifer to provide ambient temperature all year round and a sensor network to monitor the use of lights – providing a better working environment while saving money.

The Edge has been dubbed one of the world’s greenest offices and now many are following suit – installing sensors to monitor light, electricity and water usage, planting urban gardens and offering employees access to bike or car-sharing schemes.

When you pop out to buy your lunchtime sandwich though, it is a different matter.

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Cities are huge polluters – responsible for 70% of the world’s carbon emissions, according to the United Nations.

And, according to the World Health Organization, more than 80% of people living in urban areas that monitor air pollution are exposed to air quality levels that exceed WHO limits. While all regions of the world are affected, populations in low income cities are the most impacted.

What Can De Done to Improve Air Quality?
Beijing China smog

To counteract this, cities are rushing out a whole series of green initiatives – from electric buses (being trialled in many cities including Perth, London and Paris), to bike-sharing schemes, such as those in Montreal, Barcelona and Amsterdam.

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Some are committing to “urban greening” – London is considering a garden bridge – while in Paris, 20,000 residents have backed plans via a citizen engagement app ‘Madam Mayor, I have an idea’ for a 2m euro ($2.2m, £1.7m) investment in vertical gardens across the city.

Officials have found 40 potential sites and are now calling on gardeners, landscape designers, urban farmers and architects to bid for projects.

Horticulturist and designer Patrick Blanc has been creating vertical gardens since 2001 in city hotels, malls and tower blocks around the world.

The benefits are many-fold, he said. As well as acting as a natural biofilter and providing a habitat for birds and bugs, it also feeds humans’ natural sense of well-being in nature, a phenomenon known as biophilia.

In China, it will take more than planting trees to combat pollution. The city authorities in smog-ridden Bejiing are working closely with IBM to use machine learning techniques to analyse weather and emissions data to predict how bad air will be over the next 10 days.

According to Jonathan Batty, an IBM executive who helped set up the system, it has allowed the authorities to take short-term preventative measures.

“That might mean closing factories for a couple of days or reducing urban traffic or stopping construction work,” he said.

The government also uses the data to provide a traffic light warning system for citizens – red means air pollution is high so spend the minimum time outside, while green indicates safe levels.

London provides a similar system on its city dashboard which is available to Londoners on the web.

Prof Andy Hudson-Smith, who heads up University College London’s Centre for Advance Spatial Analysis, came up with the idea to share data with the wider public.

“Cities now do have vast amount of information on air pollution and the data from London is all bad but it seems that citizens haven’t woken up to how bad the air is,” he said.

“I’m surprised that people haven’t kicked off. This stuff is life-threatening – if you live on a main road, it can take five years off your life.”

The problem with the current way of collecting air pollution data is that often people do not understand what the readings mean, he thinks.

So he has a cunning plan to “humanise IoT” (the internet of things).

He is putting around 100 internet-connected gnomes in the Olympic Park in East London.

The gnomes will talk back to people as they go around the park and among other things will tell them how bad the air pollution is.

Unlike more complex data sets, they will be more plain speaking, said Prof Hudson-Smith.

“They will probably just tell you to go home.”

Smart City Case in Study: Jakarta


Jakarta launched its smart city programme in 2014 and rather than spend vast sums of money on platforms provided by firms such as IBM and Schneider Electric, it decided its smart city approach would be much more citizen-based.

It has an app – Qlue – that allows citizens to report issues, upload photos of potholes and abandoned cars they come across around the city.

Floods are a major issue there and citizens can also access PetaJakarta, a joint project between the University of Wollongong in Australia and the Jakartan government. It uses tweets about floods to create a real-time map of the city.

Jakarta tweets more than any other city in the world and also faces some of the worst congestion, so a Twitter account offering lift-shares – dubbed Nebenger – has attracted some 93,000 residents

In another congestion-busting initiative, the city is now partnering with Google-owned navigation app Waze to share data about traffic conditions around the city.


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