Air pollution’s influence on sustainable cities

Professor Paul Linden, University of Cambridge, on CIRIA’s forthcoming debate focused on the influence of air pollution on sustainable cities.

In order to have a discussion around sustainable cities and whether the future is green, we first need to consider some of the big picture issues currently facing our metropolises. Issues, for example, like the trend towards urbanisation, increasing global populations, and longer life expectancy, as well as the combined influence this trifecta of concerns will have on our urban environments. Balancing these three issues requires a fundamental and immediate change in related policies and urban development practices.

The 2017 debate on cities, entitled “Sustainable Cities - Is there a future? Is it green?" will examine how best to plan for and manage a resilient urban future, and how we can do this in a sustainable and equitable way.

By 2050, air pollution is projected to become the leading global cause of mortality. This is why the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) have invested in research to tackle this. As such, a multidisciplinary team from Universities of Cambridge, Surrey and Imperial College London, is on a mission to tackle issues around air pollution through the EPSRC funded MAGIC project. The project aims to find a cost-beneficial method in which to change the ways our cities are developing. The team approaches the task from the mind-set: “The Victorians improved health by covering sewage systems, so let’s do the same for air pollution!”

Current approaches to urban environmental control rely on energy-consuming and carbon/toxic producing heating, ventilation and cooling (HVAC) systems, which cause an unsustainable cycle of increasing energy use. The impact of this unsustainable use of energy is particularly concerning when considering the trifecta of issues as outlined above, coupled with the predicted impacts of a changing climate. The MAGIC project wants to break this vicious, unsustainable cycle, by engineering solutions that aim to couple air flow through buildings with natural systems, including green (parks) and blue (watercourses) infrastructure, to ensure cleaner air and to further reduce the reliance on traditional mechanical systems.

Imagine the city of the future using natural ventilation in buildings to reduce demand for energy, and ensure air pollutants are diluted below levels that cause adverse health issues. This solution must be coupled with policy change and further efforts to reduce urban heat island effects.

This is where the future of the planet and us as inhabitants can become more sustainable, greener, AND healthier! It would certainly be magic for the future of our cities to be sustainable, adaptable and resilient to the challenges we face in the context of change.

I encourage you to follow up on the project through the EPSRC-funded ARCC knowledge exchange network to discuss how you can be involved in our, and other, research that is looking towards this sustainable future: (Twitter: @ARCC_CN and LinkedIn:

The Annual CIRIA Evening Debate
Other speakers of the 2017 debate will include Prof Peter Head CBE (Chair), Founder of the Ecological Sequestration Trust; Sally Uren, CEO of the Forum for the Future; Sarah Toy, Bristol City Council; and Malcolm Smith, Arup Fellow. This high-profile evening debate intends to highlight the wide range of approaches possible for managing urbanised regions, and to address the complexities in developing more inclusive and sustainable urban environments and communities by embracing a new urban agenda.

You can find out more information about CIRIA's 2017 debate here:

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Is the Future of Cities green?

Prof Steffen Lehmann, Sustainable Architecture and Founding Director of the Cluster for Sustainable Cities, University of Portsmouth