It is estimated that air pollution causes around 800 000 premature deaths every year in the EU alone, and the majority of us, especially those living in cities, are regularly exposed to air containing high levels of pollutants. For some time, the European Commission has been supporting the development of innovative nature-based solutions aimed at reducing the levels of air pollution in urban areas, its objective being to create a knock-on effect on the health of EU citizens.
The three-year EU-funded iSCAPE research project set out to find innovative ways to improve air quality in European cities. The first step in the six participating cities – Bologna (IT), Bottrop (DE), Dublin (IE), Guildford (UK), Hasselt (BE) and Vantaa (FI) – was to establish a participative, bottom-up approach based on the Living Labs methodology developed by the European Network of Living Labs. From here, they set out to measure air pollution, implement green solutions and validate their impact in close collaboration with a range of partners, including local authorities, schools and citizen groups.
When we started looking at the problem, we realised that many actions carried out in the past were not successful because policies were enforced from the top down without involving the people most directly concerned. We wanted to look at co-designing solutions with the general public and a wide range of stakeholders and to use this opportunity to raise awareness and create buy-in for the measures adopted."
Francesco Pilla, Project Coordinator, University College Dublin, Ireland
Finding solutions that work
The iSCAPE project aimed to tackle the challenge of reducing urban air pollution and its impact on climate change from two different angles. The first concerned the development and implementation of passive control systems for air pollution, including low boundary walls, trees and hedgerows, green walls and roofs, photocatalytic coatings, green urban spaces and road geometry interventions. Secondly, they introduced actions aimed at stimulating behavioural change among EU citizens – for instance, in their choice of transport (sustainable urban mobility) or through citizen involvement in the widespread monitoring of pollution levels.
‘It is hard to discuss air pollution with citizens because it is invisible,’ Pilla explains. ‘So we developed low-cost monitoring kits and used them for citizen science activities, which was a very powerful way to demonstrate that our interventions were working and to eventually push this work into policy. These kits can now be purchased at a low cost as a direct result of the project.’
iSCAPE provided clear evidence and data to show how green infrastructure can be an effective way to reduce exposure to air pollution. It demonstrated that, if correctly positioned, simple hedges mixed with trees can reduce exposure to particulate matter by as much as 50 % – which is very significant.
The low-cost, nature-based interventions introduced by the project have already been incorporated into the Guidelines for the City of London and are in the process of being adopted in Dublin. This rapid adoption into policy was helped by the wide-scale citizen involvement.
The project’s findings on the performance of photocatalytic coatings as a passive control system for air pollution in Bologna have been used to generate plans for wider-scale deployment in the port of Barcelona. This will be used as a showcase for further deployments in ports across Spain and eventually in Europe.
In Dublin, iSCAPE trialled a Lego co-design workshop in primary schools to raise awareness among young people and help them to feel part of the solution. This was supported by the publication of a booklet for children explaining pollution. The popularity of the initiative has led to these activities being adopted more widely now.
A wide range of materials developed by the project are freely available on the iSCAPE website, providing a quick and pragmatic overview of its results which will be useful for policymakers, local communities, industry and citizen activists. They include open access documents on how to build your own sensors and how to analyze data.