Air pollution is a major risk factor for health in Europe. EU-funded research is helping to find innovative, inexpensive and green solutions for improving air quality, particularly in urban environments.
The iSCAPE project aims to integrate and advance the control of air quality and carbon emissions in European cities in the context of climate change through the development of sustainable and passive air pollution remediation strategies, policy interventions and behavioural change initiatives.
It will tackle the problem of reducing air pollution at target receptors with an innovative SME-led approach, focusing on the use of 'passive control systems' in urban spaces.
Improvements in air quality, microclimate and behavioural aspects of urban dwellers will be achieved by applying real-world physical interventions on the urban tissue to alter ventilation rates and dispersion patterns in the selected cities assessed for future climate change scenarios and representative of different cultural and lifestyles in Europe.
Through the approach of Living Labs the team will deploy a network of air quality and meteorological sensors (both stationary and mobile) and evaluate through analysis and a suite of up-to-date numerical modelling the benefits expected from the interventions on a neighbourhood and city-wide scale for several aspects ranging from quantification of pollutant concentration to exposure.
iSCAPE encapsulates the concept of 'smart cities' by promoting the use of low-cost sensors, engaging citizens in the use of alternative solution processes to environmental problems.
iSCAPE will support sustainable urban development by promoting the sharing of results with policy makers and planners using local test cases, and providing scientific evidence ready-to-use solutions potentially leading to real-time operational interventions.
This integrated approach will include the development and assessment of a framework aimed at changing the mobility behaviour of people by studying processes and dynamics that lead to more resilient, healthy, and sustainable cities, by bringing together theory from urban planning, public policy, urban and environmental sociology and urban geography.
It is estimated that air pollution causes about 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," says project co-ordinator Francesco Pilla of University College Dublin.
"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."
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," says Pilla. "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 analyse data.
The iSCAPE video aims to increase the awareness of air pollution by targeting the general public with personal messages from people living in the iSCAPE cities and beyond.