Urban Air

Anna Sophie Bresson, Copenhagen

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We shape our cities just as much as the cities we inhabit shape us. It’s a  constant symbiosis, especially for the air in our cities: Polluted air that is emitted from buildings, vehicles, factories, that is also the air that we breathe in. So when we pollute the urban air - when we pollute our cities, we pollute ourselves.


We can’t see them. Those microscopic particles. But they are there, all around us. Floating in the air, down into our lungs. Just take a deep breath. Or actually don’t. Because some of these particles can be quite harmful. According to the latest 2018 << State of Global Air Report >>, 4.2 million people worldwide die each year due to air pollution. Even for Copenhagen , the number is 1,700 people each year according to Eco Council Denmark.  So, who invited these bad particles into our air, into our cities, and into our homes? Well, actually me and you.

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A new study by the European Transport & Environment Association published this month, confirmed how bad the air quality in urban areas has become. And you might think “Well that’s not where I live! Europe is green!”. You might want to take that comment back (but keep it as a goal): Spending a four-day weekend in Paris, the air your precious lungs inhale could be equivalent to smoking two cigarettes, and a weekend in Prague is the same as smoking four cigarettes. It might not sound like a lot. It’s just one weekend, right? But what if that city was your home and that weekend was your everyday life for many years? Chances are it is or will be, because 68% of the world population will live in urban areas by 2050. 


“For the United States and Europe, air pollution is equivalent in detrimental health effects to smoking 0.4 to 1.6 cigarettes per day. In China, the numbers are far worse; on bad days the health effects of air pollution are comparable to the harm from smoking three packs per day (60 cigarettes) by every man, woman, and child.” – Berkeley Earth.


Big cities are all about how we move around in them, whether it’s our daily commute back and forth from work, our weekly (okay, maybe monthly) jog around our neighborhoods, or longer trips to explore the city. How the city is planned and designed - functionally and aesthetically -- affects how we choose to move, how far we must or want to move, how often we want to move, and if we feel inspired and safe to move.

Copenhagen is a city designed for biking. All the bikers help ensure and contribute to the health of our urban air and ourselves. But even a bike-city like Copenhagen – with only Amsterdam having higher biking rates in Europe - can do much better according to a study published this year by the National Center for Environment & Energy at Aarhus University. Due to vehicles on the road, the NOx-emissions has been measured to be too high at 1,066 different spots around the region of Copenhagen. So even though the people in Copenhagen on average owns 1.1 bikes, cars are still dominating the city - and polluting the air.

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We do a lot that we should be proud of. We fight fruit flies gallantly as we sort our food waste to power our biogas-powered buses. We bike on roads that have deprioritized cars. We convince our friends and neighbors to take green transport for their commutes. Yet, we apparently have forgotten another major of air pollution: cruise ships.  

Cruise ships? Is that really a big impact? The answer is yes. his year Copenhagen alone will receive 1.1 million tourists from a total of 539 cruise ships according to Copenhagen Cruise Network. And while colorful drinks, 360-degree ocean view, swimming pools on deck, all you can eat-buffet, karaoke, and floating around on a ‘little’ boat sounds lovely, the harsh truth is this: Due to the lack of regulations and green initiatives on cruise ships, docking areas in Copenhagen are far more polluted than the most car-polluted roads in the city. And these docking areas are often placed right in the middle of our urban areas where we live, work, play.

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Politicians might run the cities (of course, remember that next time you vote), but architects and planners design them. And therefore, architects and planners do have enormous influence for making better, greener cities - and thereby better urban air. And what a challenging job in such a complex, holistic, and innovative sector where profits are often a key driver of decisions. But luckily, we can go a long ways by integrating one element: nature. And no, I don’t just mean scattering a few trees our roads. I am talking about real, complex, beautiful nature - including carbon and pollution-eating plants. It’s so important that we understand how nature works in order to keep it thriving in our urban areas.   

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A research from The Nature Conservancy suggests that planting trees in cities can result in cooler temperatures and reduced air pollution for millions of urban residents. “Our study indicates that a global investment of $3.2 billion throughout 245 of the world’s largest cities — that’s about $4 per resident — could reduce pollution-related mortalities by anywhere from 2.7 to 8.7 percent, saving up to 36,000 lives every year.”

Integrating nature in our cities can clean the air, improve human health and well-being, help manage stormwater, reduce crime, lower temperatures on hot days, reduce noise pollution, clean contaminated soil… the list goes on. Looking only at air pollution, plants have the ability to remove sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides particulates, carbon monoxide, cadmium, nickel, and lead from the air. Integrating nature around polluted streets can potentially make a 60% reduction of particulates from car exhaust. Thanks again, nature.

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So don’t hold your breath and wait for others to take action to clean our urban air. We all have to make a contribution - big or small, step-by-step, or all at once. And most importantly, we have to do it together. Because we all breathe the same air.

When we fight for a healthy air, we fight for healthy people.





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