“The planet is fine. The people are fucked.” George Carlin
When it comes to climate change, the planet bears no blame. We, individuals and the human collective, are the problem, and the sooner we realise it, the better chance we have of surviving as a species.
Like most of us, I was amazed by the silence that fell upon our empty cities during the lockdown. Around the world, urban neighbourhoods that never slept suddenly stopped while animals reclaimed the cityscape. Confined to the boundaries of our homes, the city was finally given room to breathe. They’ve never been so smog-free! People stopped rushing around in cars on highways and instead took to the streets to calmly stroll down pedestrian pathways and finally breathe clean air.
The whole of humanity worked up an appetite for an unpolluted atmosphere, with a record 92% of the global population having the opportunity to see what natural fresh air feels and tastes like. Indeed, while the pandemic has wreaked chaos worldwide, we have harnessed the benefits of becoming increasingly connected to our locality, with data showing some indication that we were finally moving in the right direction towards fighting against environmental disruption.
As our “roadmap to recovery” unfolds, my morning walk to work has become increasingly overwhelmed by busy roads and car fumes. Now tasked with protecting me from both covid and air pollutants, the black soot that clings to my reusable mask demonstrates that, unfortunately, we are rapidly returning to our wicked ways.
But don’t just take my word for it; the data clearly shows that despite a steep drop in early 2020, global carbon dioxide emissions have rebounded. In linking these statistics with my own day-to-day experiences, I’ve been thinking about how we might be able to bridge the gap between these reports, statistics, and rhetoric to take practical action on the ground. How do we relink and make visible the relationship between cause and effect?
This pandemic has proven that if we were to disappear, the planet would be fine — we are the ones who are doomed. It has equally demonstrated that we are willing to change how we live when human life is threatened. But why don’t we approach climate change and air pollution with the same seriousness? In this way, it is not climate change or the planet that fuels my anger but human behaviour.
Nine-year-old Ella died eight years ago, and only last year, the coroner declared air pollution to be the cause of her death.
COVID-19 has caused 3.5 million deaths worldwide, but what are we doing to prevent all the other 4.2 million premature deaths caused by air pollution each year?Polluted cities make us ill, and I genuinely believe change can come if we act soon.
Below I’ve outlined five steps that I think are integral for our cities to combat air pollution.
1. Design cities around travel quality and multicentricity
First of all, we need to shift how we design travel in our cities by concentrating on the journey’s quality and not efficiency, and on the human pace, not on the vehicles.
In 2020, we finally experienced how it feels to live, work, and play without constantly picking up our cars and commuting, improving our morale and relationships. This is why shifting from a city-centric layout to a multi-centric one could help build a city of short distances.
2. Create a balanced urban environment
Several studies prove the benefit of quality green and blue spaces. A specific example is how the planting of trees tackles, at the same time, social, economic and environmental issues. In the areas with fewer green spaces, people go to their doctor with signs of depression 33% more than very green living areas.
This concept is the foundation of the USI project Relink, a co-designed vision for Belfast’s M2 motorway. This reclaims the street for its people and seeks to transform the streets into a green corridor.
3. Having a laugh
By weaving playfulness into our public spaces, we empower citizens to make healthier choices and connect them to their locality by having fewer people taking their cars. A great case is the dancing traffic light, which got 80 per cent more people to be active while smiling on their face waiting for the traffic.
4. Keep the surroundings in mind
We need to take a holistic design approach and take greater caution when designing magnificent green or blue infrastructure interventions. Today, these are widely promoted for air pollution mitigation, street and park trees, green walls, green roofs, uncovering waterways. Still, they are often designed without considering the surroundings or unawarely boosting gentrification and environmental racism.
5. Share the responsibility
If we want better cities, we have to destroy the bureaucratic barriers to provide people with the tools they need to understand their environment and initiate socially-led environmental changes to tackle air pollution.
As an example, the smart citizen kit fosters people engagement through participatory data collection and analysis; it creates local maps of noise and air quality. Bright idea’s packs, conceived and designed with the communities in north Belfast, raise awareness and find solutions for issues that matter for them.
There are no more excuses for how difficult fighting climate change is, and I firmly believe these quick actions can put cities on the right track towards the big vision of a cleaner world.
Just breathe. A cleaner atmosphere for everyone is only five steps away.