Car-free zones, vertical forests lead Europe’s ‘clean air’ revolution

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Air pollution is a key environmental issue that is not only restricted to densely populated cities like Beijing or Delhi but is spreading its wings into many European nations as well, like Germany, France, Spain, Italy and the UK. The issue has posed multiple challenges in terms of management and mitigation of harmful pollutants.

Studies found that 85 percent of people living in urban areas are exposed to fine particulate matter at harmful levels. According to the recent air quality report from the European Environment Agency, air pollution causes 467,000 premature deaths across the continent annually. In addition, studies have shown that air pollution increases the incidence of a wide range of diseases (e.g. respiratory and cardiovascular diseases and cancer), with both short- and long-term health effects.

To deal with this problem, European cities have undertaken a variety of initiatives. EU air pollution legislation has followed a twin-track approach of implementing both air quality standards, including an exposure reduction target for particulate matter, and emission mitigation controls.

Franz Jenowein, JLL’s Director of Global Sustainability Research, believes each city is different with its own constellation of geographic, meteorological and industrial conditions, and solutions are similarly varied.

Putting the brakes on vehicular pollution

“We’re seeing schemes such as car-free zones, preferential treatment for electric vehicles, and pruning high-emitting vehicles from the road,” Jenowein said.

London, for example, is planning the world’s first Ultra Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ), which will initially cover the existing congestion charge zone. Slated for roll-out in 2019, the ULEZ will apply to petrol cars below Euro 4 standards and diesel vehicles below Euro 6 standards, with a daily fee starting at £12.50 for cars and going up to £100 for buses and HGVs.

Though difficult to implement, measures to curb vehicular pollution can yield unexpected benefits. For example, in Madrid, following an emergency nine-day vehicle ban on Gran Via, businesses along the major thoroughfare noted a 15 percent increase in turnover during the period compared to the previous year.

Yet Jenowein points out that vehicle-free zones bring a new set of considerations in urban planning. “As rent in the city rises, people move to the suburbs. But when they travel back, they are faced with public transport expenses or congestion charges. It’s tricky to manage purely through markets,” Jenowein says.

Jenowein adds that administrations should also be careful not to restrict access to those with limited mobility, such as the elderly, disabled, and parents with children. “Everyone should benefit,” he concludes.

Building green infrastructure in concrete jungles

According to a report from Environmental Science & Technology, incorporating green infrastructure into a city’s design can improve urban air quality by eight times more than researchers had previously thought.

Green roofs, vertical gardens and living walls are all great ways to incorporate plants into buildings and cities to improve air quality. Researchers have found that “urban street canyons” – city roads running through the glass and concrete jungle – contain stagnant air that traps toxins at ground-level. Toxins and particulate matter can be reduced by 40 and 60 percent respectively with the planting of trees, shrubbery, and the construction of living ivy walls.

World over, architects and construction companies are using new materials and techniques to help make buildings as eco-friendly as possible.

Recently, the Italian architect Stefano Boeri, famed for his tree-clad Bosco Verticale (Vertical Forest) skyscraper complex in Milan, unveiled plans for a similar project in the eastern Chinese city of Nanjing. Set for completion in 2018, the complex in China will be composed of two adjacent towers, housing offices, a 247-room luxury hotel, a museum and even a green architecture school. It is claimed that the buildings would suck 25 tons of carbon dioxide from Nanjing’s air each year and produce about 60 kg of oxygen every day.

Bob Best, JLL’s Head of Sustainability in the Americas, writes in his book “SMART, Green + Productive Workplace” that vertical tropical hydroponic plant wall systems can be effective in removing contaminants in the air, including volatile organic compounds which may have adverse health effects.

“To be effective, the wall systems should be on a large enough scale. Also the plants should be rooted in a synthetic medium rather than soil. Air is drawn through the plant system into the plenum behind the wall. As the air comes into contact with roots, microbes living on and in the plant roots break down,” Best explains.

In spite of complex challenges in mitigating harmful air pollution, European nations continue to implement eco-friendly measures to improve public health in urban areas.

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