Air pollution and urban design
The effects of air pollution on the human body are still largely unknown, but all of the indications we have paint a bleak picture. Barring a rapid shift to clean energy generation, the problem will only get worse as the world becomes more crowded – and that will have knock on effects for our health.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) believes that the air we breathe is growing dangerously polluted, and at least seven million people a year are killed by polluted air. The WHO further states that a third of global deaths from strokes, lung cancer and heart disease can be blamed directly on air pollution.
Further research from the Forum of International Respiratory Societies shows that air pollution may be damaging virtually every cell and organ in the human body. Heart and lung diseases, dementia, diabetes, fertility and unborn children are at risk. The latter is particularly worrying, with work published in Nature Communications detecting black carbon particles on the foetal side of placentas, and the link between dirty air and miscarriages or low birth weights being well established.
Air pollution is all around us and we cannot escape it. Or can we? For those of us who live in cities, Barcelona is demonstrating how a proactive attitude can help reduce pollution – in this case, motor vehicle pollution.
First introduced in 2016, the Superblocks found in Barcelona have worked wonders. Designed as a neighbourhood of nine residential blocks, traffic is restricted to the streets on the outside of the Superblock, meaning that the internal streets are left for pedestrians and cyclists only.
Only six Superblocks are currently in operation, but they have been warmly welcomed by residents and demonstrated real benefits. They have been so successful, in fact, that the plan is to create 503 more Superblocks across the city.
A recent report from the Barcelona Institute for Global Health estimates that this expansion would reduce car journeys by 230,000 a week and, subsequently, significantly improve both air quality and noise levels. Ambient levels of nitrogen dioxide would be reduced by a quarter and as many as 667 premature deaths from pollution, noise and heat could be prevented annually.
In addition, removing cars and opening up much of the city to pedestrians and cyclists encourages people to lead a more active lifestyle which helps to reduce diabetes and obesity, and increase the average lifespan of residents.
Obviously, the layout of Barcelona is perfectly suited to experiments like this. 19th century architect Ildefons Cerdà invented the field of urban planning and redesigned the city’s Eixample district on a strict grid system.
Neighbourhoods were redesigned as a series of blocks which were angled on a north west-south east alignment, to ensure enough natural light, and contained green recreational space in the centre. The aim was to prioritise fresh air and green space for residents and combat the previously-unpleasant living conditions people had to put up with.
These blocks now form the basis of the Superblocks and are set to, once again, give residents of Barcelona a new lease of life.
However, the unusual circumstances enjoyed by Barcelona don’t mean the underlying principles – and the determination to combat unhealthy air pollution – cannot be carried over to other cities around the world. Three quarters of us will be living in urban areas by the middle of the 21st century according to some estimates; if we don’t solve air pollution by then, a lot more of us will be dying in cities too.