“Air pollution is bad for our brains, as well as our lungs”: so why aren’t we angrier?

Some city or another. Not sure which. Image: Getty.

Getting people excited about air quality is difficult. The villain of the piece is invisible, risk accumulates very gradually with each breath we take, and when its pernicious effects do eventually emerge, they show up only indirectly in specific medical conditions. Nobody has ever been diagnosed with a bad case of air pollution.

Netflix recently had a go at dramatising the issue in their high-budget royal drama The Crown. It follows the story of Winston Churchill’s secretary, Venetia Scott, whose flatmate becomes severely ill as a result of breathing in too much filthy air during the Great Smog of 1952. Air pollution in those days was more visible. and we watch panicked Londoners trying to block up gaps in their windows to keep the deadly soot out of their houses and away from their coughing children.

Venetia rushes her friend to the local hospital and leaves her with a friendly doctor. But just as the viewer relaxes, safe in the knowledge that her flatmate is in good hands, Venetia steps out onto the street outside the hospital and is hit by a bus emerging suddenly from the dense smog. She is a metaphor for the approximately 12,000 Londoners killed by foul air that year. Churchill is dismayed and, following a public outcry, sets in train the work to introduce the Clean Air Act of 1956.

In reality, things were quite different. Historical accounts suggest that there was not a great outcry, so habituated were Londoners to the regular smogs. For many, the poor air quality aggravated underlying medical conditions, or caused chronic illness, rather than instant death.

That is why the Netflix writers needed the bus incident to underscore the danger of it all: at the time, most people were unconvinced by the link between smog and bad health. Indeed the spike in the death rate was explained away by an official report as the result of a coincidental outbreak of flu. Churchill did not have a secretary killed by the smog, and he did not regulate emissions as a result. When the air cleared after four days, the capital largely went back to business as usual.

In some ways, things are different today. Partly through studying extreme episodes such as the Great Smog, we are now under no illusions about the health risks of bad air. Careful scientific estimates suggests that at least 52,000 life years were lost due to air pollution in London in 2010 alone.

What hasn’t changed since 1952 is that the public continue to put up with dangerously high levels of air pollution, year after year. Despite some high profile public campaigns, there is no real outcry. And given that reforms to improve air quality – such as banning more of the dirtiest vehicles, or increasing road charging – will create losers as well as winners, an outcry is what is required.


Another episode from history shows that air pollution may be even worse for us than previously thought. In the early 1980s, there was a recession in the US which had a particularly severe effect on industry, causing many factories to either cut production or shut down altogether. It was the opposite of the Great Smog: a big, temporary reduction in air pollution in industrial areas.

Economists interested in child cognitive development have used this as a natural experiment. They showed that children lucky enough to be born during the recession, when the air was cleaner, had better exam results aged 16 than those born when the factories were emitting at full tilt. Air pollution is bad for our brains as well as our lungs, even while we are still in the womb.

In one sense, this makes the air quality prognosis even bleaker – but it may also help turn up pressure on policymakers. The writers of The Crown chose to show shots of children coughing and spluttering because there is something particularly emotive about seeing the young suffering from the actions of the old. GPs will tell you that a good time to get women to stop smoking is when they are pregnant, because the thought of harming their unborn child is more powerful than the thought of harming themselves.

We can only hope that knowing filthy air is damaging the brains of young Londoners will have the same effect. A Mumsnet campaign to clean up our air would be a force to be reckoned with.

Sam Sims is a Centre for London associate and a research fellow at Education Datalab. The Centre for London is convening an independent, expert commission to examine how London can tackle problems of congestion, pollution and safety. Find out more here.

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“This is a civic pride for the digital age”: why we should why we should willingly let City Hall have our data

He was the future once: David Cameron discusses smart cities with Angela Merkel and a German technology executive. Image: Getty.

Victorian England. From the shadows of wealth grew poverty. Slums slumped against symbols of civic pride, cowering next to towering town halls funded through rich merchant princes, whose elitist rule was insufficient to deal with too many people in too few houses with too little infrastructure.

Enter municipality. With darkness came electric light; with disease came tunnels to disperse their cause; with time came reform, regulation and the rise of town planning.

It’s over a century since those places which first industrialised became those first urbanised; yet even the wealthiest cities in the world continue to struggle with the complexities of urbanisation. In London, ten thousand die each year from pollution; in New York, six times this amount reside in homeless shelters.On the rush-hour roads of Sydney, cars stand still, and in the ‘burbs or banlieues of Paris slums still stand.

An umbrella bought during a downpour costs more than one bough under blue sky – and the truth is that, for too, long city halls have failed to forecast and so incurred greater costs. It’s a reactive culture summed up by words first head in Jimmy Carter’s budget office: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Disease before sewer, gridlock before investment, collapse before rebuild – visible fix over unseen prevention

But with the world’s urban population growing by 65m every year, this has to change: there is not enough resource to manage cities reactively. Enter technology and the move to smart cities.

From Barcelona to New YorkOxford to Amsterdam, Singapore to Seoul: billions of low-cost devices are being installed into everyday objects to send and receive data: street lights recording pollution, and bridges reporting performance; traffic lights that count, and whose analysis will be counted upon, to ease traffic congestion; health wristbands understanding our heart’s needs, shop ceilings noting our heart’s desires. A web of information woven into the very fabric of cities which, when added to data from sources like mobile phones, is providing a living-breathing picture of how we and our cities operate.

This data is no longer retrospective or historic but live and dynamic. It is of such quantity, and can be analysed at such granular detail, that it can provide certainty where once there was only supposition. It is build-up before the gridlock, illness before epidemic; the crack of an ageing bridge, the first signs of smog. It is diagnostic to preventative. Umbrella under blue sky.

Those promoting the “internet of things”, estimated to be worth $11.1trn a year by 2025, will declare it a panacea – but it is not, at least not entirely. Sure, challenges regarding data quality, privacy, standardisation, and security will be overcome; 4G will become 5G will become 6G. Devices will communicate intelligently with each other – autonomous vehicle to autonomous vehicle, autonomous vehicle to bridge, drone to home. Data will become as fundamental to cities as infrastructure, and will be referred to as such.

Yet city halls in democracies, whilst infinitely better informed, will continue to make their decisions which are restricted by commercialism, framed by political ideology, and driven by short-term electoral or media pressures.


People first

From the mid-sixties to the start of this century a UK television programme called Tomorrow’s World showcased future living. For every correct prediction (mobile phones) came countless incorrect ones: the floating-bicycle, say, or paper underwear. My point is that only a small part of understanding the future of cities is about understanding technology. The majority is about understanding people and society, the people from whom the very word “city” is derived: civitas, the collective of citizens.

Gutenberg did not change the world by inventing the printing press in the 13th century – but he did enable the world to change. The technology was the printing press, the outputs were books filled with knowledge, the outcomes were the actions of the many who used that knowledge. Technology is a tool, a process towards an outcome. 

In much the same way, the Internet of Things will not change the world – but it will enable the world to change. Sensors are the technology, data the outputs, the analysis of this data and subsequent decisions, the outcome.

It is crucial to avoid the Tomorrow’s World approach. That is, racing to implement technology first without consideration of identified social, economic or environmental needs; introducing more complexity when most citizens seek simplicity. As the writer and urbanist Jane Jacobs once said:“First comes the image of what we want, then the machinery is adapted to turn out that image.”

Start with people. Form the image. Think of technology through the Greek origins of the word, techne and logos – a discourse about the way things are gained – and capitalise on collective intelligence to move towards that image.

Since cities first started to appear some millennia ago, they’ve provided incontrovertible evidence that the wisdom of crowds is far greater than the individual; that collective intelligence gained from that trinity of city institutions – citizen, government, industry – surpasses what can be achieved by any one in isolation. Where would Apple, Uber, or Google be without the government-backed inventions like the world-wide-web, touchscreen technology, WiFi or global positioning systems?

A new civic pride

Of course, an app on a smart phone that can ask a thousand questions is meaningless if nobody feels motivated to answer. Increasing urbanisation brings increasing interdependency: lives intrinsically linked, services shared. The challenge for city halls is to turn the increase in what people have in common, into an increase in common purpose, through understanding the three benefits that motivate and lead to action.

Extrinsic benefits, of status and reward, caused merchant princes to fund city halls in Victorian England: such benefits today see the ambitious putting in extra hours. Intrinsic benefits, like competitiveness or fun, that once caused business tycoons to compete to build the tallest skyscrapers, now explain why “hackathons” and “city challenges” are such a success. Then there are the pro-social benefits of altruism or benevolence, that cause millions to volunteer their time to give back and feel part of something bigger than themselves.

These motivations are of greater significance, because there are no longer people with clipboards standing on street corners asking permission to collate our views on services: it is happening automatically through the Internet of Things. Our choices online, movements offline; the travel we take, the pollution we make; our actions and interactions. We are data.

City halls can take a click-box-small-print approach to this, like so many apps. But there is opportunity to do the opposite. They can promote the fact that citizens can knowingly provide their data towards making lives better; visualise and enable citizens to see and understand their input, alongside data provided by others.

They can incentivise interaction with data, so that entrepreneurs can work back from outcomes, solve challenges, and re-localise where appropriate (we should not need a multinational to get a taxi). They can be proudly open, enabling citizens, industry and government to receive pro-social benefit by contributing to something bigger than themselves: their life and the lives of others.

This is a civic pride for the digital age. Not just localism or patriotism based on geography but the strength of connection between people and their ability to direct and determine change through data. Not just pride in the buildings and infrastructure that form our physical world, but in the quality of data that will shape our future world and move us from a diagnostic to preventative society – umbrellas under blue sky.

We should take pride in technology, yes; but that should come second to the pride in those who, enabled by that technology, drive progress. Who, through the wisdom of crowds, form an image of the future and strengthen democracy by motivating society to move towards it. Who embrace openness and help overcome the challenges of urbanisation.

Kevin Keith is a writer, researcher, urbanist, and director of the southern hemisphere’s largest open data competition, GovHack. He tweets as@KevKeith.

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