Here are five other things we could do with air pollution

The Beazley Smog Free Tower. Image: Design Museum.

I remember vividly the first time I visited London overnight as a child. Returning home the next evening, I sneezed dark grey soot into a tissue.

My first thought was that it was my brain falling out and that I might die. It turns out the culprit was actually London’s own grey matter, the smog and pollution that fills the air and streets.

The sheer quantity of pollutant matter in London is intimidating. In 2014, the most recent year for which figures are available, London released a fairly terrifying 37.8m metric tonnes of CO2 equivalent into the atmosphere. That’s to say nothing of the particulates and other gases belching out into our streets.

But while coughing Londoners are busy converting dirty air to dirty tissues, designers and scientists have been finding better things to make from that pollution. They’re part of a revolution in thinking which extends the concept of recycling to the air we breathe – and could turn pollution from a dangerous problem to a desirable commodity.

The Biolamp

Just as trees react CO2 with glucose to produce oxygen and fuel for their growth (thank you, GCSE science) we could be turning CO2 into useful biofuel in our streets.

In 2011 Hungarian designer Peter Horvath released concepts for a BioLamp, a nifty, futuristic-looking streetlamp that sucks in CO2 and pumps it through algae, which convert to biofuel (which is stored for later), and oxygen (which is released back into the air). The biofuel could be easily collected, or even piped to fuelling stations for industrial or transport use.

The green tech inside is disguised by the streetlamp function, which is itself solar-powered. In this way, putting more streetlamps into a road, instead of increasing fuel consumption and emissions, would actually improve air quality in the area.

Horvath’s creation was awarded special mention at the Milano WellTech award, and even mentioned in the European Parliament via a written question, but has not yet been adopted.

AirCarbon

As well as lighting our streets and fuelling our cars, carbon emissions could be furnishing our homes. Currently most plastics are derived from oil and gas, with greenhouse gases emitted during their production.

A publicity film for Newlight.

Californian plastic designers Newlight Technologies decided to reverse the process, pulling in those greenhouse gases to create plastic without the need for fossil fuels. CEO Mark Herrema explains:

“On a continuous, large-scale basis, we’re converting greenhouse gases such as carbon and methane dioxide into biodegradable plastic, plastics that require no oil and no food crops”.

Perhaps most extraordinary is that it’s actually cheaper to produce than conventional plastic, thanks to a catalyst the firm has developed that works at nine times the power of previous technologies.

The firm has already started making carbon-negative, biodegradable plastic packaging, and last year signed a contract to supply plastics to Ikea. So the cheap furniture your landlord gets you may soon originate from the air outside your window.


The Smog Free Tower

But CO2 isn’t the only pollutant filling our streets and lungs. This January, more than 20 sites across the capital recorded ‘Very High’ levels of particulate matter, the highest level possible.

Dutch designer Daan Roosegaard’s solution (pictured at the top of this page), which was exhibited at the Design Museum earlier this year, creates jewellery from those particles. It’s a simple-enough process: a tower sucks in dirty air then ionises (gives electric charge to) solid particles. The particles are then attracted to a central electrode to collect them, compressed into blocks and set in resin to create sellable rings. It’s a process inspired by the natural creation of diamonds through compression – except these ‘diamonds’ are black and made from car exhaust.

Roosegaard and the Delft University researcher he worked with reckon that air is left 75 per cent cleaner by their tower. And given the amount of souvenir shops around London, there’s surely a market for jewellery literally made from the city.

AirInk

A Kickstarter campaign in February raised nearly four times its original goal and brought to life AirInk, artist-quality black ink made entirely from particulate pollution. Their device, the Kaalink, is fitted to vehicle exhaust pipes and collects particulates before they even get into the air. The result is purified of any carcinogens and heavy metals, then made into ink.

A publicity photograph for AirInk. 

The first prototype, by MIT student Anirudh Sharma, was a handheld printer which used oil, rubbing alcohol and candle soot. With some friends, he scaled up the design and founded Graviky Labs. So far they reckon they’ve cleaned 1.6trn litres of air around their headquarters outside Mumbai.

You can currently buy AirInk in the form of marker pens and screen-printing ink, and they’re planning to expand into paints. In April Sharma came to London, and in an interview with the Guardian said he wants to fit his Kaalink devices to black cabs, adding: “If each of the 20,000 black cabs in London had our product, we could clean 30trn litres of air a year.”

The Smog Brick

One man’s plan to create physical objects from air pollution is less manufacturing and more Tate Modern. In 2015, a Chinese artist and activist who goes by the name Nut Brother “vacuumed” enough smog from Beijing’s air to create a brick.

 Claiming to model himself on Subcomandante Marcos, the gun-toting thought leader of the Mexican Zapatista rebel group, he bought a vacuum cleaner online and dragged it through the polluted streets until he had collected enough particulate matter to compress it into a small, brown block. It may not be the most efficient solution, but if you fancy a weekend project…

 
 
 
 

Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.


So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image: WelshStreets.co.uk.

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: WelshStreets.co.uk. 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?


And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.