Medellín's smog is so bad that the mayor is cancelling sporting events

Colombia’s second city has been forced to take drastic measures to combat the dizzying levels of pollution that the city is experiencing.

Medellín (the name is pronounced “Me-de-jeen”, by the way) was once famed for being the world’s former murder capital. Today, it’s seen as an innovation and tourist hub, too.

But, according to pollution watch-dog, the city currently has worse pollution than Mexico City (another Latin American city famed for its poor air quality). At the time of writing, the north of Medellín is experiencing pm2.5 levels – the number of micrograms of particles smaller than 2.5 thousandths of a millimetre across in an average cubic metre of air – of 154 µg/m3. That’s two points higher than the most polluted area of Mexico City, and 15 times higher than recommended safe levels.

In response to the crisis, over the weekend, the city’s mayor, Federico Gutiérrezn, issued orders banning cars and motorcycles from the road for 27 hours, and restricted the when and where dumpster trucks can operate in the coming days. He even announced the suspension of outdoor activities – including sports events and cycle paths – to protect citizens’ health.

The move followed a brief spell the previous week that saw Medellín Olaya Herrera – the city’s smaller, domestic airport – close. Although now re-opened, local sources are unsure as to how long the airport will continue to operate while pollution levels continue to increase.

In a press statement, Gutierrez explained that Medellín’s bowl-like geography – the city lies in the middle of the Andean Aburrá Valley – has played a significant role in the city’s pollution crisis. “The landscape helps accumulate the pollutants emitted in the valley,” he said. But he added that everyone who pollutes had, in some way, contributed to the current problems.

Medellín’s government first declared an emergency over the city’s air quality in the middle of March, citing a lack of rain, and the effects of weather phenomenon El Niño for the problem. Causing extreme heat and a lack of rain, the effects of El Niño have been further exacerbated by forest fires and dust particles from the Sahara Desert. The result of all this is that pollution has collected in the Aburrá Valley instead of dispersing.

That said, of course, the largest contribution to the dangerous pollution levels comes from the human population. In recent years the proportion of Medellín’s 3m inhabitants that own a car or a motorbike has increased. And while the government has introduced contamination limits for vehicles in Medellín – including for trucks and buses – these often go ignored.

Medellín is not the only city in Latin America to ban cars from the roads this week, either. Authorities in Mexico City have also ordered that all vehicles must remain off the roads for one day a week, in a bid to quickly lower the proportion of pm2.5 particles in the air. The Mexican capital has often struggled with pollution levels: like its Colombian counterpart it sits in a bowl from which it is difficult for pollutants to escape.

Medellín now awaits the arrival of rains in April that will help wash the pollution away. Hopefully.


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:

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: 

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.