Architecture was an early victim of air pollution – and an early protagonist in combating it

The Palace of Westminster, ground zero for Victorian air pollution. Image: Getty.

Impressionist painter Claude Monet was able to see beauty in the swirl of fog encompassing Britain’s Houses of Parliament at the end of the 19th century. Most people regarded it as a very unpleasant inconvenience. Today, Londoners recognise the sources of the city’s current air quality problems: diesel vehicle exhaust and natural gas combustion for heating and cooking. Back in the 19th century, a small group of architects and scientists was just beginning to recognize the fog Monet painted as a threat to people, buildings and the city itself.

Officially known as the Palace of Westminster, the current Houses of Parliament were built between 1840 and 1870, after the medieval building was destroyed by fire. The reconstruction was the grandest architectural project of 19th-century Britain. From fierce debates about the style of the building to the installation of new heating and cooling technologies, the project captured the attention of politicians and public alike.

Mysteriously, the stone chosen for the building began to show signs of rapid decay while the building was still under construction. It soon became evident that the cause of that decay was London’s soot-filled air.

Claude Monet, The Houses of Parliament, Sunset, 1903. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

This embarrassing and expensive turn of events quickly contributed to new ideas about the environmental management of the city. By century’s end the government had passed new laws regulating the air of London, forerunners to contemporary clean air laws. A seemingly solid part of the city – one of its buildings – had enabled a new understanding of its most intangible element: the air.

Architecture and air pollution

My research on the architectural history of the Houses of Parliament reveals the surprising story of a building whose problems helped speed the creation of these new environmental laws.

At the start of the reconstruction, the government commissioned four experts to select stone for the building. The stone’s appearance would have to represent Great Britain’s growing political and industrial power. It also had to be durable enough to last as long as the British Empire. Two prominent geologists of the day, William Smith and Henry de la Beche, joined with a well-known sculptor and the palace’s architect, Charles Barry, to make a recommendation.

Concerned that some buildings weathered faster than others in Britain’s cold, rainy climate, the group went on an extensive tour to quarries and medieval buildings around Britain to gather data for their decision. They based their eventual choice of a magnesium limestone on further chemical analysis by Professor John Frederic Daniell, who predicted that the molecular composition of the limestone would resist weathering.

In the early 1800s architects believed that weathering of buildings was caused by the passage of time and the effects of observable weather like rain or ice. As industrialisation increased, they and other experts began to suspect that additional atmospheric effects also played a role. But the nature of these effects and their causes was not yet understood.

As early as the 17th century, residents and visitors had complained about the atmosphere of London. John Evelyn lamented the “Clowds of Smoake and Sulphur, so full of Stink and Darknesse” in Fumifugium, his 1661 treatise on air. With its air filled with smoke from thousands of coal fires and without regularly favorable winds, London was already blackened with soot.

Blackening and corrosion on the Arch of Hadrian in Athens, caused by acid rain. Image: Carole Raddato/Wikimedia Commons.

Its atmospheric conditions only worsened as population and industry grew, adding ever more chimneys to the skyline. In 1816, one Londoner described visitors’ shock at encountering the “dirt and nastiness” of the city’s blackened air. In his 1852 novel “Bleak House,” Charles Dickens included a description of the notorious “London particulars,” the fogs when “streets were so full of dense brown smoke that scarcely anything was to be seen.”

By this time, scientists in Great Britain had begun to offer some explanations for the worsening atmosphere and its damaging effect on buildings. Robert Angus Smith performed a series of experiments on rainfall that allowed him to conclude that the atmosphere of industrial Britain contained measurable quantities of sulphuric acid. He concluded that a new phenomenon that he named acid rain corroded the surfaces of buildings, causing their premature decay.

Parliamentary inquiries into the decay of stones at the Houses of Parliament took note of Smith’s scientific conclusions and their implication: the urban atmosphere of the 19th century threatened not only the well-being of people but the physical fabric of cities.

Changing the law

But what was the solution when the economic might of the British empire depended upon the chimneys and boilers of its furnaces? London and other British cities already had one legal instrument relevant to the crisis: nuisance law. Established under medieval common law, a nuisance was simply an activity or a structure on one property that adversely affected another property. Nuisance law dealt with the resolution of such conflicts, typically by ordering the cessation of the nuisance or by recommending the payment of damages.

In the 19th-century city, however, cause and effect could be very distant from one another. If the Houses of Parliament were being damaged by smoke, how could a judge determine which chimney the smoke had come from? Statutory law supplied a different approach with laws that regulated pollution at the source.

Old King Coal and the Fog Demon bring asthma, pneumonia, pleurisy and bronchitis to London; cartoon from the British humor magazine Punch, 1880. Image: Public Domain Review.

Over the latter half of the 19th century, Parliament passed new laws that allowed municipal authorities to set limits on the emission of smoke from factories. The 1853 Metropolitan Smoke Abatement Act imposed the first constraints on the production of smoke in the city of London. The 1875 Public Health Act included provisions for smoke prevention that applied to the entire nation.

Many other social and economic developments during the 19th century contributed to rising awareness of air pollution and to the formulation of environmental laws. But one of the most direct contributions was triggered by the Houses of Parliament. Architecture was an early victim of the effects of industrialisation; but it was an early protagonist in the remedies developed to combat them.The Conversation

Timothy Hyde is associate professor of architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.

Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.