British cities cannot afford to stall longer on tackling air pollution

Oh, lovely. Image: Getty.

Last week a High Court judge ruled that the government’s plan to tackle air pollution is “unlawful”, and that it must do more to improve air quality across the country. In particular, the judge stated that the Government should introduce legal requirements to force places which have illegal levels of air pollution to take action, rather than simply encouraging them to do so.

As the recent Centre for Cities’ briefing How can UK cities clean up the air we breathe?’ showed, this problem is largely an urban one: cities are home to 88 per cent of roads which are predicted to have concentrations of NO2 above legal limits. It’s clear, then, that the high court ruling will have big implications for cities across the country.

A map of NOx concentrations. Spot the cities.

As the judge’s ruling suggests, the government’s approach to tackling these problems has been to urge local leaders in the most affected areas to act, without to forcing them to do so. In total, it has mandated 28 mostly-urban local authorities, as well as the Greater London Authority, to develop local plans to tackle local pollution problems by the end of this year. They have also been tasked with considering the best options to achieve statutory NO2 limit values within the shortest possible time.

However, the court case this week should signal a step change in this process. Indeed, the government’s response to the case was instructive, conceding that while it had previously taken a pragmatic, less formal approach “to encouraging places to act”, it will now “take a more formal line with them”. In other words, UK cities will have to take urgent action to address their pollution problems, or risk facing legal sanctions.

The good news is that cities have the powers and resources they need to start to take action. Our recent briefing set out steps that cities across the globe are taking to address their pollution problems, many of which could be replicated in UK cities – from Milan’s congestion charge, to Paris’s restrictions on car usage and New York’s laws against idling. Moreover, the government has made around £445m in funding available to local authorities to fund such measures.

Unsurprisingly, London – which is home to the highest levels of pollution, but which also holds the most extensive devolved powers of any UK city – has led the way in terms of tackling air quality problems. That includes the launch of the congestion charge in 2003, and the ‘Toxicity Charge’ (or T-charge) which the current mayor Sadiq Khan introduced in October last year.


Other cities are also tentatively starting to take steps to address these problems. Sheffield, for example, was one of the first places to launch its Clean Air Strategy, which features plans to replace existing buses with more environmentally friendly stock, and for anti-idling zones in front of schools. Cambridge is considering options for a congestion charge, while Oxford is examining the feasibility of introducing zero emissions zones.

However, for the most part, there has been a reluctance among city leaders to take the tough and potentially contentious decisions needed to improve air quality, and in particular to tackle the single biggest factor causing pollution – car usage.

This was illustrated last January when Centre for Cities published its three policy recommendations for the incoming metro mayor of Greater Manchester. One of the ideas we put forward was that the new mayor should introduce a congestion charge in Manchester city centre in order to reduce pollution and generate more funding for public transport. However, the idea was flatly rejected by all the mayoral candidates standing in the city region, perhaps reflecting the negative response it had provoked in local media.

Similarly, while Sheffield’s clean air strategy features some good ideas, it also explicitly rules out any measures to charge private car-users, again reflecting an awareness that such measures might be unpopular.

But the reality is that to get to grips with air quality problems, and all the associated issues they bring, from poor health outcomes to environmental damage, cities need to take difficult decisions – even if that means going against popular opinion.  Following last week’s court ruling, they might not have the luxury of idling on these issues any longer.

Brian Semple is head of communications at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this post first appeared.

 
 
 
 

In many ways, smart cities are really very dumb

Rio de Janeiro’s control centre. Image: Getty.

It’s not news that anything and everything is increasingly being prefaced with “smart”: phones, watches, homes, fridges, and even water (yes, smartwater exists). And it’s not unintentional either. 

Marketeers know that we, the public, are often stupid enough to believe that thanks to their technology, life is better now than it was way back in, say, the primitive Nineties. Imagine having to, like a Neanderthal, remember how to spell words without an autocorrecting algorithm, or open the fridge door to check if you’d run out of milk, or, worse still, interact with actual people.

So it’s hardly surprising that we’re now also witnessing the rise of the so-called “smart cities”; a concept which presupposes that cities that are not technologically  “smart” are dumb, which, as anyone interested in the millennia-old history of cities — from the crypto-currency grain storage algorythms of ancient Mesopotamia to the complex waste infrastructure of ancient Rome, to London’s public transport infrastructure — will know, is not true.

Deployed in these smart cities are cameras and other networked information-gathering devices, load cells and other “sensing devices” detecting passing pedestrians and vehicles, audio surveillance devices listening for gunshots – and even vending machines equipped with biometric sensors to recognise your face. This is not to mention beacon technology — tiny anonymous looking black boxes hidden in trees and on lampposts — which transmits advertising, offers and other information directly to smart phones in the vicinity. 

If that doesn’t seem sinister enough, take, for example, Rio de Janeiro, where, in 2014, the International Business Machines Corporation designed a mammoth “control centre” that integrates data from 30 agencies for the city’s police. 

Described by the Guardian as having “the functionality of a Bond villian’s techno lair”, the then local mayor, Eduardo Paes, claimed the centre was making the city safer while using technology to deploy its “special” police unit to carry out the state’s “pacification programme”. Launched in 2008, the programme, which aims to push out drug gangs from Rio’s favelas, has been criticised by Amnesty International: “in January and February 2017 in Rio de Janeiro alone, at least 182 people were killed during police operations in marginalized neighbourhoods (favelas) – a 78 per cent increase in comparison to the same period in 2016”.

Sinister or not, as smart cities grow, they create new problems. For example, as urbanist Adam Greenfield writes in Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life, neither the algorithms nor their designers are subject to the ordinary processes of democratic accountability – a problem that international academics are currently attempting to tackle.  


“We need to understand that the authorship of an algorithm intended to guide the distribution of civic resources is itself an inherently political act,” writes Greenfield. “The architects of the smart city have utterly failed to reckon with the reality of power.”

The Real Smart Cities project, founded by Dr Gerald Moore, Dr Noel Fitzpatrick and Professor Bernard Stiegler, is investigating the ways in which so-called “smart city” technologies present a threat to democracy and citizenship, and how digital tools might be used create new forms of community participation.

Fitzpatrick is critical of current discourses around smart cities, which he says “tend to be technical fixes, where technology is presented as a means to solve the problems of the city.” The philosophy underpinning the project is “that technologies function as forms of pharmacology”, he adds, meaning that they can be both positive and negative. “The addictive negative effects are being felt at an individual and collective level.” 

An example of this lies in the way that many of these smart cities replace human workers with disembodied voices — “Alexa we need more toilet roll” — like those used to control the Amazon Echo listening device — the high priestess of smart home. These disembodied voices travel at the speed of light to cavernous, so-called “fulfilment centres”, where an invisible workforce are called into action by our buy-it-now, one-click impulse commands; moving robotically down seemingly endless aisles of algorithmically organised products arranged according to purchase preferences the like of which we never knew we had — someone who buys a crime novel might be more likely to go on and buy cat food, a wireless router, a teapot and a screwdriver. 

Oh to be the archeologists of the future who while digging through mounds of silicon dust happen upon these vast repositories of disembodies voices. That the digital is inherently material and the binary of virtual/real does not hold — there is no cyberspace, just space. Space that is being increasingly populated by technologies that want to watch you, listen to you, get to know you and sense your presence.

One project looking to solve some of the problems of smart cities is that of the development of a “clinic of contribution” within Pleine Commune in greater Paris (an area where one in three live in poverty).This attempts to deal with issues of communication between parents and children where the widespread use of smartphones as parental devices from infancy is having effects on the attention of young children and on the communicative abilities between parents and children. 

This in turn forms part of a wider project in the area that Stiegler describes as “installing a true urban intelligence”, which moves beyond what he sees as the bankrupt idea of smart cities. The aim is to create a “contributory income” in the area that responds to the loss of salaried jobs due to automation and the growth and spread of digitisation. 

The idea being that an income could be paid to residents, on the condition that they perform a service to society. This, if you are unemployed, living in poverty and urban deprivation, sounds like quite a simple and smart idea to try and solve some of the dumb effcts of the digital technology that's implemented in cities under the ideology of being “smart”.