Could air pollution be linked to higher crime rates?

Well, now I fancy some burgling. Image: Getty.

The impact of air pollution on human health is well-documented. We know that exposure to high levels of air pollutants raises the risk of respiratory infections, heart disease, stroke, lung cancer as well as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. But there is growing evidence to suggest that air pollution does not just affect our health – it affects our behaviour too.

Lead was removed from petrol in the USA in the 1970s in response to concerns that vehicle emissions could be contributing to behavioural problems, learning difficulties and lowered IQ among children. In particular, childhood exposure to lead increases traits such as impulsiveness, aggression and low IQ – which can influence criminal behaviour. Taking lead out of petrol has since been linked with a 56 per cent drop in violent crime in the 1990s.

Short-term exposure to air pollution, especially sulphur dioxide, has been associated with a high risk of hospital admissions for mental disorders in Shanghai. And in Los Angeles, a study concluded that higher levels of particulate matter pollution increases teenage delinquent behaviour in urban neighbourhoods – though of course these effects are compounded by poor relationships between parents and children, as well as social and mental distress on the part of the parents.

It now believed that exposure to air pollutants can cause inflammation in the brain. What’s more, fine particulate matter is harmful to developing brains, because it can damage brain and neural networks and influence behaviour.

Criminal behaviour

The evidence so far suggests that air pollution has the capacity to increase bad behaviour – especially among young people. But further research indicates that it can have even more serious impacts. One study of air pollution and crime in 9,360 US cities suggests that air pollution increases crime. Polluted air increases anxiety, which can in turn lead to a rise in criminal or unethical behaviour. The study concluded that cities with higher levels of air pollution had higher levels of crime.

Recent research from the UK provides provides more information on this issue, by comparing data for 1.8m crimes over two years with pollution data from London’s boroughs and wards. The analysis considered factors such as temperature, humidity and rainfall, days of the week and different seasons.

The air quality index (AQI) reports how clean or polluted the air is each day. Researchers found that a 10 point raise in the AQI increases the crime rate by 0.9 per cent. Levels of crime in London are therefore higher on the most polluted days. The study found that air pollution influenced crime in London’s wealthiest and poorest neighbourhoods.

Specifically, the findings linked higher air pollution levels in London to increases in petty crime such as shoplifting and pick-pocketing. But it is worth noting that the researchers found no significant impact on serious crimes such as murder, rape or assault resulting in severe injury.

The stress factor

Exposure to poor quality air can increase the stress hormone cortisol, which can influence risk perception. Higher levels of risk taking is one reason why there is a rise in criminal activity on polluted days. The researchers conclude that reducing air pollution could reduce crime.

SMog: a recipe for misbehaviour. Image: Ian D. Keating/Flickr/creative commons.

But other social and environmental factors may also influence people’s behaviour. Environmental disorder – such as broken windows and graffiti – can induce social and moral disorder. The broken window theory suggests that signs of disorderly and petty criminal behaviour trigger more disorderly and petty criminal behaviour, causing this behaviour to spread.


It is becoming clear the effects of polluted air goes beyond the well-known impacts on health and environment. Yet air pollution remains high in many countries. According to the World Health Organisation, nine out of ten people worldwide are now breathing in toxic air.

There’s still a lot we don’t know about how individual air pollutants can affect health and behaviour, and how this differ with gender, age, class, income and geographic location. The link between high levels of air pollution and increases in type of behaviour requires further robust evidence to determine a stronger causal link.

But there’s plenty of evidence to prove that poor air quality is bad for both our physical and mental health. Concerted action by national and local government is required to tackle the problem by developing more sustainable transport, efficient and renewable energy production and use, and waste management.

The ConversationThe UN BreatheLife campaign is now challenging citizens to take action by leaving their car at home and use alternative forms of transport for at least the distance of a marathon (42km/26 miles) for one month. We all have a role to play in ensuring we can all breathe clean air, and gain the benefits of improved physical, mental and social well-being.

Gary Haq, SEI Associate, Stockholm Environment Institute, Environment Department, University of York.

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

 
 
 
 

Here are my five favourite London council estates

The Dunboyne Road estate. Image: Steve Cadman/Wikimedia Commons.

The author is a Labour member of the London Assembly. In the name of impartiality, CityMetric would like to extend the invitation to write similar columns to representatives of other political parties.

From successful post-war efforts to move families out of slums and into modern homes, to today’s efforts to construct a new generation of social housing, there’s much to be celebrated in London’s precious council housing stock.

This year we celebrate the centenary of the Addison Act, which established a national building programme with government funding for the first time. So here – in no particular order – are my top five London estates:

1. Dunboyne Road

In 1965, the newly established London Borough of Camden was bold and radical when it came to public housing. Their architect’s department boasted 98 staff, led by Sydney Cook. The Grade II listed Dunboyne Road (pictured above) was Britain’s first high-density, low-rise estate. Designed in the late 1960s and completed in 1977, it was the first major work by architect Neave Brown.

Its concrete construction and geometric layout are eye-catchingly modernist, but the 71 flats and maisonettes fit neatly into their surroundings; a reimagining of the classic London street for the 1960s. Each has a private terrace and own entrance onto the central pedestrian walkway and communal gardens, with stepped levels and dual-aspect windows creating light throughout.

Neave Brown himself lived on the estate in the final years of his life remarking, “Who am I to say, but it’s beautiful”.

2. Lilington Gardens

Located just off Vauxhall Bridge Road, the fourteen blocks at Lilington Gardens were built between 1964 and 1972. Between three and eight storeys each, it was again a rejection of the tower blocks which dominated the era, showing that mid-rise housing could provide both beauty and density.

Image: Ewan Munro/Wikimedia Commons.

At a time when Westminster could be proud of the quality of its housing, John Darbourne and Geoffrey Darke won a competition to design the new estate. The result was something special, eschewing modernist forms for something more rugged and layered. The layout allows for secluded green spaces, while the red brick cladding echoes the neighbouring Victorian church of St James the Less. Like all good estates, it included a pub – the Grade II*-listed Pimlico Tram (now The Cask). It was included not as an afterthought, but an integral part of the estate’s design.

3. Ossulston Estate

By the early 1950s, the London County Council’s architect’s department was the biggest in the world, building housing on a huge scale in addition to showp iece projects such as the Southbank Centre.

Though their suburban estates – Downham in Bromley, and Becontree in Barking and Dagenham – were pioneering examples of low-rise of modernity in metroland, these efforts did not always suit the needs of poor city dwellers who weren’t able to move further out. The Ossulton Estate, however, built between 1927 and 1931 on the site of a Somerstown slum and located between Euston and St Pancras stations, did exactly that.

Image: Stephen McKay/Wikimedia Commons.

Chief architect George Topham Forrest’s work was inspired by visits to ‘Red’ Vienna and Ossulston bears distinct similarities to Karl Marx-Hof, which was constructed at the same time. While the roofs and windows have traditional elements, the overall aesthetic is a modernist classic. Like many estates in post-war years, it suffered from neglect and a lack of investment, but following a £6m improvement programme by Camden Council in 2004, the Ossulston is now back to its brilliant best.

4. Alton Estate

Roehampton’s Alton Estate, completed in 1959, was designed by a team led by Rosemary Stjernstedt – the first woman to serve as a senior public sector architect in Britain.

The two parts of the estate – East and West – are the crown jewels of British post-war council housing. Alton West was Le Corbusier in Albion: six ultra-modernist blocks modelled on the Unité d’habitation in Marseille, set among the landscape inherited from the Georgian Mount Clare house. Alton East was a softer, Scandinavian-inspired design of the “new Brutalists” in the LCC.

Image: Stevekeiretsu/Wikimedia Commons.

Rising above the trees to the north east of Richmond Park, the Alton Estate stands testament to the visionary idealism of post-war council housebuilding. On its completion, visitors flocked from across the globe, with American critic G.E. Kidder Smith calling it “probably the finest low-cost housing development in the world”.

Sadly, Alton West however is now at risk from ‘regeneration’ proposals which would see 288 existing homes lost. While council estates should not be fetishised, with investment, improvement and expansion encouraged, any change must be done sensitively and with residents’ backing. I hope that Wandsworth Council and Redrow will follow the mayor’s Good Practice for Estate Regeneration and hold a ballot before plans go ahead, and that if they do, they build on Rosemary Stjernstedt’s legacy.

5. King’s Crescent

When it comes to regeneration Hackney Council have taken an altogether different approach to Wandsworth.

Located on Green Lanes opposite the magnificent Clissold Park, King’s Crescent’s route to a successful and well-supported regeneration project hasn’t always been an easy one. The early 1970s estate was blighted by poor construction, navigability issues and an ill-fated partial demolition in 2000 which turned much of the landscape into hoardings and rubble. But thanks to a step-change in resident engagement and a transformation programme funded by Hackney Council, by 2023 it will be host to 765 new and refurbished homes.

Image: David Holt/Wikimedia Commons.

In the era of government-imposed cuts to local authority budgets, councils have to be pragmatic about funding choices and the new King’s Crescent does include homes for private sale. This is understandably a source of some consternation, but it’s also the source of funding which has made the regeneration possible. Hackney has ensured that more than 50 per cent of the new homes are genuinely affordable, with 97 brand new council homes for social rent.

The new developments have greatly enhanced the area, using both new build and renovation to stitch the estate better into its Victorian surroundings. Existing homes have been retrofitted with balconies, while disused garage space has been repurposed for modern flats. Hackney have clearly thought carefully about character and open spaces, as well as ceiling heights, windows and internal storage.

It is an exceptional project – one of a growing number of new schemes now being spearheaded by ambitious councils across the capital. In 2018-19, the Mayor of London funded the start of 1,916 new council homes – the highest figure since 1984-85.


…what about the Barbican?

On the fiftieth anniversary of its opening, it would be remiss not the mention the Barbican. It’s a brutalist masterpiece and a fantastic feat of post-war planning and design. The location and design are clearly outstanding, but it’s the bright and modern interiors which are truly to die for.

So why is it not on the list? Although it was built by the City of London Corporation, not one of the flats was ever available at a social rent. The properties were built to let at market rents to workers in the City, who later found themselves in the fortunate position of being able to snap them up under the Right to Buy – still the fate of far too many of London’s vital social homes.

Tom Copley is a Labour member of the London Assembly.