Europe’s cities are tackling their air pollution – but national governments need to do more

Paris. Or possibly Blackpool. Hard to tell. Image: AFP/Getty.

Despite three quarters of Europeans living, working and travelling around the continent’s cities, it’s fair to say we don’t always give a thought to the quality of the air we breathe. Perhaps it will cross your mind as you weave through rush hour traffic on your bike; but for the most part it’s a hidden threat.

Yet it’s also a serious one, estimated to cause 400,000 premature deaths in Europe and costing our economies €1.4trn each year. We’re risking our health and spending vast amounts - so what’s being done to address the problem?

At EU level, MEPs have just approved binding reductions targets on some of the most harmful pollutants in our air. While this must still be agreed by EU member states, it means that national governments will be obliged to reduce these pollutants within the limits by 2025. The targets are fixed, but they can choose how to meet them.  

This is a really important step for cities and their citizens. Air pollution doesn’t respect borders, and many pollution sources are beyond city control – so setting binding limits at national level will help back up clean air measures at local level, too.

And there are many of these. Think of cyclists’ paradise Copenhagen. When the city realised that cycling was not as popular for journeys of over 5km, it set about creating a network of bike “superhighways”. These are designed to provide maximum comfort and convenience, with staggered traffic lights and footrests at regular intervals. It’s no wonder so many Copenhageners choose to travel by bike.

Public transport is also an important part of the solution. Cities are working hard to make sure that taking the metro, train, bus or tram is as easy as possible. The Spanish city of Gijon is one of a number of cities that have introduced smart city cards. This single card allows users to do anything from taking out a library book to hiring a bike or paying a bus fare.

Edinburgh has unveiled a fleet of hybrid buses covering some of its most polluted commuter routes. They are not only environmentally friendly, but offer the kind of luxury travel many commuters can only dream of, with comfy seats and on-board wifi. Taking the bus doesn’t seem so bad now, does it?

Despite these and local measures all over Europe, our air still won’t be clean enough: there is only so much cities can do. So it’s important that national governments to do their bit – and while the new EU targets are a step in the right direction, they could be more ambitious. This is an expensive issue, not just in terms of money but health - so surely it’s worth aiming high?

A lot of the responsibility falls to the national level, whose decisions directly impact on the air we breathe in cities. Motorways are a national competence, but when they cut through cities, the implications are felt locally. Setting speed limits on the motorway? That’s decided at national level too.

And the impact of emissions from agriculture needs to be looked at too. Ammonia from fertilisers and manure is jeopardising our air quality, as is methane from livestock “emissions”. Both of these pollutants are covered by the new EU targets, though not as strictly as we’d like.  

And if you haven’t heard enough about car emissions lately, you’re about to hear more. Cars on our roads are emitting up to seven times the pollution allowed by EU legislation, because official lab tests are unrealistic. More effective testing is needed to reflect the reality of urban driving conditions, where start-stop driving is the norm.

EU member states have agreed on a “real driving emissions” test procedure, which will be implemented in two progressively stricter phases between 2017 and 2021. But these rules still mean that only one sample vehicle will be tested, after which millions of the same type are approved for sale. Spot checks on cars on the road would help reveal if they really are all clean enough. Stricter testing would help make low emission zones, like those in London, Milan and Berlin, more effective.   

So while these new targets are good news, Europe’s big cities are aiming higher. We are doing what we can - but with more ambition at national and EU level, we can do more. Because surely we all want to breathe clean air?   

 Anna Lisa Boni is the secretary general of EUROCITIES, the network of major European cities.


This election is our chance to treat housing as a right – but only if we listen to tenants

The Churchill Gardens Estate, Westminster, London. Image: Getty.

“You’re joking, not another one... there’s too much politics going on at the moment..!”

Brenda of Bristol’s televised comments in 2017, when told that another election was to take place, could just as well have been uttered when MPs voted to call a general election for 12 December this year. 

Almost immediately the politicking began. “A chance to transform our country”. “An opportunity to stop Brexit/get Brexit done”. ‘We can end austerity and inequality.” “A new revitalised parliament.” “Another referendum.”

Yet dig behind the language of electioneering and, for the first time that I can recall, there is mention of solving the housing crisis by all the major parties. I can welcome another election, if the result is a determination to build enough homes to meet everyone’s needs and everyone’s pocket.

That will require those who come to power to recognise that our housing system has never been fit for purpose. It has never matched the needs of the nation. It is not an accident that homelessness is increasing; not an accident that families are living in overcrowded accommodation or temporary accommodation, sometimes for years; not an accident that rents are going up and the opportunities to buy property are going down. It is not an accident that social housing stock continues to be sold off. These are the direct result of policy decisions by successive governments.

So with all the major parties stating their good intentions to build more homes, how do we ensure their determination results in enough homes of quality where people want to live, work and play? By insisting that current and prospective tenants are involved in the planning and decision making process from the start.

“Involved” is the key word. When we build new homes and alter the environment we must engage with the local community and prospective tenants. It is their homes and their communities we are impacting – they need to be involved in shaping their lived space. That means involvement before the bull-dozer moves in; involvement at thinking and solution finding stages, and with architects and contractors. It is not enough to ask tenants and community members for their views on plans and proposals which have already been agreed by the board or the development committee of some distant housing provider.

As more homes for social and affordable rent become a reality, we need tenants to be partners at the table deciding on where, how and why they should be built there, from that material, and with those facilities. We need them to have an effective voice in decision making. This means working together with tenants and community members to create good quality homes in inclusive and imaginatively designed environments.

I am a tenant of Phoenix Community Housing, a social housing provider. I am also the current Chair and one of six residents on the board of twelve. Phoenix is resident led with tenants embedded throughout the organisation as active members of committees and onto policy writing and scrutiny.

Tenants are part of the decision making process as we build to meet the needs of the community. Our recently completed award-winning extra care scheme has helped older people downsize and released larger under-occupied properties for families.

By being resident led, we can be community driven. Our venture into building is small scale at the moment, but we are building quality homes that residents want and are appropriate to their needs. Our newest development is being built to Passivhaus standard, meaning they are not only more affordable but they are sustainable for future generations.

There are a few resident led organisations throughout the country. We don’t have all the answers to the housing situation, nor do we get everything right first time. We do know how to listen, learn and act.

The shocking events after the last election, when disaster came to Grenfell Tower, should remind us that tenants have the knowledge and ability to work with housing providers for the benefit of all in the community – if we listen to them and involve them and act on their input.

This election is an opportunity for those of us who see appropriate housing as a right; housing as a lived space in which to thrive and build community; housing as home not commodity – to hold our MPs to account and challenge them to outline their proposals and guarantee good quality housing, not only for the most vulnerable but for people generally, and with tenants fully involved from the start.

Anne McGurk is a tenant and chair of Phoenix Community Housing, London’s only major resident-led housing association.