From Oslo to New Delhi, mayors around the world are moving to tackle air pollution

Another beautiful day in London. Image: Getty.

This week, a coalition of European mayors called on governments from across the continent to use all legal and political means in their power to ensure Europe’s air pollution standards are applied consistently across every industry, including car manufacturers.

The 20 mayors urged legislators to enforce tighter air pollution limits on new diesel cars after the European Parliament voted against a measure that would have forced carmakers to cut nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions. New cars on the roads of European cities will be allowed to emit NOx at rates that breach the EU’s own air pollution limits until 2021 and beyond.

This public statement of solidarity is just the latest example of mayors from Europe and beyond showing their determination to tackle the urgent crisis of urban air pollution, regardless of decisions taken by national and transnational politicians.

The issue of urban air pollution has made international headlines in recent months – and for good reason. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), there are 3.7m premature deaths due to ambient (outdoor) air pollution each year.

The head of public health at the WHO, Dr Maria Neira, recently warned that air pollution in cities is now “one of the biggest public health issues we have ever confronted”. Her warnings are based on air pollution data collected by the WHO from 2,000 cities around the world.


It is citizens of the world’s major cities whose health is most at risk from air pollution – so it is mayors who are most determined to take decisive action to reduce emissions. Some of the C40 mayors are already taking action to limit air pollution, leading the way and learning from each other to identify solutions that work for their local context.

In Madrid, mayor Manuela Carmena has unveiled plans that would see cars banned from the city’s historic centre and further restrictions on cars across the city when air pollution is particularly severe. Crisis measures would see up to 50 per cent of cars barred from entering the city centre when pollution levels peak, whilst public transit would be made free to all users.

Milan banned cars, motorcycles and scooters from the city centre for three days in December 2015 to tackle a persistent smog cloud that had settled on the city. The mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, recently announced plans to ban the worst polluting lorries and coaches from entering the Périphérique, the circular road that rings Paris.

And Oslo is developing plans to ban all private vehicles from the city centre by 2019, in order to meet the city government’s ambitious plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 50 per cent compared to 1990 levels.

The challenge and efforts to find solutions are not confined to Europe. Indeed, the WHO data reveals that six out of the ten most air polluted cities are found in India.

Inspired by similar schemes in C40 cities in Europe and China, New Delhi banned cars with odd and even number plates from entering the city on alternate days for two weeks in January 2016. Initial research carried out by the University of Chicago suggests that the volume of pollutants in New Delhi’s air was reduced by 10-13 per cent during the days that the odd-even scheme was in operation.

Whilst this effort has not solved the city’s air pollution problems overnight, the degree to which citizens complied, and the notable reduction in congestion, suggest that Delhi residents are open to radical solutions to tackle the air pollution crisis. Delhi is now moving forward with another two-week trial of car rationing in April, and considering whether this could become a monthly programme.

Twenty-six C40 cities, including Hong Kong, Johannesburg, Los Angeles and Rio de Janeiro, have also shown their commitment to reducing emissions from vehicles by signing the C40 Clean Bus Declaration. The declaration commits cities to improving air quality through the introduction of low and ultimately zero-emission busses in their public transport fleets.

Global cities are also working collaboratively to tackle these issues through C40’s Transit Oriented Development and Mobility Management networks, in partnership with the Ford Foundation and MasterCard, respectively.

Today, mayors – and their citizens – have a vision of what the cities of the future can and should look like. They want cities that are not dangerous to our health, cities that are easy to get around on reliable and sustainable public transport — cities designed for people rather than cars.

Mayors around the world, within the C40 network and beyond, know that the ambitious goals established in the Paris Agreement, negotiated by national leaders at COP21, depends on action by cities. Their citizens are looking to mayors to act on climate change and to ensure the air they breathe is clean and safe. In the process they may change the very principles that cities are built upon.

Mark Watts is executive director of the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group.

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In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.