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Testing Urban Planning Initiatives Using Air Quality Data

How Urban Planning Contributes to Poor Air Quality

In 2020, the world population reached 7.8 billion. The ever-growing population is met with threats of increased vehicle usage, heightened emissions and poorer air quality and over time, urban infrastructure slowly stops supporting how we live and travel, contributing to air pollution related problems and around 4.2 million annual deaths.

Cars are the most popular form of transport, and most urban designs support this with motor vehicle-focused

infrastructure like roads through pedestrian-heavy areas, A-roads and motorways. However, it’s important to consider that areas experiencing poor air quality are generally designed in ways that don’t cater for evolving lifestyles. It is common to see heavy congestion at roundabouts during peak times, meaning more idling vehicles. Traffic light sequencing can worsen traffic flow, emissions and cyclists pollution exposure through more accelerations, start-stop behaviours both increasing the amount of pollutants inhaled by nearby cyclists and cycle lanes seem daunting to travel along in busy city centres, putting people off travelling by bicycle.

These are just few of many examples of how outdated infrastructure contributes to the problem. Although detrimental to how we all travel, these are one of the many reasons contributing to why only 1 in 10 cities worldwide meet clean air standards and why the majority of the EU’s urban population are exposed to dangerous levels of ozone (O3), nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and PM2.5. This shows the importance of implementing modern urban plans and infrastructure to enhance sustainability, lower emissions and improve air quality.

New Air Quality Technologies & Urban Planning

A huge rise in technological advancements in the 21st century benefit those constructing modern infrastructure, as intelligent systems can help to pave decisions towards ‘greener’ urban planning that improves air quality, sustainability, and makes the most of available land.

Using urban planning to implement sustainable infrastructure is necessary to ensure a better quality of life to people around the world. Sustainable urban planning approaches address important questions around how to encourage people to travel using cleaner methods or how to make the most of land available to promote sustainable decisions. For example, the Institute for Advanced Sustainable Studies (IASS) contributed to the development of urban planning and climate models supported by Zephyr® data to aid the introduction of eco-friendly infrastructure in Berlin.

A widely recognised example of sustainable urban planning is Singapore’s super trees, that generate solar power, act as air vents for nearby conservatories and shield individuals from hot temperatures. As seen in Singapore, the move towards environmentally friendly infrastructure is slowly but surely happening as air quality related policies are introduced by national authorities, but the efficacy of these policies must be understood to guarantee clean air.

Using Air Quality Sensors to Test Urban Planning Policies

sensor on lighting pole
Zephyr® sensor attached to lighting infrastructure in Berlin, Germany

An example of scientists who use air quality data to test urban planning isThe Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS), a research institute in Germany who work to identify, understand, and act upon problems with the implementation of sustainable development in society. Their research team, led by Dr. Erika von Schneidemesser currently use 8 Zephyr® air quality sensors as tools to outline the effectiveness of government policies and more recently have purchased 4 additional sensors to allow them to react to future interventions.

To test such initiatives, the IASS have deployed their Zephyr® network in Berlin by attaching static units to lighting infrastructure and tall building facades to test air quality from street level to the top of buildings, to understand how air pollution flows and changes from ground level to elevated heights. They also measure real-time air quality at ground level by attaching mobile units to bicycles that are ridden in cycling lanes, so combined mobile and static data can deliver a true insight into air quality.

Using this data, the IASS test how air quality related interventions, including a recently introduced establishment of a cycling lane along Kottbusser Damm and a road closure at Friedrichstrasse, impact air quality. Using real-time measurements taken by Zephyr® sensors pre, during and post interventions, their researchers are provided with air quality information for pollutants including ozone (O3), nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and PM2.5. Air quality data is then used to understand how air pollution levels change on these streets and on parallel streets. These measurements help to understand the impact the policies have on local changes in air pollution and the implications for exposure for cyclists and pedestrians.

street in berlin
Frankfurter Alee in Friedrichshain, Berlin.

The IASS’s research considers the importance of implementing successful pollution-reducing infrastructure is imperative. Zephyr® air quality sensors are tools that can be integrated into a wide range of applications to guide the implementation of urban planning. For example, the Zephyr® can be utilised through attaching units to traffic light infrastructure to control traffic flow at roundabouts by adapting light sequencing as a way to reduce emissions or identifying areas with high pollution levels by integrating pollutant information with urban planning data. This means that sustainable, transport focussed structures, such as wider cycling lanes or pedestrian heavy infrastructure can be introduced and environmentally friendly mobility can be encouraged, over polluting vehicle-based layouts.

The Future of Infrastructure & Urban Planning

Future urban planning decisions can help to drive behavioural changes by encouraging individuals to adopt more eco-friendly behaviour and becoming aware of the impacts of the way they travel. Councils, smart city developers and businesses in urban planning sectors also need to consider ways in which the latest developments impact the environment, how to minimise negative consequences and how to efficiently introduce such initiatives.

We can certainly learn from Berlin’s plans for accompanying decisions towards implementation of infrastructure like larger and increased number of cycling lanes to attract cyclists, much like in Kottbusser Damm, or closing roads to cars and creating a pedestrian friendly space for connecting with people, enjoying public space, and fostering the economics of the city in central shopping districts such as on Friedrichstrasse.

Investment into new urban planning projects such as these help towards larger changes in the future and ensure that our cities are built in a way that infrastructure caters to the population whilst helping us achieve our emissions goals, so that the other 9 out of 10 cities worldwide can meet clean air standards.

The future of infrastructure in urban settings must be implemented with sustainability in mind and it’s imperative to measure their effectiveness using the appropriate tools, such as Zephyr® air quality sensors. Intelligent infrastructure for urban planning is something that is being more widely thought about as a solution to reduce air pollution which, when implemented correctly, can help to lower emissions and thanks to technological advances, can help cities across the world can work towards clean air and improved quality of life.

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