The New Data-Centric Approach to Improving Urban Air Quality
Who will you meet?
Cities are innovating, companies are pivoting, and start-ups are growing. Like you, every urban practitioner has a remarkable story of insight and challenge from the past year.
Meet these peers and discuss the future of cities in the new Meeting of the Minds Executive Cohort Program. Replace boring virtual summits with facilitated, online, small-group discussions where you can make real connections with extraordinary, like-minded people.
Cities around the world are spending billions of dollars to address urban pollution. London alone has pledged to spend over $1.1 billion over the next five years. We continue to see cities using a selection of classically used policies, such as vehicle restrictions by license plate numbers, in an attempt to address their pollution. Unfortunately, these policies are always costly and often yield limited results. As it stands, many cities continue to struggle to meet their air quality targets and still routinely violate their maximum allowances for emissions.
For years the World Health Organization (WHO), the American Lung Association (ALA), and others have reported on the public health consequences of air pollution and lack of a “safe level” of exposure. However, the high cost of traditional government-operated monitoring stations – up to $250,000USD per station – has made it simply too costly to provide additional measurement points at the neighborhood or street level. While these stations are typically deployed throughout a city in locations representative of ambient air quality levels, pollution isn’t uniform and unfortunately studies continue to find many sensitive and disadvantaged communities have pollution levels far exceeding those reported by the limited number of monitoring stations.
Without better data cities are making ‘best guesses’ to address their pollution, much like moving chess pieces when you can’t really see the chess board.
Today, continued advances in low-cost sensors and the Internet of Things have enabled the next-generation of air quality monitoring that can provide decision makers and communities with accurate, high resolution data at costs orders of magnitude lower than traditional monitoring stations. Cloud-based platforms and machine learning can ensure these low-cost solutions are increasingly accurate and remain calibrated. Further, these new solutions are often designed for minimal maintenance to ensure they remain feasible for city budgets (or other operators) over the long term.
As cities look to increasingly aggressive policies and investments, such as fleet replacements, road closures and even comprehensive diesel vehicle bans, politicians and decision makers will increasingly need data to support and de-risk these high value decisions across all the contributing sectors of government. Air quality is a particular challenge for cities due to its inherently multi-sector nature. While on one hand the relevant Environmental Authorities are responsible (and budgeted) for measuring pollution, it is often ultimately the Transportation and Energy Authorities that will be making the fleet procurement or policy decisions that can actually solve the problem of urban pollution. It is essential for city governments and all the stakeholders therein to have the data necessary to define these variables in support of this decision making in specific policy implement and investments at the appropriate scale. Further, by having these networks in place decision makers can monitor the effectiveness of their policies in real-time to see what is work and what isn’t.
“If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it and you can’t fix it”. – Michael Bloomberg, Twitter, 2014
A Demand for Data: From Smart Cities to Smart Citizens
While “smart cities” and governments are currently driving the demand for more data, we expect this top-down use of data to be increasingly complemented by a bottom-up awareness among citizens. Despite concerns around device accuracies and calibration, we’ve recently seen a tremendous increase in the uptake of low cost indoor air quality devices and personal exposure monitors as individuals are increasingly looking to understand their own individual exposures.
As recent studies have found, about half of the 4.4 million children who live in Delhi today have irreversible lung damage as a consequence of the pollution. Considering that the health effects of emissions, such as PM 2.5 (particulate matter 2.5 microns or smaller), continue to stack up over the 10, 20, and 30-year time frame, it’s more important than ever to consider where you live.
“As awareness and the availability of accurate high resolution air quality data increases we predict residential real estate will particularly drive clean air policy as homebuyers are ultimately voters.” –Zillow, 2016
A 2016 study from Zillow Research identified safety as the second most important driver of home selection by a significant margin, second to affordability. As awareness around the health costs of pollution continues to increase we believe homebuyers and community leaders will increasingly recognize that “safety” is not only about stopping criminals coming through the door – but pollution coming through your windows. And at the same time, homebuyers will recognize that air quality is not just about health, but also about their real estate investment. Just as homebuyers are increasingly savvy about the solar resources (Google SunRoof & Zillow SunNumber) and the school districts they’re buying into as a factor in their home’s value, homebuyers will increasingly demand clean air policies not only to protect their families, but to protect and increase the value of their homes as well.
We expect this continued alignment to provide yet another clear market enablement opportunity for the next generation of high resolution air quality data.
Leave your comment below, or reply to others.
Please note that this comment section is for thoughtful, on-topic discussions. Admin approval is required for all comments. Your comment may be edited if it contains grammatical errors. Low effort, self-promotional, or impolite comments will be deleted.
Read more from MeetingoftheMinds.org
Spotlighting innovations in urban sustainability and connected technology
Housing that is affordable to low-income residents is often substandard and suffering from deferred maintenance, exposing residents to poor air quality and high energy bills. This situation can exacerbate asthma and other respiratory health issues, and siphon scarce dollars from higher value items like more nutritious food, health care, or education. Providing safe, decent, affordable, and healthy housing is one way to address historic inequities in community investment. Engaging with affordable housing and other types of community benefit projects is an important first step toward fully integrating equity into the green building process. In creating a framework for going deeper on equity, our new book, the Blueprint for Affordable Housing (Island Press 2020), starts with the Convention on Human Rights and the fundamental right to housing.
Since the Great Recession of 2008, the housing wealth gap has expanded to include not just Black and Brown Americans, but younger White Americans as well. Millennials and Generation Z Whites are now joining their Black and Brown peers in facing untenable housing precarity and blocked access to wealth. With wages stuck at 1980 levels and housing prices at least double (in inflation adjusted terms) what they were 40 years ago, many younger Americans, most with college degrees, are giving up on buying a home and even struggle to rent apartments suitable for raising a family.
What makes it hard for policy people and citizens to accept this truth is that we have not seen this problem in a very long time. Back in the 1920s of course, but not really since then. But this is actually an old problem that has come back to haunt us; a problem first articulated by Adam Smith in the 1700s.
More than ever, urban transit services are in need of sustainable and affordable solutions to better serve all members of our diverse communities, not least among them, those that are traditionally car-dependent. New mobility technologies can be a potential resource for local transit agencies to augment multi-modal connectivity across existing transit infrastructures.
We envision a new decentralized and distributed model that provides multi-modal access through nimble and flexible multi-modal Transit Districts, rather than through traditional, centralized, and often too expensive Multi-modal Transit Hubs. Working in collaboration with existing agencies, new micro-mobility technologies could provide greater and seamless access to existing transit infrastructure, while maximizing the potential of the public realm, creating an experience that many could enjoy beyond just catching the next bus or finding a scooter. So how would we go about it?