built environment insights - issue 2 | UK 26 Sep 2017 Breathe easy – improving air quality

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On 17 May 2017, Ashurst hosted the “Breathe Easy – Practical Steps in Improving Air Quality” event in partnership with FuturePlanet, the British Property Federation and the Social Stock Exchange. Bringing together property owners, developers and entrepreneurs, the event focused on how to encourage collaboration in the Built Environment sector to improve urban air quality.

Toxic air

Air pollution levels in the UK have been described as “a public health emergency" in a report published by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs select committee.1 Long-term exposure to nitrogen dioxide may affect lung function and cause respiratory symptoms. The annual mortality rate in the UK from exposure to outdoor air pollution has been estimated to be equivalent to around 40,000 deaths2 and exposure also reduces average life expectancy.3 Outdoor air pollution can have a significant impact on indoor air quality, especially in highly ventilated buildings and buildings situated near to pollution sources. A number of the world’s largest cities (including Paris, Madrid, Athens and Mexico City) have committed to banning diesel vehicles by 2025 and in London an Ultra-Low Emissions Zone will be introduced in September 2020.

The UK Government has been taken to court over its failure to comply with EU air quality standards. The Air Quality Directive 2008 required member states, by 2010, to meet certain legally binding standards for air quality, including in relation to nitrogen dioxide. The Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was required to prepare and implement an air quality action plan with the aim of achieving compliance and reducing exposure throughout the UK by “the soonest date possible”. Environmental lawyers ClientEarth successfully challenged the UK Government on its ongoing failure to achieve compliance, and in 2015 the Supreme Court ordered ministers to draw up a plan to bring air pollution within legal limits as soon as possible. ClientEarth took the Government back to court in 2016.4 The court found the Government’s plans to be inadequate. Ministers were given until 24 April 2017 to draw up a new draft plan.5

Just before the deadline, the Government made an application to delay the publication of the plan until after the May 2017 general election. The High Court ruled that purdah was not a principle of law, and the exceptional circumstances of the threat to public health meant purdah rules could be overridden.6 The Government then published its draft plan on 5 May 2017 with a consultation period which ran until 15 June. The draft plan was criticised for failing to address non-road traffic emission sources, such as buildings and construction activities.

In July 2017 the Government published a final version of the action plan, which has again been criticised for lacking urgency and merely constituting “a plan for further plans”. While the Government set out its intention for the sale of new petrol or diesel engine cars to be banned from 2040, the plan follows previous formats by requiring local authorities to provide plans for Westminster to approve. ClientEarth has not ruled out challenging the new plan.7

Smart cities

Outside of court, the good news is that there are a number of impressive and marketable innovations being deployed globally across the Built Environment sector to address air quality and help make our cities more pleasant places to live and work. We have selected some examples to illustrate the fascinating developments in this space which reflect discussions at the Breathe Easy event.

London’s air quality hub

The New West End Company (NWEC), together with its members, aims to improve air quality and make London’s West End a more enjoyable place to work and visit. Its new business assessment tool shows businesses what steps can be taken to improve air quality, from waste to construction. For example, NWEC advice includes asking architects to design to BREEAM standards and installing ‘green infrastructure’.

NWEC is also teaming up with a number of businesses to pilot an experiment on Bird Street, Mayfair to transform the space into the smartest street in the world by introducing:

  • Pavegen tiles, which turn the kinetic energy produced by visitors’ footsteps into off-grid energy that can either then be stored or used to power nearby electronics instantly. Pavegen tiles have also been installed at Westfield’s Stratford City shopping centre;
  • In partnership with BT, LinkUK kiosks will provide free Wi-Fi and wayfinding services. The kiosks have been successful in New York City, with more than 35 million sessions logged, according to the Estates Gazette;
  • Gas phase advance oxidation units provided and run by Piccadillybased start-up Airlabs, which draw in exhaust fume particles together with other pollutants and expel fresh air; and
  • Street furniture which will be coated with Airlite paint, a substance that reduces air pollutants and bacteria and reduces energy consumption.

Rome and Tokyo: clean concrete

Air-cleaning technology is also being developed in various forms around the world; another example is concrete containing photocatalysts. Photocatalysts mixed with concrete can be used to create self-cleaning structures that absorb and neutralise pollutants. This compound has been used in Richard Meier’s design of the Jubilee Church in Rome, and in paving slabs in Tokyo. It also has potential for use in the future construction of roads.8

European Living Walls, Green Roofs, and CityTrees

Green infrastructure, such as living walls and planted roofs which filter pollutants out of the air, is another example of development-led innovation:

  • Arup and Grosvenor have trialled a living wall scaffolding system, ‘Living Wall Lite’. The temporary wall was designed by Arup and manufactured by Swedish living wall specialist, Green Fortune. It was fitted with sensors to monitor its impact on noise, temperature and air pollution with the aim of reducing localised air pollution by up to 20 per cent and dampening noise pollution by 10 decibels.
  • German start-up, Green City Solutions, has created ‘CityTrees’ by using high efficiency mosses and lichens which are attached to air vents to accelerate the cleansing process.
  • At its Woodberry Down Development, Berkeley Homes in partnership with the Green Roof Consultancy, has provided enhancements for biodiversity and green infrastructure, such as installing green roofs and sustainable drainage systems.

Milan and Nanjing: Vertical Forests and Forest Cities

Milan is home to the Bosco Verticale (‘Vertical Forest’) whose balconies feature over 700 specially cultivated trees, 11,000 plants and 5,000 shrubs. The aim is for the greenery to absorb dust, produce oxygen and absorb CO2.

Stefano Boeri, the architect of the Vertical Forest, has taken his idea to China where in Nanjing two towers are currently under construction. He is also planning a series of ‘Forest Cities’ in China, the first of which will be located in Liuzhou, and a second in Shijiazhuang.

Rotterdam’s “Smog-Free” towers

Air purification is another way in which developers and designers are looking to clean up air in urban environments. Possibly one of the most innovative examples is the “smog-free tower” created by Studio Roosegaarde, a Dutch design company. The tower draws in pollution and expels cleaned air. Some of the extracted pollution is turned into jewellery. The designers claim that one of these towers could clean 3.5 million cubic metres of air per day.

American apps

A number of countries are also experimenting with data collection and apps to monitor air quality. For example, the Environmental Defense Fund and Google Earth Outreach have formed a mobile measurement team to assess air pollution and identify potential contributors to poor air quality in the US. Apps are also being developed to enable user to check air quality. The app aims to help users make decisions about when and where to go outdoors, in a similar way to weather forecasts.

Air fresh future

There is a growing trend towards higher-density urban neighbourhoods with workplaces that are either walkable or within cycling distance. According to the data firm Real Capital Analytics, the price of commercial properties in easily walkable locations shows significantly greater appreciation trends than in car-dependent locations. The value of properties in areas less dependent on cars has risen 125 per cent over the past ten years.9 The data reflects the premium in rents paid by tenants and the increasing demand from investors who recognise the longterm value of walkability.10

Poor air quality can affect our health, wellbeing and quality of life. It is also influencing investment decisions as the issue becomes more high profile and countries, sectors and organisations take action. As the value proposition to make our urban spaces more pleasant places to live and work gains greater momentum, the Built Environment sector is taking a leading role in the deployment of innovative and marketable solutions. There is, however, still much more to be done to breathe easy.

Co-author: Elle Hansen, Trainee Solicitor

1.  House of Commons, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Air quality, Fourth Report of Session 2015–16


2.  Royal College of Physicians, 23rd February 2016 Report, Every breath we take: the lifelong impact of air pollution

3.  Understanding the Health impacts of Air pollution in London, published by King’s College London on 14th July 2015

4.  R. (on the application of ClientEarth) v Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs [2015] UKSC 28; [2015] 4 All E.R. 724

5.  ClientEarth v Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs [2016] EWHC 2740 (Admin)

6.  ClientEarth v Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs [2017] EWHC 1618 (Admin)

7.  “Does the UK plan to tackle air pollution stack up?”, Financial Times 26 July 2017

8.  “The Cool Innovations Improving Urban Air Quality”, Huffington Post, 14 June 2017

9.  Global Outlook, Grosvenor’s research perspective on world real estate markets, May 2017

10.  “Developer takes a linear approach to a project in Miami as walkable locations show increased pricing” Wall Street Journal, 30 June 2015

Ashurst and the Built Environment 

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