Air quality

Putting people at the heart of environmental change.

We can’t calculate our way out of environmental disaster. Numbers matter, but more than that, it’s the people who cause the figures to rise or fall that will lead the way. A Europe-wide initiative proves as much, with thousands of citizens having their say and acting on it.

“We’ve become too obsessed with the numbers and we’ve forgotten about the fact that it’s about protecting people,” says Professor Enda Hayes, Professor of Air Quality and Carbon Management and Director of UWE Bristol’s Air Quality Management Resource Centre (AQMRC), and Technical Director of ClairCity.

Traffic jam in the middle of a city.

Thinking differently about pollution

He refers to the predominant approach to tackling the world’s air pollution crisis, which is linked to seven million premature deaths each year. “We need to think differently about the way we manage pollution, how we monitor it and how we create interventions that can maximise the public health outcome.”

The answer, as evidenced by the Centre’s work, lies in bottom-up democracy – enabling citizens to be part of the conversation.

"People are realising that technology alone will not resolve the problem, we need societal change where we collectively do things differently. It will take time, but we will get there."

Professor Enda Hayes, Professor of Air Quality and Carbon Management and Director of UWE Bristol’s Air Quality Management Resource Centre (AQMRC)

Professor Enda Hayes Professor of Air Quality and Carbon Management and Director of UWE Bristol’s Air Quality Management Resource Centre (AQMRC)

Citizen science

One of the greatest challenges – and most pressing needs – is engaging with hard-to-reach communities, who are often the most adversely affected by poor air quality.

Enter ClairCity, a four-year project led by UWE Bristol in partnership with ten research organisations and six cities/regions across Europe: Bristol, Amsterdam, Slovenia, Portugal, Poland and Italy. Since 2016, this EU-funded initiative has connected with 10,000 people to gauge opinion and mobilise support around improving the environmental and societal landscape.

From educational resources to a gaming app that gives people the hypothetical power and responsibility to implement citywide solutions, ClairCity has shown what can be achieved through collaboration. The Skylines app alone prompted 80% of participants to say they felt inspired to make different choices to ensure a future with clean air and lower carbon emissions.

“It’s about working with people to identify how they want their future city to be, understand the barriers they face and what enabling mechanisms a local authority can put in place so that greener choices become the social norm for everybody,” says Enda, Technical Director of ClairCity.

People-centred approach 

It’s an approach that has been emulated in a subsequent EU project, WeCount, where local communities in cities like Cardiff are using low-cost sensors to help monitor urban traffic. The resulting data will feed into air pollution models, tracked against cost analyses and emissions data, and presented to the local authorities to inform policy.

The Centre’s people-centred, public health and social equity oriented approach is gaining widespread recognition among policymakers, thanks to collaborations with notable bodies like Public Health Wales and the European Environment Agency. Its research is also referenced in the UK’s latest Clean Air Strategy (2019), WHO Health Inequalities Report (2019) and the Welsh Government/Public Health Wales Air Pollution, Risks and Inequalities Report (2018).