Simon Birkett is on a mission to reduce the toxic levels of air pollution in his beloved London. A former HSBC banker, Simon was inspired to take on the cause full-time after his early retirement in 2009. You could say that he loves his city too much to give up on it.
“I had one vision,” he says. “To make my neighbourhood an exemplar for healthy air in London.” Beyond his immediate neighbourhood of Knightsbridge, he hopes to get all of London to fully comply with the World Health Organization’s air quality guidelines.
“That is still the mission,” he says. “But now I have a bigger vision: London and the rest of the world.”
One day in 2015, eight years after he had started his Clean Air in London campaign, Simon was invited to join the steering group for the UN’s Global Environment Outlook (GEO) process – a series of expert meetings that result in reports to inform the UN’s work to protect the environment. He was hooked by the discussions and engagement with environment experts from a variety of disciplines and geographies, all with one goal – a more sustainable future for the planet.
Around the same time, Simon was setting up the Knightsbridge Neighbourhood Forum, which had the opportunity to produce the first neighbourhood plan in central London under new legislation. A major challenge in that work, Simon says, is that the vitally important climate targets set for 2030 or 2050 seemed “unreal and unrealistic”. What he sought, and found in September 2015, were concrete targets and a framework around which he could organize the local plan: the newly agreed UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Some have called the Knightsbridge neighbourhood plan ambitious. But, he says, “it is achievable. We had five themes, ten objectives and 42 policies. And every single policy can contribute to one or more of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals.”
He had made the connection, he said, between the lofty global goals agreed to by every nation on the planet, and the meaningful impact of these goals at the local level.
“I never would have thought of the SDGs unless I had been involved in the GEO process. Through this, I have learned a lot. Now things all fit together to achieve meaningful outcomes.”
Simon says he is now a true believer in the SDGs, especially at the city level. “We need to get people working towards them, as well as getting the data. We need people signed up.”
Simon says he will not rest until he has achieved his objective: turning London into one of the world’s cleanest and most innovative sustainable cities. Lobbying the British Parliament, the Mayor’s Office, the European Union and the World Health Organization have all been part of that strategy.
At a briefing session over breakfast with London’s deputy mayor on environment and energy, Simon said, the deputy mayor asked if there were any questions. He saw his opportunity.
“Have the Sustainable Development Goals been embedded in the mayor’s plan?” he asked. There was silence. Simon smiled at the memory.
“The deputy mayor said, ‘Can you do that?’” And I said, “‘Hey, we’ve done it in a neighbourhood plan. You can do it in the London Plan!’”
Simon expects the alignment of the final London plan to the SDGs “to cause massive change. This could have a seismic effect… all European cities will want to keep up with London.”
Simon wants London to develop a model that can inspire New York, São Paolo, Bangkok, Shanghai, Johannesburg, and Nairobi – as well as other cities in Europe. He says Mayor Sadiq Khan and the Deputy Mayor will lead the way.
Having a global framework with the SDGs allowed him to speak a global language. But he insists that the real work has to be happen at the neighbourhood and city level. GEO6 is already articulating the need for urgent, sustainable and equitable action.
“You have to combine political leadership with technology and lifestyle changes,” he says. “Then, you can crack this problem.” Meanwhile, in his spare time, Birkett has drafted the legalisation for a new ‘Clean Air Act’ that would make clean air a human right in the United Kingdom.
The living air purifiers cities need more of
In our all-too-hectic urban lives, a city park is a great place to unwind. Trees and green spaces have mental health and well-being benefits, on top of being great for relaxation and recreation.
Trees also help reduce air pollution. According to the study Tree and forest effects on air quality and human health in the United States, particulate matter, which is particularly damaging to lungs, is retained on tree surfaces, while leaves act as filters, absorbing polluting gases.
But the study also warns that while trees can mitigate the effect of air pollution, deposits of air pollutants on leaves can also affect photosynthesis “and therefore potentially affect pollution removal by trees”. As with everything, balance is key.
The cooling effect of trees
Trees can also significantly cool temperatures in cities. In hot climates, tree cover can reduce energy expenditure on air conditioning, while driving down the consumption of air polluting fossil fuels that power these cooling systems. Experimental investigations and modelling studies in the United States have shown that shade from trees can reduce the air conditioning costs of detached houses by 20–30 per cent.
“Trees could reduce temperatures in cities up to 8°C, lowering use of air conditioning and related emissions by up to 40 per cent,” says Simone Borelli, an Agroforestry and Urban/Periurban Forestry Officer with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
“When part of a wider landscape mosaic, large green patches within and around cities would also reduce emissions through avoided sprawl and excess mobility requirements,” he adds.
Urban tree-planting has to be done right. Species planted should be ones that are most effective at trapping pollution, typically those with large leaves. Officials also need to account for things like wind patterns and tree spacing. If water is scarce, they’ll want to consider drought-tolerant varieties, and avoid trees that increase pollen and allergies.
Action is all the more important given that urbanization is accelerating—the proportion of people living in cities will be 60 per cent in 2030 and 66 per cent in 2050. Nearly 90 per cent of this increase will occur in Africa and Asia. To address the impacts of this rapid growth and the related challenges, a large-scale effort is needed.
Building the Great Green Wall of Cities
Nearly 8,000 km long and 15 km wide, the Great Green Wall is an African-led movement of epic proportions initiated in 2007 to green the entire width of northern Africa, a semi-arid region extending from Senegal to Djibouti. A decade in and roughly 15 per cent under way, the initiative is slowly bringing life back to some of Africa’s degraded landscapes, providing food security, jobs and a reason to stay for the millions who live along its path.
An initiative of this nature in urban areas is being developed by the Food and Agriculture Organization and other partners in preparation for the UN Climate Summit in September 2019. It aims to create up to 500,000 hectares of new urban forests and restore or maintain up to 300,000 ha of existing natural forests in and around 90 cities of the Sahel and Central Asia by 2030. Once established, this “Great Green Wall of Cities” would capture 0.5–5 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide per year and stock carbon for centuries.
On 1 March 2019 the UN General Assembly established the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021-2030, which should give further impetus to tree-planting efforts.
“UN Environment promotes the planting of trees as a key way to mitigate climate change and boost land-based biodiversity, 80 per cent of which is in forests,” says Tim Christophersen, head of UN Environment’s Freshwater, Land and Climate Branch, and Chair of the Global Partnership on Forest and Landscape Restoration. “We are working with partners across the planet to boost tree planting for ecosystem restoration. There is scope for planting one trillion more trees, in addition to the 3 trillion that already exist on Earth. But it has to be done right; planting indigenous trees, supported by local communities, is a good way to go.”
Let the stones gather some moss
In those forest ecosystems, trees are not alone in cleaning the air. An ambitious project by Greencity Solutions in Berlin, Germany, seeks to marry high-tech applications with another natural air purifier: moss.
“The ability of certain moss cultures to filter pollutants such as particulate matter and nitrogen oxides from the air makes them ideal natural air purifiers,” says Greencity Solutions.
“But in cities, where air purification is a great challenge, mosses are barely able to survive due to their need for water and shade. This problem can be solved by connecting different mosses with fully automated water and nutrient provision based on unique Internet of things technology,” it explains.
Or by planting more trees that will provide the cover and humidity, that will help moss take hold and grow.
New study expected to chart Melaka’s pathway to urban sustainability
Within the framework of the ‘Sustainable City Development in Malaysia’ project, which seeks to address the country’s urban challenges and which is being implemented by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), executed by the Malaysian Industry-Government Group for High Technology (MIGHT), and supported by the Global Environment Facility (GEF), the ‘Melaka Sustainability Outlook Diagnostic: Pathway to Urban Sustainability’ was launched today. The report is the result of an assessment performed by the World Bank’s Global Platform for Sustainable Cities (GPSC) in which Melaka actively participates. The study will inform the Melaka State’s Structure Plan and its long-term planning document; it will also offer key recommendations for the State to chart its own pathway to urban sustainability.
The diagnostic consists of an overview report containing a policy brief, an executive summary and a benchmark assessment as well as six supporting reports that cover each of the diagnostic’s dimensions, namely Reinforcing Melaka’s Economic Success; Integrating Environmental Plans; Enhancing Housing and Services; Shaping a Compact, Efficient, and Harmonious Urban Form; Shifting Melaka’s Mobility Modal Split; and Demonstrating Fiscal Sustainability.
One of the report’s recommendations calls for the State and the City of Melaka to obtain a credit rating; accordingly, both entities already agreed to undergo a formal rating assessment with UNIDO’s support. Depending on the assessment’ result, they could tap capital markets to finance future infrastructure projects. Moreover, another recommendation calls for the City of Melaka to complete a climate-smart capital investment plan for which the city indicated its willingness, with UNIDO coordinating local and national inputs to raise funds.
Being one of most urbanized countries in Asia, 75 percent of Malaysians reside in urban areas and over 90 percent of the national economic activities are conducted in cities. Rapid urbanization has created tremendous economic opportunities for the country, but has also put enormous pressure on its urban infrastructure and services.
Make Dhaka Walkable
When it comes to urban mobility, Global South cities suffer significant challenges such as lack of transport equity and poor accessibility for the urban poor. On the March of 25-28, 2019, the Share the Road Programme (a partnership between UN Environment and FIA Foundation) participated in a workshop dubbed ‘make Dhaka walkable’ held in Dhaka, Bangladesh, organized by the Sustainable Transport Equity Partnerships (STEPS) – a global alliance of researchers and practitioners including the Walk21 Foundation, UN Environment and the University of Leeds. The organizations are committed to identifying the essential steps decision makers and multi-disciplinary teams of experts must collectively take to meet the needs of people walking. STEPS aims to promote urban transport systems that can meet the travel needs of low income, city populations in the Global South.
Despite walking making up to 75% of all journeys, the conditions in which people walk in Dhaka are often unsafe and unpleasant. In order to highlight the needs of pedestrians in Dhaka, the meeting brought together engineers, planners, civil rights activists, NGOs, social scientists and many more for a real interdisciplinary perspective of the transferability of global walkability practices.
The opening workshop included representatives from Dhaka Transport Coordination Authority (DTCA), Road Transport and Highways Division, Ministry of Road Transport and Bridges, University of Asia Pacific and others to help push the local walking agenda forward.
One of the gaps identified through the STEPS programme is the severe inadequacies of non-motorized transport in transport policy in the Global South. The Share the Road programme shared knowledge on the experience of non-motorized transport in Nairobi -the small initiatives needed to make big differences, the need to have NMT users included in the planning of road construction projects, and the importance of securing a percentage in transport budgets. The vital and economic aspects of walkability projects cannot be ignored.
Having discussed the ‘eight steps to walkable Dhaka’ facilitated by Walk21, the workshop was brought to a close by Professor Jamilur Choudhury from University of Asia Pacific who gave some personal reflections on the development of transport policy and walking in the city, and stated his commitment to moving the walkability agenda forward locally.
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