This week marks the 15th anniversary of the London Congestion Charge, the revolutionary initiative to reduce traffic and cut air pollution in the capital.
On top of the standard congestion charge, high-exhaust vehicles are now penalised extra for entering the low-emission zone under the T-Charge scheme, to be replaced by the Ultra Low Emission Zone in 2019. This will be expanded out to the North and South Circular roads in 2021.
But despite all efforts, both congestion and air pollution in the capital are still excessively high. Traffic analytics firm INRIX recently revealed that London is Europe’s second most congested city after Moscow, reporting that drivers in the capital spend an average of 74 hours per year in gridlock – up one hour on 2016.
The poster-child of polluted London, Brixton Road reached its annual legal limit for toxic nitrogen dioxide just one month into 2018. This is actually an improvement on previous years, when the busy south London thoroughfare crossed the red line even earlier in January.
Of course, London is not the only city blighted by poor air quality. In December 2016, Paris made all public transport free while the city experienced its worst air pollution crisis in a decade, and rolled out a system banning cars from the city on certain days depending on whether they had odd or even number plates.
The outlook is equally hazy in parts of Asia. In its annual ‘No List’, travel publisher Fodor’s actually advised visitors to avoid Beijing because of its high pollution levels, and in November last year United Airlines was forced to cancel flights into New Delhi due to an extreme smog alert.
Shortly after, the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (ASSOCHAM) reported that travel agents are experiencing an acute rise in cancellation and postponement requests due to pollution alerts in India’s capital.
So as a breath of fresh air, here is a look at some of the cities and environmental tech companies working to reduce air pollution, paving the way for low-pollution city breaks in the future.
1. The Chinese forest city that will ‘eat smog’
The architect behind Milan and Lausanne’s Vertical Forests has unveiled designs for a Forest City near Liuzhou in China.
The ambitious plan from Stefano Boeri Architetti features towers entirely covered in foliage to reduce air pollution, and will have some 40,000 trees and one million plants adorning the balconies and roofs of skyscrapers along the Liu River.
The densely-packed greenery throughout Liuzhou Forest City will help to depollute the air by absorbing carbon dioxide, filtering dust particles and producing oxygen. The new settlement will accommodate 30,000 people, with two schools and a hospital, plus hotels, with work due to commence in the next couple of years.
2. The giant air purifier that turns smog into jewellery
The ambitious social design lab Studio Roosegaarde is behind the Smog Free Project. In 2015, they opened the world’s first Smog Free Tower in Rotterdam.
The seven-metre high tower works a bit like a vacuum cleaner, sucking in polluted air, using ion technology to filter it, and then expelling bubbles of cleaner air through the tower’s vents. The dehumidifier-like tower has toured the world and will be unveiled this week in Park Jordana in Krakow.
Daan Roosegaarde, the man behind the project, has also found a way to create ‘Smog Free Rings’ made up of compressed smog particles collected by the tower. It doesn’t get much more romantic than that.
3. Anti-pollution bus stops in London
Last year, London-based environmental tech firm Airlabs teamed up with the Body Shop to open a series of anti-pollution bus stops on New Oxford Street, Tottenham Court Road and High Holborn.
The smart bus stop traps harmful pollutants via a filtration system, and is said to create 95 percent cleaner air in the central spots where Londoners are most vulnerable to toxic air pollution.
The same company has developed a ‘clean-air bench’, and a product called Airbubbl to remove pollution from inside cars.
4. The cities going car-free
There are some cities around the world tackling congestion and poor air quality head on – by removing cars from their central areas entirely.
In the late Nineties, the Belgian city of Ghent unveiled an 86-acre, car-free city centre, with focus turning to cycling infrastructure and public transporatation.
In 2016 a number of cities including Paris, Madrid, Athens and Mexico City pledged to remove diesel cars and vans from their streets by 2025. Taking it one step further, Copenhagen and Helsinki city councils are both working to become carbon-neutral by 2025.
5. The cities planting artificial, moss-covered trees
Planting new trees is not always a possibility in cities that have been given a concrete skin – this is where the CityTree comes in.
The mobile, moss-covered CityTree has been erected in cities around the world including Berlin, Paris, Brussels and Hong Kong.
Berlin-based Green City Solutions designed the moss culture CityTree, and claim that it has the air-cleansing benefit of 275 actual trees, removing dust, nitrogen dioxide and ozone from the air.