Kate Langford, Programme Director, Guy’s and St Thomas’ Charity
Sep 24, 2019
According to the latest data available, over two million people in London live in areas that exceed the legal limits for nitrogen oxides (a pollutant associated with vehicle emissions) and growing evidence links pollutants common in cities to poor health across a person’s life course.
As I take on my new role as Programme Director on the health effects of air pollution, I’ve also been struck to learn that, like many health issues, poor air quality disproportionally affects people living in inner-city areas with high levels of deprivation.
In the next few months of our new programme, we’ll be exploring this issue in London – understanding how air pollution affects people at a local level and looking to others for inspiration and ideas – in an attempt to address one of key environmental factors that drives poor health in cities. It’s an exciting development for our work in urban health.
Since starting my role earlier this month, I’ve noticed that air pollution can often be seen as an inevitable part of living in a major city – as a compromise people make to live in a cosmopolitan, dynamic place. Yet we know from work happening internationally, across London and locally that this does not have to be the case – and that it is a problem that can be, and it is being, addressed.
The Clean Air Fund, which is launching this week, is an international collaboration to tackle air pollution, accelerate decarbonisation and improve health. We’re excited about partnering with the Fund to help us learn with others, and to influence policy change.
Over the last seven years, Paris has applied ‘carrot’ and ‘stick’ policies including a low emission zone, investment in cycling infrastructure and windscreen stickers that indicate how polluting vehicles are. Shenzhen in China was one of the first major cities to roll out an entirely electric bus fleet. Barcelona has created ‘superblocks’ – areas where vehicle speeds are restricted, and priority is given to walking and cycling – which are expected to prevent around 700 premature deaths a year.
Closer to home, there’s lots that we can learn from other London boroughs too. Hackney, in east London, is leading one of the largest pilots of School Streets – where roads near schools are closed at the start and end of the day to encourage children and parents to walk to and from school. Meanwhile, Walthamstow in the north east of the capital, has invested £30 million to pedestrianise main roads and in cycling infrastructure to create a “mini-Holland" that encourages walking and cycling.
We are also excited by the energy for change in our boroughs of Lambeth and Southwark. Mums for Lungs is a campaigning group set up by parents in Lambeth to campaign for improvements in air quality. Only last week, I visited Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust’s new centre on the outskirts of London which will consolidate 90% of their 36,000 truck deliveries currently going to their two inner-city hospitals.
We think there’s an exciting opportunity to learn from those taking action, and to work with others to make Lambeth and Southwark, and London, an international exemplar for how you address the health effects of air pollution in an urban environment.
London has both strong political leadership and an established infrastructure to monitor air quality. The Mayor’s ambition is for London to have the best air quality of any major city around the world by 2050, and from 2021 the Ultra-Low Emission Zone will cover most of the capital. The London Air Quality Network has been monitoring air quality since 1993 and Breathe London is testing low-cost sensors that can provide hyperlocal air pollution data.
We think that the conditions are right for partners across London to come together and act. However, we know that this won’t be easy – there’s still a lot we need to learn about the hyperlocal patterns of air pollution, how poor air quality interacts with other risk factors and what can be done about it. We also know very little about how people practically interact with and move about the place they live, and ways in which this can be influenced to reduce exposure to air pollution. That’s why we are approaching our programme to address poor air quality as an innovation challenge – where we will rapidly test and learn by doing.
Over the next few months we’ll be learning from research projects to inform where we focus our energy over the coming years. The findings will help us to understand how people living in diverse, inner-city areas like Lambeth and Southwark experience and are affected by air pollution and what interventions could be most effective. We’ll be sharing the insights from this research in early 2020.
We’re keen to talk to organisations and people who we can learn from and work with. If you’re working to tackle this issue in another urban area, are developing and testing new interventions or live in our boroughs and would like to get involved, get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Programme Director: Kate Langford
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