Making cities more breathable


This year, the European Commission’s Green Week, the biggest annual event on environment in Europe, is all about greening our cities. From 21 to 25 May, it explores ways in which the EU is helping cities to become better places to live and work, showcasing policy developments on air quality, noise, nature and biodiversity, water and waste management. Find out more and be part of #EUGreenWeek 2018.

Many cities in Europe are struggling to ensure clean air for their citizens. Air pollution causes more than 400 000 premature deaths each year in the EU. In dry Mediterranean cities, the lack of wind and rain means that potentially harmful dust and particles accumulate on the streets.

Dust sediments on dry surfaces can account for up to 20% of air pollution in some Mediterranean cities. The problem is just not present in other parts of Europe.

Xavier Querol, Spanish Research Council

The EU is standing up for Europeans' right to breathe clean air. In addition to providing practical help to Member States to improve air quality in Europe, it has earmarked even more funds to go to clean air projects in the new long-term budget. 

AIRUSE, a Spanish-led project supported by the EU LIFE programme for the environment, analysed air pollution in five cities in southern Europe and developed tailored solutions to improve air quality in Mediterranean cities. Some measures include scrubbing streets, modernising fireplaces and streamlining factories.

Hot and dusty down south

“Barcelona can sometimes go 15 days without rain. That’s good for tourism, but bad for pollution,” said Xavier Querol from the Spanish Research Council in Barcelona, Spain. “Dust sediments on dry surfaces can account for up to 20% of air pollution in some Mediterranean cities. The problem is just not present in other parts of Europe.”

As part of AIRUSE project, Mr Querol has worked alongside fellow scientists in Milan, Athens, Porto and Florence to track sources of air pollution and field test ways of dealing with them. Over the course of a year, each city sampled lethal forms of particulate matter every three days, and analysed them to identify their origin.

“Most of the particulate matter that we observed came from traffic,” said Mr Querol. “This includes emissions from exhaust pipes, but also particles released from brake pads and tarmac.”

The study also revealed important differences between cities. African dust storms accounted for most days of pollution in Athens. Wood fireplaces markedly reduced air quality in Florence, Porto and Milan, whereas Barcelona suffered most from industrial emissions.

Testing tailored solutions

To scrutinise the effectiveness of new air quality measures scientifically, AIRUSE segmented kilometre-long stretches of streets in each city, treating one half and leaving the other untouched. They found that sweeping streets during dry spells and rinsing them with waste water could boost urban air quality significantly.

Further studies highlighted measures that can be taken by peri-urban factories to reduce their emissions. AIRUSE also reviewed the impact of congestion charges and low emission zones on traffic emissions, and demonstrated the environmental benefits of modernising domestic heating systems.

The AIRUSE report is now helping municipalities across the Mediterranean raise their environmental standards. The region of Lombardy in Italy has incorporated its findings into its air quality plan. Milan has introduced a congestion charge to reduce car numbers by 20%. Washing streets and low emission zones are becoming the norm in Barcelona and Madrid.

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