Monday, 10 October 2016

Stefanie Stead - Never mind the bollards…

It was in horror that we watched last year’s events unfold in Paris. Places of apparent safety - a restaurant, a music venue - became unsafe; a city violated. We may think that the impact of a troublesome political climate is a relatively new thing, that it is really only now that we feel unsafe, insecure, paranoid even, whilst going about our daily business. Yet is this really the case? Medieval Britons would think twice before venturing far without being armed to the teeth. Georgian homeowners would literally nail themselves within their property. It is the threats - and perceived threats - that have changed.

And we are not just referring to the impact of contemporary terrorism on our built environment - it is also about safety. Creating places that feel safe at all times of the day is crucial to the success of a neighbourhood, resulting in reduced crime and increased business. It can attract investment, people and culture. Indeed a little anarchy can be a good thing for an area, cultivating alternative thinking, artistic endeavours and literary inspiration. A counter-culture can be good for business - just look at New York’s Meat Packing district or Brixton. Unfortunately safe places = terrorist targets. Boston, for example, is consistently voted as being one of the safest cities in the US, although this illusion was shattered during the Boston Marathon, giving rise to the question as to whether a balance can be struck between ‘safety’ and ‘security’. It would seem this shift in the balance is only temporary. Cities are amazingly resilient - largely due to its people who rebelliously will not hide, but also the buildings, infrastructure and public spaces that continue to endure.

Many of our cities developed because of their defensive position. Whether a small city like York or a metropolis like London, the very existence of these conurbations is due to their foundations as fortifications. The quaintness of Yorkshire market towns like Richmond or Knaresborough belie the once strategic importance of their associated castles, but these fortifications influenced how our cities developed and in turn shaped our society, becoming places of safety in turbulent times. How things have changed. From the blitz, the threat of nuclear war and alternative tactics from terrorist organisations have made these urban areas look less like refuges and more like targets. How has modern day urban planning responded to these new challenges and is there a way that we can learn from past defensive design to bring sanctuary back to the city?

There is a great deal of research on how the creation of spaces that give residents and users a feeling of sanctuary, reducing crime and anti-social behaviour. However it would seem that this theory is taken to the extreme; that rather than creating urban design that engages people, some local authorities and developers are keen to ‘design out’ certain activities, and ipso facto, certain people. Whether it is the anti-loitering "Mosquito" device, anti-skateboarding studs or benches that prevent any other use other than the act of sitting, urban spaces are becoming less about inclusive design and more about defending our cities from the homeless, ‘anti-social’ youths and feral pigeons. What are the consequences of such design? How can we design urban spaces that are all embracing to the wider society in which we live, yet remain safe and welcoming?

Is the Internet of Things possibly the future of the industry, and the development of the concept of intelligent buildings is leading to significant shifts in the way buildings are designed, operated and used. From the designers, constructors and users, everyone stands to benefit from the optimisation of space, energy efficiency and connectivity, whether a workplace or home, changing demographics come with increasing user expectations of modern and flexible space design, improved comfort, productivity, and pervasive connectivity. Sounds great, but the downside is that the greater the reliance on digital technology, the greater the chance of the building - or elements of - being hacked. Can terrorists turn out the lights out of a city, can a burglar hack into your security alarm, can your kettle turn against you? Is this the future or will there be a revolution against the digital age?

Maybe the armed forces can help solve some of the challenges. The armed forces have incredible skills in design and engineering; skills used to overcome some extraordinary circumstances in places of extreme danger. These skills, developed in response to defending security, can be used to overcome peacetime problems. Whether in the aftermath of earthquakes or, as the Boxing Day floods demonstrated, the army’s skills in design were indispensable in keeping communities together and society functioning. However, can these skills be used for more than emergency situations, when all other options have failed? Are there innovative solutions that the industry can use as a matter of course?

I realise that I have introduced more questions than answers, but that, I think, is because there is no single answer in creating safe and welcoming spaces. Indeed it is questioning what has been done and how we can work together in the future that is the basis of the Construction Industry Council’s sixth annual Yorkshire & Humber conference.

The aim of this day is to explore the ways in which our built environment has developed and continues to develop strategies that respond to safety and security risks, and questions how we, as construction professionals, can work together to create safe yet welcoming spaces. What this conference is not about is bomb blast bollards, barriers and anti-parking paving, but rather an interrogation of new threats, what we can learn from past threats and what we can do to defend the future.

For further information on the conference please click here.

Stefanie Stead chairs CIC's Yorkshire and Humber regional committee and is an Architect at Pearce Bottomley Architects in Leeds.

This blog was first published on the CIC blog in September 2016, and was reproduced here with their permission.

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Jason Fitzsimmons: Resilient people - designing buildings for a healthy nation

Resilience to climate change in the built environment covers many areas.  Buildings can be designed to protect us from the elements and with security of water supply.  There is no need for them to overheat with the modelling tools and data available today.  Good thermal design is well understood, (if not always practiced), water can be saved with low flow rate design and  optimum drainage strategies can be implemented to reduce flooding. 

What about the people for whom these buildings are being designed?  Designing to enable resilience in people can also be part of the design process; this is about designing buildings beyond comfort from a physics perspective and looking at it also from a biological and health perspective.  A healthier individual is one who is more resilient and adaptable to climatic changes.

What should be considered that affects the health of an individual? Social isolation and exclusion, designing community cohesion, air quality, chemicals, electromagnetic radiation (EMR), noise, fuel poverty, shared green space, and permaculture design are a few areas considered below. 

Torrington Blue Coats School  designed in accordance with Building Biology (BBA) principles

Social isolation is an important issue today.  It is well known in health circles that together with a healthy and active lifestyle people who are part of a local community live healthier and longer lives.   
During the 2003 European Heatwave more than 40,000 people died with almost 15,000 deaths in France alone.  Lessons can be learnt from this.  In Paris the majority of victims of overheating were those who were elderly, living alone in the roof spaces of high rise ageing and poorly insulated apartments.  
The office for national statistics in the UK found that in 2011 there were over 7 million people living alone and almost 60% of people aged over 85 were living alone. Social isolation of vulnerable people is a key issue.  In Paris the key factors that contributed to the deaths of so many were exasperated by the fact that heat wave occurred during the months of August during the holidays, where less were people checking on the elderly.  Together with social isolation the build up of heat stress in a poorly insulated fabric went unchecked.  In a society that is increasingly isolating itself, designs need to do more to counter this.
Work by JRF has also found similar issues.

An example of a shared permaculture garden space

It’s important that with the design emphasis on building physics and climate change that other important design considerations do not get forgotten such as construction material selection.  Many modern building materials and insulants which save energy often contain inherent chemical, physiological and biological risks, made with chemicals that can ‘off-gas’ into the internal environment for many years.  Buildings are being made increasingly air tight and rely on occupants opening trickle ventilators.  This coupled with the fact that more and more time is being spent indoors that leads to exposure times that even low concentrations of harmful agents could affect health in the long term and cause chronic diseases.  It is even more important therefore  that any construction materials used are as natural and healthy to the individual as possible. 

Wood fibre insulation (Mike Wye)

Another area for concern is electromagnetic radiation (EMR) from low frequency electric and magnetic fields from electrical circuits to high frequency radiation from mobile phones and broadband.  The World Health Organisation (WHO) and various worldwide health studies have identified that certain exposure levels to EMR can lead to migraines, nausea, dizziness, fatigue and can even be carcinogenic.  Nevertheless, we continue to fill our buildings with levels of EMR that exceed levels recommended by the WHO and without consideration to their possible side effects.   With the ever increasing  inclusion of Wi-Fi in so many of our consumer goods, such as Wi-Fi in light bulbs, smart meters, Wi-Fi in fridges telling you when to buy cheese etc., we are becoming further tied into the need for continuous high frequency radiation without stopping to think about the health effects.   

Bedroom designed along BBA principles – natural construction materials and no EMR in bedrooms
A particularly vulnerable area in the home is the bedroom.  Studies on the levels of EMR in the bedroom carried out by Gale & Snowden Architects have found cables running beneath beds, telephones and radios on bedside tables within 1 meter of an occupants head all emitting EMR way beyond any safe acceptable exposure limits.  Ideally the bedroom should be a sanctuary, free of EMRs, chemicals and with optimal comfort levels to enable us to sleep soundly allowing our bodies and minds to regenerate.
It is summed up clearly by the BBA
“At the heart of Building Biology lies the notion that nature is the golden principle to which we should be designing our buildings, so that for instance, electromagnetic radiation levels and air and water quality should match nature as closely as possible.”
What can be done to address social isolation and make buildings healthier?   One of our recent projects was a care home; at the heart of this design we designed a community building/café surrounded by a courtyard and permaculture planted garden.  The care home was curved inward with every flat looking into the garden and community space.   Fuel poverty was addressed through a highly insulated envelope following Passivhaus principles. Good air quality was designed in, chemicals and EMR were designed out through the careful selection of natural materials and by following the principles as laid out by the BBA which was set up to address health in building designs.  The designs were also thermally modelled into 2080 weather scenarios to design in resilience and adaptability.   The permaculture garden not only created a space to cool down but also a space to socialise. This case study featured in the recent CIBSE TM55 Design for Future Climate: Case Studies 2014.   

The same design principles are used when designing social housing for Local Authorities as well as commercial buildings such as offices and leisure buildings.

50 apartment care home project with shared permaculture garden and community centre designed to Passivhaus and Building Biology Standards

The existing building stock is another area for concern.  As designers of super insulated and healthy buildings we were saddened to read in this BBC news article that more than 1 million families in the UK cannot afford to heat their poorly insulated homes, and are living in squalid, damp, cold and mouldy conditions. Given that in 2000 Parliament aimed to end fuel poverty by 2016, it is clear that there is still a long way to go.  

An example of unsatisfactory standards of living - photo from

A healthy home that is comfortable in both summer and winter should be a fundamental right of any family. This is more than simply providing shelter from the elements; the standard of housing has to be adequate for the health and well-being of the individual. It is well known by medical professions that damp and mouldy conditions affect the immune system, often resulting in respiratory infections, allergies, and asthma; these are not thriving conditions for growing families, and the mental stress associated with these conditions should not be underestimated.

Barberry Close Passivhaus social housing scheme designed in accordance with Building Biology principles
Designing buildings to be resilient is not just about building physics and overheating; it can and should also provide comfortable, healthy conditions in which people can thrive and in which they will then be resilient to future climatic changes.  By putting the resilience of the individual at the forefront of the design process the resilience of the building will fall into place.     

Jason Fitzsimmons is an Associate at Gale & Snowden Architects and has a background in building physics, renewable energy engineering, healthy building design and is a climate change adaptation consultant.  Jason has carried out extensive research work and has been published several times in areas such as natural ventilation, overheating and climate change adaptation   Jason also runs a building troubleshooting and testing department within the practice using a wide range of test equipment.  

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Briony Turner – When it’s not good for the built environment sector to feature in the top three…

Hot off the press, the Committee on Climate Change has just published an independent Evidence Report, titled “UK Climate Change Risk Assessment 2017” setting out the latest evidence on the risks and opportunities to the UK from climate change and providing a localised breakdown for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The top 6 priorities identified for urgent action over the next five years are:

The built environment is closely linked with the top three of these six immediate priority areas. The risks presented are not just physical but also cover impact on public health and well-being.

The background is that every five years the Government must publish a UK-wide Climate Change Risk Assessment setting out the risks from current and predicted impacts of climate change on the UK.  This latest synthesis report identifies 56 urgency categories of risks and opportunities for the UK that climate change presents. 

Let’s start with the weather…

The good news is that those beavering away at the Met Office on the projections appear to be spot on with their predictions. The expectation of milder winters and hotter summers for the UK have increased in line with global observations, sea levels have risen by 15-20cm since 1900 and the recent episodes of severe and sustained rainfall are consistent with our climate change projections.  The not so great news is that if the projections are correct, then our cities, particularly the built environment which is not currently required by law or standard to take account of and adapt to climate change, are woefully under-prepared.

Key climate change risks requiring urgent action identified by the CCRA

The top three priorities for action, flooding, overheating and water supply are risks we are already experiencing manifestations of now.  At the CCRA launch event Lord Krebs specifically identified concerns about the number of buildings and key infrastructure still being built in high flood risk areas and also the risks presented to health and well-being from overheating of buildings.  These risks are brought together with current and future socioeconomic trends in the technical chapter 5 focused on “People and the built environmentwhich should be compulsory reading for every built environment professional.

The chapter covers the opportunities from warmer weather, urban air quality, overheating in buildings, water supply, flood and coastal risk, moisture risks from flooding, risks posed by high winds, structural stability, historic and listed structures and gardens, infectious diseases and pests, population health and health protection. The message is clear, we cannot continue to build and plan our cities without regard for their impact on the components that underpin basic human needs, particularly adequate shelter, food and water.

Another key risk identified is that to natural capital.  This includes soils which literally underpin cities. It is easy to forget about the valuable infrastructure lying beneath the ground.   For the built environment community, contaminated land, how it has been treated and how it responds to a changing climate is vital knowledge.  The ARCC network hosted an event with CIRIA last summer and discovered that whilst flood risk was a consideration in contaminated land assessment, there are still some knowledge gaps in terms of the complex relationship between climate change, soil moisture, groundwater and contaminant mobilisation.

We have plenty of knowledge about what interventions need to be carried out to our homes and cities to make them more resilient from the EPSRC funded ARCC network of flooding, overheating and smart adapting cities, the former Zero Carbon Hub’s overheating work programme, the Flooding& Coastal Erosion Risk Management network, the Innovate UK Design for Future Climate competition, the BRE Resilience Centre research programme, the London Climate Change Partnership and JRF’s Climate Just facility to name but a few of the many resources freely available.

Should we be planning for a 4ºC world?

In the Q&A after the launch, it was suggested that planning and built environment decisions should be considering a high emissions scenario with global temperatures rising by 4ºC (great map for world from Met Office here), meanwhile still working internationally with partners under the Paris Agreement (which resulted from COP21 back in December) to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in order to prevent global average temperature rise from breaching a 2ºC  rise on pre-industrial levels. When it is not just capital investment, but human lives at stake, there’s something to be said for taking a lead from our emergency services colleagues: plan for the worst, hope for the best.

Our built environment is fundamental in determining the risk magnitude not just of the top three risks identified in the CCRA, but of those for many other sectors, particularly health and social care.  We, as a collective of professionals and citizens, have the ability to affect which way the magnitude dial swings between now and the next risk assessment exercise.  Whilst we could continue Business as Usual and intensify many of these risks, the extensive membership of cross-sector groups like this CIBSE Resilient Cities group indicates a professional appetite for tackling the challenges presented head on and building to take advantage of the opportunities too.

Being leaders rather than laggards could have commercial advantage

The UK is in prime position to lead on deploying the adaptive pathways and adaptive management techniques needed for improving the resilience of cities. We have the understanding of how our changing climate might impact not just on sectors, but also the inter-dependencies between them.  There's some excellent work that could underpin this by UCL who are working on the HEW project for inter-dependencies between housing, energy and well-being and by the Infrastructure Transitions Research Consortium regarding infrastructure inter-dependencies. 
Adaptive pathways and adaptive management approaches allow for an agreed approach to coordinate activity, achieving adaptation through sequencing and structured approaches. They work at policy levels but also at organisation levels, as a way to work with existing working cycles, for instance existing refurbishment and maintenance plans.  There will be also an increasing driver from investors to at least understand, if not adapt to reduce risks from climate change. The world's largest ratings agencies, Moody’s and Standard and Poor’s now assess climate and energy transition risk factors which will have  credit implications for corporate and infrastructure debt instruments.  

The CIBSE Resilient Cities Group brings together cross-sector researchers and practitioners with a shared interest in making our cities more resilient to a changing climate.  It provides an opportunity for knowledge exchange and horizon scanning, but also brings together those willing to apply these ideas in practice. Now, more than ever,  we need this type of collective pooling of knowledge to start informing mainstream policy and practice.  Help us to do so, join us!

Briony Turner is a PhD student at King’s College London and is Knowledge Exchange Manager for the ARCC network.

Monday, 23 May 2016

Chloe Hampton - LSBU explore green infrastructure for a healthier workplace

London South Bank University (LSBU) has recently started a campaign to make the campus healthier and more sustainable. We were therefore very happy to host the green infrastructure as a building service design challenge. The design challenge was devised with focus on a real office space with real opportunities for improvement. The Clarence Centre for Enterprise and Innovation at LSBU was a suitable fit having recently been retrofitted, and has a typical office space layout, which can allow for replication - an important feature for engaging implementation. 

The Clarence Centre is a beautiful listed building renovated with a complimentary modern extension. It is a pleasure to work there, great location, looks amazing and wonderful people. Although, since I have been involved in the green infrastructure design challenge I have started to notice just how poor the indoor environmental quality is. It is very stuffy, the temperatures vary wildly from space to space with the offices being generally hot. Opening windows is our sole source of ventilation of which half open on to the busy London road. We do not measure or record anything in the building, something I think all spaces should do -  because if you don't know you can't fix it! 

The Clarence Centre has very little in the way of greenery and plants; green infrastructure however, is developing from a ‘nice to have’ aesthetic to an integral part of building service design and maintenance of spaces. The potential positive impact plants can have on indoor environmental quality and staff morale are numerous e.g. boosting productivity,  therefore helping to provide the business case for internal green infrastructure. It is exciting to have 'green sky' design solutions on site at LSBU that we may be able to implement and test, improving the working environment, supporting small businesses and informing research.
Typical office space within Clarence Centre
Universities offer a unique resource of both expertise for innovation and facilities to support it. They should be considered a playground of activity, for testing and trailing new ways of doing things and challenge the status quo. At LSBU, we have a number of interesting projects on site varying from testing 'sustainable' products to implementing innovative ways to heat and cool buildings to our Centre for Efficient and Renewable Energy in buildings. We work within an influence loop where enterprise informs research and research informs teaching. This ensures that we are working on the current issues in industry and that our students are learning relevant and current topics - such as green infrastructure as a building service. We have an excellent building services course at LSBU – staff and students of which were involved in the challenge. 

The Challenge received three submissions of a very high standard – especially given the tight time constraints. Each submission coincidentally focused on different areas of the building. The winner was Biospace, and as an occupant of the space, it was my favourite design. I could really see their ideas being implemented in the office and could imagine myself working very happily in their proposed space. The design consisted of an interesting amalgamation of greenery including hinged ‘green blinds’, edible plants, energy producing plants and technology that informs occupants of the plants needs. What I liked most was that it didn't change the workspace it simply edited and added unobtrusive clever greenery that served a purpose. 
The winning entry being scrutinised

Challenging the industry and academia to collaborate to develop ideas for the integration and retrofit of green infrastructure in the office spaces at LSBU allows for the development of a healthier, more sustainable and climatically resilient workplace, both on site and for the wider working community. 

Thank you to ARCC and CIBSE for the opportunity and especially thanks for the first plant in the office, which I am desperately trying not to kill! 

For more information about the competition and downloads of the submissions received including the winning BioSpace entry then click here.

Chloe Hampton, Research and Enterprise Support Officer 
The Green Infrastructure challenge complements and supports The LSBU Corporate Strategy, which focuses on real world impact, and The Enterprise Institutes based at the Clarence Centre are integral to this aim. I work within The Sustainable Communities Institute (SCi) one of four Enterprise Institutes at LSBU. It is an interdisciplinary and inter-professional centre of excellence working toward creating places for individuals and groups to live and work sustainably, both now and in the future. The focus of the Institute is to enhance performance, sustainability and wellbeing and reduce cost and resource usage through impactful interventions, research and policy guidance. 
LSBU has been awarded the ‘Commitment’ level award of the London Healthy Workplace Charter and is striving towards the ‘Excellent’ award.

Join the conversation about this post on LinkedIN.

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Jae Mather - Vancouver; a city of the present not just the future!

Resilience, adaptability & self-sufficiency; appear to be the buzzwords of the day. These concepts are rising to the surface of people’s minds, both individually and ever more so within companies, organisations and governments. It would seem that we may be upon the cusp of some transformation in consciousness and maybe even governance.

We've never been in a better position to access information and therefore to transition to a place where we start to fundamentally understand that 'what we do to others, we ultimately do to ourselves'. Things like the changing climate, global macro trends, commodity price volatility and the global agreements that came out of COP 21 in Paris are all pointing in the same direction. Things are changing and they are changing at an accelerating pace that unavoidably turns our eyes towards the absolute need for new ways of running the economy, society and the environment.

To many people cities represent the pinnacle of the evolution of our respective civilisations. They are big, loud, opportunity generating, ever growing and often deeply exciting places. They are where most people are (53% of the world populations now lives in cities) and where a large percentage of the rest want to be ( They are where the majority of the jobs are at, where most of the best education is and where art and culture consolidates.

Cycling in Vancouver
Recently my family and I moved back to my home city of Vancouver after 18 years in Europe. One of the reasons why was because of the leadership that is being shown in Vancouver’s Greenest City 2020 Action Plan which was created in response to these circumstances and they appear to be one of the best examples of transforming the consciousness through sustainable leadership.

The city consistently rates, as one of the best places in the world to live and what is interesting is that the leadership and staff of the city recognize that for Vancouver to stay in such a position, there is a need to continually innovate and adapt. The choice has been made to keep sustainability sitting at the very heart of that plan.  Sustainable strategy is the cities strategy and not just a bit of green on the side. Resilience and adaptability are returning to the top of the list as highly desirable and in some cases essential elements of urban management and design.
Vancouver district heating system

Key targets of the Greenest City 2020 Action Plan:

Goal 1. Green Economy
  • Double the number of green jobs over 2010 levels
  • Double the number of companies that are actively engaged in greening their operations over 2011 levels
Goal 2. Climate Leadership
  • Reduce community-based greenhouse gas emissions by 33% from 2007 levels
Goal 3. Green Buildings
  • Require all buildings constructed from 2020 onwards to be carbon neutral in operations
  • Reduce energy use and greenhouse gas emissions in existing buildings by 20% over 2007 levels
Goal 4. Green Transportation
  • Make the majority (over 50%) of trips by foot, bicycle and public transport
  • Reduce average distance driven per resident by 20% from 2007 levels
Goal 5. Zero Waste
  • Reduce solid waste going to the landfill or incinerator by 50% from 2008 levels
Goal 6. Access to Nature
  • All Vancouver residents live within a 5 min walk of a park, greenway or other green space
  • Plant 150,000 new trees
Goal 7. Lighter Footprint
  • Reduce Vancouver’s ecological footprint by 33% over 2006 levels
Goal 8. Clean Water
  • Meet or beat the strongest of British Columbian, Canadian and appropriate international drinking water quality standards and guidelines
  • Reduce per capita water consumption by 33% from 2006 levels
Goal 9. Clean Air
  • Always meet or beat the most stringent air quality guidelines from Metro Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada and the world health organisation
Goal 10. Local Food
  • Increase citywide and neighbourhood food assets by a minimum of 50% over 2010 levels

What also interests me is how cities will adapt and prosper from some of the main technological disruptions that are one the way.

Driverless Cars 
How will the value of property in urban centres change as people are able to travel at very high speeds while working, sleeping & playing from much further away at much lower cost?

3D printing 
How will the high street change when people are able to make their own high quality things at home and the financial model switches from owning products to licensing designs?

Virtual Reality 
When people do not need to commute to work in anywhere near the volumes that they do today because of home based VR systems allowing them to be anywhere, how will this change the needs of public transport?

Jae Mather BA, PGradDip, CEnv., FRSA, FIEMA is the Director of Sustainability at the Carbon Free Group and North American Ambassador for the Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment (IEMA) @jaemather

City images courtesy of Vancouver City Council

Join the conversation about this post on LinkedIn by following this link.

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Peter Henshaw - “Tox-ford Street”

This post was written by Peter Henshaw last summer to inform BuroHappold Engineering staff about the impact of poor air quality local to their offices. 
We have reproduced it here with their permission partly to respond to the news that London has broken European air-quality rules for the whole of 2016 — just 175 hours into the new year.

Many of you will have read articles in the press over the past few days about poor air quality in London, and specifically in Oxford Street – so called “Tox-ford Street”. 

The bold statement of leading air quality expert Dr David Carslaw that Oxford Street is one of the most polluted streets in the world is likely to be of concern for those of us here in the office each day, sitting just 150m from Oxford Street.

The claim is based on air quality monitoring data recorded opposite Selfridge’s (see figure below), as part of the London Air Quality Network ( Yearly average concentrations of nitrogen dioxide (NO2), were recorded at more than three times the legally binding EU limit value, whilst hourly NO2 readings (to reflect the short term health impacts) have exceeded limit values on more than 1500 occasions in the last year. 

The main causes of these high concentrations are the large volume of diesel buses and taxis passing through the area, the stop-start nature of urban driving, and also the street being canyonised (narrow with tall buildings either side) where pollution recirculates and accumulates. The health impacts are exacerbated by the popularity of the street, with very many people spending significant periods of time exposed to high pollution concentrations.

For ‘at risk people’ (children, elderly, those with asthma/respiratory problems) measures can be taken to avoid this exposure – even such simple steps as walking away from the kerbside can reduce exposure. However the best advice would be to use quieter streets with less traffic, and avoiding strenuous exercise along busy roads (cyclists/joggers in particular - the cityair app is useful for this On days when pollution is particularly high (due to weather conditions, for example) airtext alerts can be received via text or email and used to inform both those at risk and healthy individuals, giving advice on any precautions that should be taken (

For us on Newman Street, although there is no monitoring undertaken here, the London Air Quality Network has modelled average annual NO2 concentrations (see figure) for the whole of London.  Predicted concentrations on Newman Street indicate that even though pollutant levels are not as high as on Oxford Street, as with the majority of central London, concentrations are still above EU limits for NO2. The abundance of nearby construction sites and high HGV numbers along Newman Street do little to help the situation either. 

For new buildings in areas of poor air quality mechanical ventilation and unopenable roadside windows are often prerequisites from planning authorities in order to protect those inside. However instead of such energy intensive measures, perhaps the best method is for better education- understanding that there are certain days or even times of the day when windows next to a busy road may be best left closed. Better informing the public on air quality is something that will no doubt increase as the topic receives a higher profile from further research into effects of pollutants on human health.

So for us in Newman Street the advice is: 
  • Facilities management to sign up to airtext alerts and advise via email/on London Magellan page high pollution days;
  • On poor air quality days best to only open the windows on the less exposed building facades, so east facing in 17 and west facing in 71;
  • For cyclists/those taking exercise- although the benefits of exercise may outweigh potential health impacts, using the cityair app ( to plan a low pollution route on your cycle to work can only make things better;
  • Petition Boris to do something about it / get in touch with your MP if it is an issue that concerns you; and
  • Support campaign groups such as healthy air 

More detailed info here for those who are really interested!

As well as being recently declared carcinogenic by the WHO (, studies of particulate matter have shown a link between the number of particles in the air and ambulance calls and A&E admissions for heart attacks (

High short term NO2 concentrations can lead to inflammation of the respiratory system, and subsequent increased susceptibility to respiratory illness. Long term exposure is linked to bronchitis in asthmatic children and reduced lung function growth. To make things worse, on sunny days NO2 reacts photochemically to produce ground level ozone, which can cause breathing problems, trigger asthma and lead to lung disease. As the reaction can take some time, ground level ozone tends to build up away from roadside locations, for example in parks.

Although there has been great progress since the Great Smog of 1952, which killed 4,000 Londoners, there is a common misconception that air quality is no longer a problem. However in reality we are dealing with different pollutants; instead of smoky sulphur dioxide from coal burning (which is still an issue in places such as China), we now have NO2 and fine particulates from petrol, diesel and gas combustion, which are much more difficult to see with the naked eye and are potentially just as dangerous.

The main problem in London (as with most urban areas) is transport, and although long term measures have been introduced to try and combat traffic emissions (more stringent emission standards and the (ultra)low emission zone) certain emission technology has proved problematic  and actually lead to increases in pollutant emissions in some cases. Likewise the incentivisation of diesel vehicles to comply with carbon reduction targets has had a detrimental impact on local air quality.

A recent presentation highlights the benefits of actively improving air quality, whereby a US EPA representative highlighted the return of more than $30 in benefits for every dollar invested in pollution reduction. With increasing urbanisation, air pollution is a growing world health problem which needs to be dealt with by transforming existing cities through good design; reducing dependency on road transport and providing clean energy.

Peter Henshaw is an environmental consultant at BuroHappold, specialising in air quality research and consultancy. 

Join the conversation about this post on LinkedIn by following this link.

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Kirsten Henson - What Makes a Sustainable City?

In January this year I went back to Cambridge University to attend the Cambridge Forum for Sustainability and the Environment review of their 2014 Sustainable Cities programme. I contributed to the forum last year as an expert witness and was invited to return to hear the panel discuss the outcome of their year-long programme. As one might expect, the sustainable cities discussions threw up more questions than answers and was considered invaluable for directing future PhD and Masters Research within the University.

Diverse topics were discussed from design to governance. Of particular interest was the suggestion that we had a lot to learn from developing countries; a degree of elasticity and disorder was deemed critical for resilience. The developed world tends to have more fixed and structured cities and therefore when the barriers are breached, the consequences tend to be catastrophic. It was surmised that the resilient city lies somewhere between the regimented system of the developed world and the organised chaos of cities in developing countries.

The panel warned against a sole focus on climate change. Working in silos and optimising a single element of a city’s challenges is likely to lead to detrimental and often unintended consequences elsewhere. This is an area that I have written about before, following on from an EU Knowledge share programme between East London and Gothenburg in Sweden. A sole focus on the provision of exceptional new services in a deprived area in Gothenburg had no impact on the health and well-being of the local population, largely due to a lack of engagement, employment and social networks throughout the process.

The need for adaptable, flexible design that gives due consideration to the many trade-offs and balances, acceptance of soft-failure and consideration of ‘good enough’ is fundamental to creating sustainable cities.

Fundamentally we should not be over-engineering our cities, whether from a hard engineering or social governance perspective. We should take pleasure in the murky corners and nurture the informal networks, celebrate the diverse space from formal squares to a forgotten leafy corner with a tired looking bench. We must give due consideration to, but not try to engineer out the social deprivation that lives alongside the shiny new development and ‘regeneration’ projects. These juxtapositions, found across our cities make them vibrant and exciting places to live and provide an element of resilience.

I have been involved in the Olympic Programme since 2006 and during this time my belief of what success would look like for the Olympic regeneration programme has changed somewhat. When I first started I believed that we could only claim success if we created a vast improvement in the social deprivation indices in the host boroughs and changed the very fabric of the surrounding area.

But, as one Newham councillor told me, the people of Stratford want to shop in the Stratford Mall. They like it. It offers a place of strong social identity and cohesion unlike the polished floors and bright lights of Westfield. It isn’t so much ‘them’ and ‘us’ it is perhaps as simple as people not easily engaging with change, particularly when they feel they have a community on their doorstep.

So provided the opportunities are there for those that want to take them and the services and facilities are affordable to all let us celebrate the different cultures, lifestyles and environments we find in our city. How foolish of me to think that everyone would aspire to live in a new zero carbon home on the edge of the Queen Elizabeth Park. Inevitably new people will be drawn to this area and the challenge is to ensure that this new London quarter develops its own identity, its own community, and is one that sits well between the already strong identities of Hackney Wick and Stratford.

Kirsten Henson is a director at KLH sustainability.