It’s the day after Burns Night, and having posted a blog of Scotland’s natural and pristine beauty inspired by The Bard’s Tam o’Shanter, I note figures released by Friends of the Earth Scotland (as image is sourced from), and furthermore reported in the media, about the most polluted streets in the country.
Two types of pollutants- Nitrogen Dioxide and Particulate Matter 10 (PM10s)- are used to measure air pollution, of which traffic fumes are a major source in urban areas. High levels of such pollutants have been linked to a range of health problems, including respiratory issues such as asthma- and are an increasingly acute problem in towns and cities around the world (something I’ve written about in more detail in previous posts).
The Friends of the Earth work indicates that Hope Street, in the centre of my home city of Glasgow, leads the way in Nitrogen Dioxide- with levels that are over 60% higher than legal limits, closely followed by other threshold breakers in cities such as Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Dundee. PM10s are 50% over their legal limit in Aberdeen’s Market Street, again right in the centre of the city, as well as exceeding limits in streets in other cities such as Glasgow (Hope Street again…), Perth and Edinburgh.
Aside from the important health and well-being consequences and costs associated with such high levels of air pollution, potentially impacting on the thousands of people who pass though, work, and live on these streets in Scotland every day, it is worth considering that many of these polluted thoroughfares are ‘gateways’ to our towns and cities. They are the streets that greet visitors and tourists to our country and regions- with, no less, pollution table toppers Hope Street in Glasgow immediately outside the city’s Central train station, and Market Street in Aberdeen connecting the city’s train station and its passenger ferry terminus.
There is, from a practical transport perspective, an undeniable and difficult conflict created at such hubs in our towns and cities- where both large crowds of people gather and spend time, and, furthermore, are locations where transport fumes and pollutants are often at their most concentrated. However, we do need to ask ourselves some pertinent questions:
- Are these the type of places we want to be the first place for people visiting our cities to experience?
- Are such levels of air pollution, and the health dangers they pose, something that we feel we should accept in our daily lives as we seek to live, work and enjoy our towns and cities?
- Are they, fundamentally, the places we want our children to grow up in?
The problems, and causes, of air pollution are (ironically) quite clear- our towns and cities are too congested with fossil fuel burning vehicles, and their fumes affect the health and well-being of people (as well as having other significant environmental and social impacts). So what are the solutions? Can we solve them with our current approach to transport planning and provision? Or, do we need to be much more radical to develop the changes we need?…
The following are 3 cities in Northern Europe that currently have, or are planning, radically different approaches to urban transport to the fundamental approach we have in Scotland:
- Groningen, Netherlands- Believed to be the city with the highest cycling rate in the world, where over 50% of journeys are by bike (as a comparison, Scottish cities are, generally, around 2 or 3%). This has, largely, been achieved by a policy begun in the 1970s to significantly restrict car movement between zones in the city centre, instead requiring cars to circumnavigate the city via a ring road. Read and watch more about the Groningen story.
- Copenhagen, Denmark- Long recognised as the world capital for cycling, and well known for its extensive infrastructure, culture and identity which has the bicycle at its centre. Aside from its established cycling culture, the Danish capital is repeatedly presented as one of the happiest cities in the world. Are these issues interrelated? Perspectives from Copenhageners seem to suggest they are…
- Hamburg, Germany- Germany’s second largest city, and a major commercial and transport hub in the wider region, has announced a 20 year vision to ban all cars from its city centre- and to move all inner city mobility to public transport, cycling and walking. Such an ambitious and long term vision is seen as not only as an environmental and social necessity- but also a method to achieve economic benefits by developing the city into an attractive place for people to move to.
The future of our towns and cities in Scotland, including the levels of air pollution on our streets, are fundamentally related to the policy visions and decisions that are made by national and local government bodies. Glasgow, and Scotland, is hosting a major international sporting event later this year- the Commonwealth Games- promising a legacy of economic and social benefits for the future. However, our real ‘common wealth’ in Scotland is the beauty and quality of our natural environment, and something that shouldn’t be limited to the countryside and national parks, and those that have access to them- but be central to the design of the towns and cities in which people work and live. It is vital that we develop our urban environments with visions to integrate, conserve and protect nature- and ensure that the legacy we leave for our children is not one of towns and cities with polluted and dirty streets that are a danger to their health.