Air quality issue. What can we do?

Today Urban Air quality is the issue that faces every big city around the world. Industries and vehicle emissions are the main two causes of unhealthy conditions. Poor air quality affects our health and leads to developing respiratory problems and diseases especially among children and sensitive groups of society.  That fact consequently impacts healthcare systems that in its turn requires more financial expenditures every year.

There are many different ways of fighting poor air quality. City authorities propose different strategies. We see how the prohibition of entering city centers by old diesel vehicles becomes more  popular in European cities. Another strategy is an effort to move people from private cars to public transport by expanding routes of buses, metro, bicycle lines etc. The Super barrio project in Barcelona is also an example of fighting against air and noise pollution in the city district.  So, the number of strategies can not be counted on both hands. The one of them that attracts interest is the strategy of involving citizens into solving the problem.

As far as I am concerned, citizen participation can be separated into two main ways of activity.  First one implies involving broad society into the deliberation process in order to find out new ideas and solutions – indirect contribution. Second way of activity  – individual or direct contribution, when each person  by himself is responsible for changes to happen. We are all responsible for poor air quality and it is in our power to revert situations by changing our everyday behavior.

At this point the question of how to engage people and activate citizen participation arises. So, we are at the start again, there are many ways of activating citizen participation. How to do so? What are alternatives and which one to choose? In order to make the best decision we should resort to cost effectiveness analysis. We will identify possible solutions and investigate their pros and cons. We also try to predict the environmental, financial and social impact of each method.

Cost benefit analysis. 

Solution #1. Social advertisement.

Calls on mass media and social networks could be very effective. Let’s try to remember when you made some purchases or decisions because of social media influence. The main advantage of promoting participation through social media is that it achieves broad publicity in a short period of time. Moreover, social advertisement translates messages in different ways so diverse social groups understand and perceive it. However, in order to be effective and settle in a mind, this method requires many repetitions so leads to additional financial expenditures.  The main pros of social ad is that it usually achieves not only individuals but also businesses. Big corporations follow the social trend and start to adapt. Therefore, they also become contributors to solutions.  We can see for example, how many companies start to revise their technologies and products to make them eco-friendly or reusable. As we mentioned above, ad achieves a broad and diverse public, so the social impact is clear. Many people from different backgrounds that look at problems from various angles are more likely to find better and proper solutions. In addition, it constructs new collaborations between spheres. However , there is also a cost we will pay. That one we already mentioned – financial, in order to maintain attention and call people to participate in various themes we have to organize new campaigns again and again. So, we have new interrelationships between different social groups and business involvement versus high expenditures. 

Solution#2. Award/remuneration for participation.

Engaging citizens in the deliberation process by remunerating some of expenses is quite common experience in European Union countries according to OECD. People rather contribute if they are confident in achieving something back. Nobody wants to waste their time. Rewarding people for their participation lessens time between calling and solution. Moreover, that strategy can become another social income program. At the same time, we put at risk the representativeness of the deliberation process as some people are not interested in contributing but achieving additional income. The whole process as the previous one also leads us to repeated financial injections. To summarize, we have: fast solutions and new social programs versus expenditures and risk of losing representativeness. 

Solution #3. Urban events, forums.

Urban events and forums can attract broad public attention. As professionals, stakeholders and usual citizens are involved, new social links and collaborations appear. A good example is the EixampleRespira project. Started as a collaboration of parents from local schools in one city it now gets support from the transport and environment department and ecological actions confederation. In addition, their success inspired several other cities in the country and out of Spain. Collaborations like that allow us to find diverse varieties of proper solutions. The disadvantage of urban events is that they are time-stretched that can become an issue in cases that require fast decision making.

Solution #4. Raising awareness.

The previous methods concerned indirect participation. Raising awareness is more about individual actions. By changing our own everyday behavior we directly contribute to solving the problem. Raising awareness and sending the message that the individual actions make sense is a long and difficult process. However, it refers to the core of the problem. It can take years to make people understand that they hold personal responsibility for current air quality. However, the impact of the effort is undeniable. When every person understands the way he or she can personally change the situation we will get a new, solid, self-organized society. That society will be able to respond faster to future accidents.  So, raising awareness is difficult in implementation, time consuming but worthwhile process. There are tons of methods of raising public awareness, but this is another story.


Finally,  all 4 methods will lead us to improvement of air quality and solving healthcare issues, but which one to choose depends on associated benefits and the costs we are ready to pay. The methods of activating participation described here are just a small portion of all possible alternatives. In order to find the best one we have to analyze much more. There is no universal solution, each case has to be explored independently according to existent conditions. 

WHICH WAY IS BETTER? is a project of IAAC, Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia

developed at Master in City and Technology, Systemic Design Workshop in 2021 by:

Students: Linara Salikhova

Faculty: Gonzalo Delacámara