2B) Air Quality

Poor air quality, both outdoors and indoors, is the largest environmental risk to public health in the UK and therefore to our quality of life.

12% of the population have been diagnosed as asthmatic and long-term exposure to pollution causes cardiovascular and respiratory diseases as well as lung cancer. Even short-term exposure to pollution is linked to an increase in hospital admissions. A Government report in 2018 estimated that there are 28-36,000 annual deaths in England as a result of air pollution. This may be half the number of deaths due to Covid-19 but it happens every year.

Pollution has the greatest impact on the those in later life, pregnant women and children where it can have a long-term effect on birth weight and development. This is also linked to noise, which can also have a corrosive effect on health.

Low Emissions Zones

Part of the solution to this lies in the hands of local government. London has led the way with Congestion Charging and Low Emissions Zones which charge vehicles to drive within the designated area. The recently introduced Ultra Low Emission Zone in London include daily charges that make it largely unviable to drive a polluting vehicle.

These initiatives have already had a significant impact on pollution levels in London, reducing NOx emissions from transport by up to 45 per cent and roadside NO2 levels by 44 per cent. Schemes are being considered by the other large cities although they are often subject to significant opposition. Local communities might consider adding their support to councils who are introducing these schemes. At the local level, Low Traffic Neighbourhoods also have a potential role as described in the Movement section.

Indoor Air Quality

Understanding and controlling pollutants is also important for indoor air quality. Poor ventilation and high humidity often lead to a build-up of moisture and mould, which produces allergens, irritants and, sometimes, toxic substances leading to asthma. Poor indoor airflow can also make occupants drowsy and less able to concentrate.

Natural ventilation from opening windows can be enhanced with mechanical systems, particularly in wet rooms such as bathrooms and kitchens. Many modern building materials – including adhesives, treated timber, paints, plastics, furnishings and fabrics – contain toxic chemicals. Low allergen design should be encouraged, aiming to avoid these products and wherever possible use green specification materials.

What You Can Do


Voice your support for your local council if they are proposing low emissions zones and engage in the debate to try and balance the needs of car users with the benefits to the wider community. Communities might also experiment locally with trial road closures, maybe for a street party or a play street, just to get local people used to the idea.

Developers and Designers

Consider air quality and noise in the design of schemes both in terms
of not adding to the problem and avoiding placing housing and other vulnerable uses such as schools in parts of the site that have high noise levels or poor air quality.


Monitor and publish air quality data and consider introducing low emissions zones.

Case study

2B) Hackney Air Quality Action Plan, London

The Environment Audit Committee (EAC) reported that 30,000 people in the UK died prematurely from air pollution in 2008. Like other central London boroughs, Hackney is exceeding air quality limit targets, and as a deprived area, residents suffer a greater proportion of related illness. The Hackney Air Quality Action Plan is addressing this through the following strategies:

1. Hackney Transport Strategy
(2015 – 2025)
Much of the air pollution in Hackney results from road traffic. Local and wider sustainable transport initiatives aim to address this. The strategy aims to further enhance walking, cycling and public transport provision in the borough, which already includes a rail network, the London Overground and regular bus services. Parking permits are charged at different rates based on vehicle emission, and the council have installed nearly 300 electric charging points to encourage the use to electric cars.

2. New Developments

Developers must ensure that building work and new developments don’t add to poor air quality in the borough and that the health of future occupiers is protected. The draft local plan states that all new developments must be car- free, with parking limited to disabled spaces or essential servicing needs.

3. Schools / Monitoring

Hackney council monitor air quality at over 50 schools and nurseries, using the data to mitigate air pollution by providing funding for green walls at schools. Streets outside schools are closed at opening and closing times to reduce air pollution and to help children walk and cycle to school – there are aims to implement 17 School Streets by 2021.

4. Planting

The borough is planting over 30,000 new trees, including 5,000 street trees, by 2022, which absorb and block harmful pollutants.

We’ve got more radical action planned to tackle poor air quality – including rolling out green screens to primary schools, launching a public cargo bike hire scheme, and radically expanding our tree planting programme – because we’re determined to tackle the public health crisis of our generation.


Photography: © The London Borough of Hackney, ©Hackney Council