Putting clean air in the hands of municipal leaders
With an estimated 91% of the world’s population living in places where air quality exceeds World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines, constituents across the country are building awareness of the health impacts of long-term exposure to air pollution, and demanding action to save the air. As they put up air quality sensors in their homes to track their individual exposure, they seek to reduce that exposure by shifting the conversation from a regional agency to their local communities – placing a new responsibility on city and county governments to step in and assume responsibility for improving the local air quality.
But for most officials of smaller cities, responding to these requests has been difficult. Most are not air quality experts, nor do they have in-house air quality staff. And two of the most common solutions for tracking air quality – regional air quality agencies and air sensors – have gaps in their ability to respond at the community level.
Fortunately, there are a handful of newly emerging tools that can give individual communities the power to track, understand and improve their air quality. For cities and counties that are already involved in climate action planning, sustainability planning, or smart city development, these tools can be a welcome addition. They can enable local officials to assume a leadership position in understanding their communities’ immediate environment, in real time, and making changes that can improve air quality for residents.
Air quality: An unconventional responsibility for cities and counties
Perhaps no state illustrates the potential for local air quality monitoring as does California. Public pressure there led to the passage of Assembly Bill 617in 2017, which put funds – and responsibility – in community hands facilitated by regional air districts to reduce pollution in historically marginalized communities.
Other states are feeling pressure in the form of a demand for city and county governments to take up an unconventional responsibility over the air, adding to the scope of sustainability plans many are already addressing – reducing the carbon footprint and funding community greening programs, for example.
Pollutant reduction approaches could include land-use decisions, clean-air zones, increasing electric car incentives, switching to electric municipal fleets – all in the hands of cities and counties, with the right support.
The good news is that because air pollution tracks with emissions, air quality metrics align well with sustainability or climate action plans. For many cities and counties, they could check two critical boxes with this approach.
However, getting to the information needed to create a pollution-reduction plan on a localized scale requires cities and counties to develop a new, contextualized understanding of how, and where, the air pollution is coming from and impacting people.
Unfortunately, the most common tools for air quality management are often inadequate for individual communities.
Limitations of current solutions
Many communities rely on regional air quality agencies in the hope that their efforts will protect air quality at a very local level. But there are limitations to what those agencies can deliver.
Current community-facing information from regional agencies is often limited to an annual report documenting exceedances of the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) in a given area or data from regional monitoring stations. In addition, air quality station updates have distance gaps too big to provide a localized assessment of the air across the community. Beyond the communication gap, they also inherently have regional incentives; they were set up to operate at a regional level, not designed meet the problem sets of localized entities.
Similarly, communities that turn to air sensors to monitor air quality also experience limitations. There has certainly been an air pollution sensing revolution underway – driven by new hardware, measurement techniques and cloud-hosting – in an attempt to meet the need for localized insights. Various technologies are helping provide more points of information than ever before.
But a fundamental problem exists with air sensors – they cannot be linked to concrete root causes and outcomes without additional context. A single air sensor may be able to show the quality of the air at one location, at a particular point in time, but it cannot reveal the source of the pollution or what air quality is like two blocks away.
For communities, the answers to their exposure questions get lost in the gap between existing regional levels of information and sensors that aren’t equipped with a larger context of information that could drive the conversation forward.
Fortunately, there are a handful of promising alternatives for communities that want accurate information about the quality of their air.
How new technologies are filling the gap
In traditional air quality management, measurement is used for tracking and quantifying pollution concentrations, while models are used to diagnose and explain, and drive policymaking. In order to drive policy that results in a significant reduction in air pollution, local governments need dispersion modeling to understand how pollution is moving throughout the community in the streets where they are, and source apportionment to understand where it came from, at a resolution targeting localized insights.
Modeling will help local government wear their new sustainability hat, bridge the traditional air quality management approach with the new sensing technology out there, and transparently share data to bring stakeholders in the community together to create cohesion and momentum behind a pollution reductions plan. A model will help connect the dots to drive action.
Local cities need to dive inside the regional grid cell and bring 21st century technology to the science of the past to make the context around air quality transparent. With these insights, they can drive a momentum with their constituents that builds the cities of the cleaner, brighter, environmentally friendly future.
Julia Luongo is a managing consultant at Ramboll and the founder of Shair, a dynamic tool that will help municipalities ‘shair’ the air with their constituents, pinpoint exact sources of potential contaminants, and trace air pollution that has entered a city, region or municipality from an outside source.