De-polluting Architecture

Javier Quintana, Steven Kennedy and Maxine Pringle

The “right to breathe” –the universal access to clean and fresh air– is increasingly becoming less a right and more a luxury in metropolitan areas worldwide. Urbanisation and density come with a set of side effects which combined are causing an acute deterioration of air quality. Some of their consequences are already evident in the urban ecosystem but most importantly, air pollution is rapidly undermining our health and life style.

The problem is not Chinese, Nigerian, Mexican or British. It is growing everywhere, waiting outside everybody’s doorsteps and spreading silently inside our homes. The figures are daunting: over 60 per cent of the world’s population breathes contaminated air with an average decrease of the life expectancy of one and a half years. In the UK this average is slightly lower –13 months– but recent studies show that in areas like South Central London air pollution is the fifth largest contributor to premature death. The UK also has the second highest number of deaths from NO2 pollution in Europe. (Sources: Public Health England/European Environment Agency)

Some governments are reacting but the growth of the problem is faster than the necessary political agreements and solutions. This is why people are mobilising at all levels including the ones affecting the conception of our cities. However, it seems the ball is always more in the planners’ or transport experts court rather than the one of the architects. Aside some collateral positive effects of sustainable attitudes, the contribution of architecture seems lower than the potential we have or even the responsibility architects’ account for.

Our questions are: How can architecture actively contribute to fight air pollution and even be a game changer? If so, how can we design changes in our urban environment or our lifestyle to reduce the problem? What else needs to support design to be an effective driver in this battle? How can we design buildings and cities that are proactive in the solution rather than a significant contributor in the problem?

This DTT project aims to explore the potential contribution of architecture to fight air pollution in metropolitan areas. Our focus will be the relationship between architecture and air pollution, and not pollution of any other kind. Analysing a specific area in London, we want to implement realistic design solutions which improve its air quality and with applicability elsewhere. Ultimately, the ambition is also political trying to involve architects and designers in the battle for the right to breathe.