Environmental Inequality in UK cities

Daisy Imogen Buckle is part of the first cohort of researchers for Climate and Cities. Since the beginning of 2020, she has been exploring the use of textile to represent air quality.

I’ll be exploring Air quality and its impact on individuals and groups, and how this fits into the category of ‘Environmental Inequality’. I’ll look at what this is, how we can have an impact on it and the link between air quality and socioeconomic class and how these two things are connected.

Urban air pollution — of which a significant proportion is generated by vehicles and industry and energy production — is estimated to kill some 1.2 million people annually. Today, many developing world cities face very severe urban air pollution levels — higher than developed-world counterparts.

Photo by Amir Hosseini on Unsplash

Over 80% of the UK population live in urban environments — places built by humans, with a density of human-made structures. This figure’s rising with the increase in population and the encroachment of urbanised areas into natural ones. However, manufactured environments like these, affect our mental and physical wellbeing in a host of negative ways. From asthma to depression, air quality’s a significant factor. Air quality’s not only affected by vehicles’ particulate matter, it’s exacerbated by absence of greenery.

Governments and organisations use the Air Quality Index (AQI) to inform people of air quality in their areas and show them compared to other sites and countries. The AQI level used most often in London’s frequently high with ‘… significant areas of exceedances of the annual mean NO2 EU Limit Values.’ The levels of Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) in the air are more often than not over EU limits of what’s acceptable for humans to live healthily. NO2 is a highly reactive gas which enters our atmosphere mainly through burning fossil fuels and use of other non-renewable resources.

More affluent areas of the UK are less polluted with Green spaces, which often push up house prices as it makes sites more desirable. The increased prices mean those in lower-income brackets can’t keep living there because of rising living costs or they cannot move into the area in the first place- a type of green gentrification occurs. These areas are often populated by those coming from a higher income bracket and are more likely to be inhabited by white people from middle or upper-class backgrounds. In London, places with higher house and cost of living prices include Hampstead — which has Royal or acclaimed parkland. Whereas, areas such as Lewisham have few public green spaces, none on the scale of Hampstead Heath, and have high levels of air pollution and higher levels of people on lower incomes. Even though they’re within commuting distance of these green havens in the city, they’re less likely to use individuals and groups because of cultural and economic divides. Therefore nature, and these green spaces, don’t have as many people to protect them. Furthermore, the people who don’t feel they belong, miss out on the spaces’ benefits themselves.

People on the lowest incomes living in cities are expected to live ten years less than those on the highest incomes partly due to the green spaces available to the wealthiest people who often live in open, leafy areas…the poorest are often left living in overcrowded, heavily concreted areas.

If you live in a greener area, you may have more outdoor space — a privately owned place you can tend and protect. Public Green spaces cost in upkeep, and the care for plants and trees, for example, can be an area in which councils look to cut costs when under budget restraints. It’s short-sighted because the depletion of the natural world is costly for nature itself and us humans — green spaces reduce stress levels and are beneficial to mental and physical wellbeing.

Greener environments are associated with reduced levels of depression, anxiety and fatigue and enhanced quality of life for both children and adults. Green space can help bind communities together.

In getting rid of these areas, other council and government-funded bodies such as healthcare, are put under more strain and cost councils more long-term. Mitigating air pollution could save ‘£1.3 billion in health costs from avoided deaths and fewer respiratory and cardiovascular hospital admissions, contributing to 27,500 years of life saved.

However, different councils receive different levels of funding and manage their budgets in varying ways. The four main ways a council receives money are central government grants, business rates, council tax and fees (e.g. parking). A more affluent area will have higher costs in all these.

Kensington and Chelsea council said that in 2020/21 they’d ‘Spend £486 million. This included £103 on the environment and communities.’ This means they’d spend nearly 25% of their budget on ‘green’ aspects of the community. For Croydon council, £24 million is spent on ‘improving health and wellbeing and £3.6 million for parks and open spaces.’- less than 8% of their overall yearly budget. These councils prioritise different parts of their communities so some areas become underfunded. More often than not, there’s a correlation between those who live in lower-income neighbourhoods and the highest cuts in funding and the higher cuts to green spaces. Council tax costs mean if you can pay more council tax, there’s a higher budget for greenery in the community. Therefore the more money you have, the more likely you can afford and fund green spaces’ maintenance. Green spaces are often seen as a luxury, not a necessity. Housing and transport are placed higher than the environment when discussing land use and future proposals.

Areas with higher air pollution levels tend to be more densely populated and more industrial, often populated more by people of BAME backgrounds and those who have a lower income bracket — sometimes both. So if you’re of BAME heritage or have lower socioeconomic status, you’re more negatively affected by air pollution than your more affluent counterparts.

An individual’s socioeconomic status influences their exposure and sensitivity to environmental risks and their resilience in adapting to or avoiding future risks. Thus, ecological risks disproportionally affect socially disadvantaged groups, exacerbating existing inequalities.

Air pollution’s one of these critical environmental factors which affects everyone. However, it affects these sections of the community more, meaning it comes under the banner of ‘environmental inequality.’ This is where there are unequal effects of climate change and environmental concerns on those who are from more vulnerable or more minority backgrounds. NO2 is particularly harmful because in lower doses, it can cause irritation to the lungs, but prolonged exposure to it can cause long term respiratory diseases- all contributing to increased impact on health services.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) includes living conditions as one of the five main areas of ensuring a healthy lifestyle and posit that:

Differences between socioeconomic groups in terms of Income Security and Living Conditions are the largest contributors to inequities in self-reported health, mental health and life satisfaction within countries of the WHO European Region contributing to almost 2/3 of the health inequities between socioeconomic groups within countries.

Environmental inequality and air quality are both invisible- it’s easy for individuals to be unaware of both. It also means it’s easy for those in charge, not to act. It’s up to the broader public to hold our politicians and large businesses accountable. This can be done through campaigning and activism and voting, voting for those governments who will put health and green living at the forefront of their campaigns and manifestos.

The WHO also cite ‘public policies contribute to creating these conditions’ which means it’s mostly down to our government’s systems we find ourselves a part of to help ensure that we can sustain a healthy life. It’s not just something that an individual has control over. We, as individuals can influence our surroundings and living environments to a certain extent. We can choose to invest in green energy, which would limit the amount of NO2 entering the atmosphere, choose to plant greenery where we live — local gardening initiatives can be one way of doing this on estates or in built-up areas — to have more greenery around us, but these all have cost implications. However, what people need is to rely on our governments and politicians having the whole community’s interest at heart, which we can influence through voting and playing an active role in campaigning for a cleaner, safer living environment. According to Friends of the Earth “Urban green space in England declined from 63% to 56% between 2001 and 2016 … (and) over the past ten years, spending on green space has decreased by over 30% according to the London Green space commission.

For personal or cultural reasons, there will always be people who are unlikely to use greenspace, and these may be those who could benefit the most. Thoughtful and inclusive physical design, coupled with social engagement and participation programmes, effectively deliver on multiple outcomes and attract different population groups.

It’s up to designers, researchers and scientists to make air quality data more understandable for the general public to empower them with knowledge and understanding to initiate change. The data’s available on the internet and for the general public to look up and research, using sites such as London Air. Designers are working to show statistical data in readable and approachable ways — often in graphical terms with charts. However, it’s interesting to explore the data in a more hands-on and experiential manner.

Finally, what’s needed is system change- the cumulative effect is pushing our social, economic, political and environmental world to breaking point.

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Climate and Cities

Climate and Cities

Climate and Cities is a creative collective, established in 2019, focused on crafting new narratives to directly engage the public with the climate emergency.