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Using Urbanism to understand Air Pollution

Architects in Spain have worked on a high-tech urbanism study to understand the realities of Barcelona’s air pollution and its influence on the health of her citizens.

A rocky marriage between technique and the environment

By its very nature, architecture is a discipline that is intimately connected to the environment. Not only by being a product of human craftmanship that is situated on the land, but also by the emissions produced by its construction. The mixture of concrete, the transportation of materials to the building site, etc. All of this contributes to our crescent climate problem.

Architects and civil engineers have been aware of this for many years, and despite steps given to curb the production of toxic pollutants (not to mention damages to the soil and nearby sources of water), there is still plenty to do to fix this integral problem of our construction industry.

This, however, does not mean that the discipline’s insights cannot be used in other novel ways.

Where urbanism and environmental consciousness meet

The Venice Architecture Biennale is one of the most important international events in the world of Architecture. Each edition is centered around a theme, which is used by designers to present new and interesting proposals for both public and private spaces. The latest edition, in 2021, was themed around a single question: How will we live together?.

It was here where the Institut Ramon Llull, Catalonia’s major cultural and language promoter, presented Air, a detailed mapping of Barcelona’s air pollution. Part of the Institut’s plan to promote Catalonia at the Venice Biennale, it was curated by architect Olga Subirós and researched by the Spanish urban planning studio 300.000 Km/s. By immersing visitors into a multimedia experience where the impact of air contamination becomes clear, and backed up by the raw data collected, the project aims to answer its two principal questions. First, in what ways does air pollution affect the health of Barcelona’s citizens? Second, what solutions can we propose to fix this problem?

An integral part of this proposal is a reframing of certain modern ways of thinking. Technosolutionism, the idea that more and better technology will solve all our problems, is not the proper way to approach the environmental crisis at hand. Technology, the architects propose, is not the aim, but a means to an end. And, of course, they are right. To think that technology is the only way to resolve our social problems is a major handicap of our age, as it ignores the most basic of facts: what’s the use of technology to correct the contamination of our planet, if we are not willing to modify the way we understand industry, transportation, and production of goods?

But there is another layer to this project: Covid-19, that nasty little virus that stopped life as we knew it in 2020. Data from the Pandemic became integral to the development of Air for reasons both philosophical and practical. Not only did its presence add to the problem of breathing contaminated city air; studies have also found that air pollution majorly contributes to this disease’s high rate of mortality in urban spaces.

Understanding the method

Air is not just any project. It is, after all, a proposal for the Biennale, so it is just as scientific as it is artistic. Studio 300.000 Km/s combed and analysed banks of big data that were obtained from various digital technologies distributed through the city’s grid. They also consulted data produced by the European Space Agency (ESA) and CALIOPE-Urban, an air pollution simulation done by the Barcelona Supercomputing Centre (BSC), among many other sources. They looked at the urban concentration of Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) and particles within the PM 1 and 2,5 range, which can easily penetrate our bodies and cause major health problems.

Drawing from all this raw health and atmospheric data, the studio produced new cartographies for both the city and Catalonia as a whole. These, they hope, will be used by architects for better and more sustainable urban planning, as well as for the proposal of future built environments where the main objective is the health of Barcelona’s citizens. Of course, the lessons learned through this research are not necessarily meant to be applied solely to this city, but to be incorporated elsewhere.

But why Barcelona and not another Spanish city? It was not just a whim by the architects, but, perhaps, a case of an emergency. It may come as a surprise to many (it was to us), but the truth is that Barcelona’s vehicle density is up the roof, being the highest in all of Europe. With her 3.500 premature deaths per year, caused by air pollution alone, and 54.000 cases of asthma attacks in both adults and children, her real picture does not agree with the crisp and pristine idea in our minds.

Dire realities, yes, but that does not mean that designers cannot learn from these mistakes. The methodologies used by studio 300.000 Km/s can easily be extrapolated to other European cities and adjusted if necessary. The data is open source; it can be consulted by anyone. The dialogue is now open.

But this was the scientific aspect of Air. What about its artistic counterpart? Olga Subirós has curated a large format exhibition space (that you can see at her webpage) that explores the materiality, invisibility, and impact of air pollution in our health. All of it using the data analysed by 300.000 Km/s. Singer and composer Maria Arnal offers her voice to fill the silence that hangs over such depressive perspective of our future. A future that could happen, but one that can be averted if we act now.

A few proposals to clean our air

Air’s webpage offers a comprehensive look at the methodology and findings behind studio 300.000 Km/s’s research. The grim reality becomes patently clear: air pollution is inherently linked to our very own industrial and urban growth. There is no other way around it. Air pollution, it seems, is an inevitable one-way street. Or at least it is now.

Fortunately, the studio also offers twelve actions that can be used to build a response plan. Of course, these will not easily fix our immediate climate and contamination crises, but at least can be used as a platform for a more robust approach at our problem. They recommend a gradual, but total, transformation of the public space into a health infrastructure. To generate, thus, spaces where prior urban topologies can be shifted into different uses. To make of Barcelona a city where vehicular mobility is reduced to a bare minimum of necessity.

These approaches, however, should not be limited to the work of just architects and urban planners. We should also come into the conversation. The dialogue is now open, and we, as city dwellers, also have a say in the way things develop. Air urges us to be involved, to let our voices be known and get into action for a healthier air to breathe in our streets.

But the streets are not the only places where air pollution can be found.

Our AIR8 Air Purifiers

Yes, of course, let us be involved in the major project of cleaning our city’s air. But that is a long-term race. Yes, it will be achieved, if we get to work now, but we will not see result immediately. The truth is that it will take a few years until we see bluer skies above us.

That does not mean that it will take us years to breathe fresh and healthy indoors air, because we at AIR8 have developed a range of filtering tools that guarantee a clean and sanitary working environment. Ours is medical-grade HEPA-13 technology that, depending on the model you chose, can include between four and six stages of filtration, like Cold Catalyst, carbon filtration and UV-GI light. This means that 99.9% of dangerous particles and pathogens can be filtered out from your space. Including particles within the PM 2,5 range and viruses like Covid-19.

We back up this claim up with the extensive TÜV tests that have been conducted on each of our products, all of them CE approved. Not only that: with our low-noise, low-energy consumption filters, we offer you the best relationship between price and quality.

Studio 300.000 Km/s and Olga Subirós are right. Cities in Europe need to be rethought as hubs for urban health. In just the same way as the indoors where we work need to be redefined by the fresh air that we can now breathe with the help of AIR8.

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