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Improving air quality in the city should be high among smart city priorities

Air pollution is estimated to be a major environmental health problem affecting city residents around the world.

Since pollution is transmitted via the global air currents, cities are not able to fully control this problem. However, cities have the power to implement measures which can improve air quality in the city or worsen the issue, when measures are not being planned wisely.

In November, many Chinese cities were wrapped in dense smog. The situation hinders living in such cities and represents a serious threat to the health of the residents. The air in Beijing is contaminated to such extent that breathing it causes as much damage to the lungs as 40 smoked cigarettes a day. The problem of the surplus air pollution is not limited only to Chinese cities. Late in November, European Environment Agency (EEA) published a report with an estimation that as much as 430,000 premature deaths in Europe are associated with poor air quality.

This issue of poor air quality in cities is associated primarily with increased ozone levels in the summer time and with particulate matter (PM) in the winter, caused mainly by traffic, combustion from furnaces and industry. Fine particles, formed as fine powder, do not fall on the ground, but rise into the air and spread over a larger area. Even a short-term exposure and inhalation of such fine dust causes lung problems, heart problems, and many other serious illnesses.

Regular air quality measurements and monitoring are one of the most important steps to solve this issue. China, for example, detected the whole extent of its air quality problem by setting a network of sensors across the country, enabling accurate measurements of ozone, carbon dioxide and particulate matter levels. These measurements indicated a much larger problem of air quality in cities as predicted with previous satellite forecasts.

Since traffic is one of the greatest air polluters in most cities, introduction of city areas with restricted traffic and motivating people to use more environmentally friendly mobility alternatives have the most effect to solving the problem. However, these required changes are associated with the changes of everyday life habits. Therefore, people often do not adopt such measures favorably. City measures related to the greening of the city are usually better accepted by its residents. Recent studies of British and Belgian universities show how even these, many times understood as more simple measures, cannot be efficient without smart planning. The studies show examples of the air quality deterioration in the city, caused by greening of the cities with trees. Green areas in cities have positive effects and it is absolutely advisable for cities to promote their expansion. Problems may occur when greening the city with trees, especially the tall ones. Such trees can impede air circulation along the street and leave the pedestrians on a busy street exposed to even worse air quality than if there would be no trees at all.

To avoid unnecessary budget expenditure of already limited financial resources for ineffective or even harmful measures, cities have the support of technology and smart city management services. By using the SmartCityPlatform, the city can set air quality improvement among city development priorities. With air quality performance indicators the city measures and monitors whether and to what extent it is succeeding. This indicates whether the current measures are adequate or adjustments in measures are needed. This knowledge also enables the city administration to plan budgetary expenditure for improving air quality in the city optimally and according to the needs.

Addressing the challenge of reducing the health effects of poor air quality in the city cannot be successful without active cooperation of the residents. Availability of key city air quality data on the SmartCityPlatform allows city residents to be responsible for their own health. The platform offers access to the values of air pollution measured by sensors in real time. This helps people to avoid city areas with exceeded values, avoid outdoor recreation and limit house aeration. Staff, working with the most vulnerable population, such as children, elderly, and sick people, can use these data to appropriately assess whether to ventilate the rooms, lead the children for a walk or onto the playground, and the like.

The city administration can analyze these data for many purposes – even for the assessment whether greening a specific area in the city with trees will be efficient regarding air quality improvements or not. And if the city, due to the extremely poor air quality, decides to close a part of the city for traffic, the well-informed residents may accept this measure more favorably as otherwise.

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