It's time for the built environment to start thinking about air quality

Air pollution is a growing problem in London. As the designers and builders of the structures people use every day, we have a responsibility to act.

Members of the London Air Quality Taskforce at our One Great George Street headquarters
Members of the London Air Quality Taskforce at our One Great George Street headquarters
  • Updated: 29 February, 2016
  • Author: Peter Hansford, Former ICE President and Chief Construction Adviser

On Monday (22 February), new figures were released showing that poor air quality contributed to 40,000 early deaths across the UK. The news should come as a shock, but the issue is increasingly seen as an unavoidable cost, particularly of living in the capital with new worrying statistics on the cost of airborne pollutants released regularly.

Every year, it takes only a few days for a number of central areas in London to breach the annual EU legal limits. Figures by Kings College London show that 52,000 life-years were lost due to man-made particulate matter in London. And the associated cost is astronomical – it’s estimated that issues relating to air pollution cost the economy £15 billion a year, similar to the cost of obesity or alcohol abuse.

The motor vehicle is the main culprit of London’s growing air pollution crisis, particularly those with diesel engines. Half of all nitrogen oxides, which cause respiratory problems and reduced immunity to lung infections, are caused by cars, with diesel engines producing four times as much as petrol vehicles. With traffic increasing on London’s roads, particularly HGVs, it seems harmful emissions quantities will continue to rise.

Making a difference

So far, air pollution is not an issue that the built environment has been particularly vocal on, but the way we shape and design our cities is directly linked to finding a solution to the issue. Whether it’s the better use of natural assets like rivers, the promotion of green infrastructure or better town planning, there are a number of ways the industry can make a difference.

With transport infrastructure, we must be sure that future schemes, which we design and build, are not contributing to the growing problem by adding to congestion. Plans to pedestrianise, create more cycle routes or increase road charges must be carefully considered to see how effective they can be in tackling poor air quality. Fundamentally, these are questions of what infrastructure we put in place to ensure that a growing city is not a polluting one.

Inside the industry, we must look at how our practices can be adapted. A significant amount of air pollution, such as particle matter emissions, comes from construction sites which, when close to residential areas, can pose serious health risks. Assessing how the industry can minimise and mitigate these risks is an essential way we can play our part, as is considering the use of new technologies and the changing habits and movements of the general public.

London taskforce

The new Air Quality Taskforce, established by ICE London, will look into all the issues I’ve touched on. Our aim is to provide recommendations on what the built environment, and specifically civil engineers, can do to combat air pollution in the city.

The Taskforce brings together a number of civil engineering experts and environmental specialists and will provide a holistic approach to the issue, examining what we must do to make London a healthier place to live.

Members of the Taskforce

  • Chair: Peter Hansford, Former ICE President and Chief Construction Advisor
  • Simon Birkett , Founder and Director, Clean Air in London
  • James Bulleid, Group Work Winning Director, Costain
  • Tony Caccavone, Programme Director, Heathrow
  • Nigel Earnshaw, Asset Management Director, Black & Veatch
  • Ralph Goldney, Managing Director, Goldney Associates
  • Paul Gregory, Project Director, Sir Robert McAlpine
  • Prashant Kumar, Reader, University of Surrey
  • Francesca Medda, Director of Transport & Infrastructure Studies, UCL
  • Suzanne Moroney, London Director, ICE
  • Heleni Pantelidou, Associate Geotechnical Engineer, Arup
  • Ken Simmonds, Divisional Director, Regional Investment Programme, Highways England
  • Jean Venables, Director, Venables Consultancy

About the author

Peter Hansford

Peter was government chief construction adviser from 1 December 2012 until November 2015. He was previously an executive director at the Nichols Group where he was engaged in strategic consulting and advising on infrastructure developments and capital investment programmes.

Peter served as president of the Institution of Civil Engineers from November 2010 to November 2011 and was a member of the steering group for the Infrastructure UK cost study to seek ways of reducing the cost of major infrastructure projects in the UK. Peter has worked for government, public and private clients, consultants and contractors in a variety of industry sectors in the UK and overseas.