Enhancing Air Quality through Nature-Based Solutions

Environmental infrastructure within city planning is a keystone element of sustainable cities. As we move toward a more sustainable and equitable future, ensuring improved quality of life for all people has to be at the forefront of these plans. This means prioritizing the voices of community members, collecting and measuring data on proposed changes, and increasingly, incorporating nature-based solutions into city planning.

At its core, the philosophy of nature based-solutions “harnesses the power of ecosystems to benefit people, nature and climate” (WRI). This includes incorporating greenspace into buildings and community areas, reforestation, and much more. In this article we’ll highlight several projects focused on nature-based solutions and leveraging environmental enhancements to improve air quality.

Detroit Reforesting and restoring health

As Vibrant Lab states, “In 1950, Detroit boasted that it had more trees per capita than any other industrialized city in the world; but only thirty years later, more than half a million of those trees were dead.” The loss of this tree cover had implications on Detroit resident’s health as it reduced the ability to remove noise, water, and air pollution from the city. To combat this, The Greening of Detroit launched an initiative back in 1989 to restore the city's tree population. To date, the program has planted nearly 150,000 trees which help to reduce flood risk, capture air pollutants, and provide local cooling impacts. The City of Detroit has also committed to reforestation with their “10,000 Up!” program which has planted over 5,000 trees so far. 

The work on tree planting goes hand in hand with job training. The Greening program provides training and skill development while providing participants with stipends upon completion. This helps to incentivize community participation while strengthening the job force. Importantly, the program has had some struggles with community engagement in the past. Researchers who conducted interviews with community members found that residents often worried about upkeep, a lack of representation in the volunteer force, or had some distrust based on past experiences with the city. This highlights the importance of ingrained community involvement in Environmental Justice initiatives. Programs like the workforce training help ensure a sense of ownership not only of program outcomes, but program decision making and go even farther to rebuild trust with community members!

Summary of Environmental Change in Detroit

  • Environmental Initiative: Reforestation
  • Community Engagement Methods: Direct outreach, community education, community volunteers
  • Environmental Impact: Nearly 150,000 trees planted to help reduce stormwater runoff, reduce air pollution, and provide local cooling

The City of Medellin, Colombia Develops a Green Corridor

In Colombia, the city of Medellin was facing a variety of climate induced problems. Per the BBC, "In 2015 and 2016, we reached the peak for air pollution," says Paula Palacio, who was Medellin's local infrastructure secretary at the time. In addition to pollution concerns, Medellin was dealing with increasing temperatures within the city. The Green Corridor program was implemented in 2016 to counter these dangerous trends. The magnitude of Medellin’s program far exceeds Detroit’s. Energy Transition reports that “almost 1 million trees and more than 2.5 million smaller plants have been planted throughout Medellín” since 2016. 

The immediate impact of almost nearly 1 million trees helped to bring significant reduction in city temperatures as well as air pollution.  Temperatures in some areas now measure more than a 3℉ reduction relative to before the Green Corridor program kicked off. Along with public vehicle electrification programs, the program also helped to lower the morbidity rate from acute respiratory infections from about 160 deaths to just over 95 deaths (per 1,000 people). The measurable success of the Green Corridor program ties back to the degree of community buy-in. Citizens were able to vote for specific programs to fund using the city’s discretionary participation budget and upkeep is also aided by volunteers. In fact, citizen directed funding helped to plant nearly 10,000 more trees since 2019. 

Summary of Environmental Change in Medellin

  • Environmental Initiative: Reforestation
  • Community Engagement Methods: Participatory budgeting, community volunteers 
  • Environmental Impact: Reduced air pollution and air pollution associated deaths, reduced local temperatures

Copenhagen, Denmark leverages data to improve quality of life

The final example highlights the ability of data to help drive environmental decisions. Copenhagen is often listed among the most sustainable cities in the world and has committed to carbon neutrality by 2025. Their sustainability push is based on Four Pillars: Energy Consumption, Energy Production, Mobility with reduced emissions, and City Administration Initiatives. 

Of the initiatives aimed at public health improvement, the implementation of Project Airview stands out as an example of health centered data gathering. Project Airview is a collaboration between Google Maps and its Street View vehicles with air quality monitoring that enables street level mapping of air pollution. Copenhagen has leveraged this data to provide citizens with time-based recommendations for the least polluted walkways, ideal biking routes, and more. Additionally, understanding where pollution is most concentrated allows the city to explore targeted pollution reduction solutions. 

Finally, the city also boasts a major bicycle culture (the city has more bikes than cars) that helps to limit tailpipe emissions from cars. The city has invested in making bike travel safer, faster, and by leveraging Airview data, less polluted. Investments in sustainable infrastructure represent a critical pathway to improving environmental conditions and highlight the fact that nature-based solutions aren’t the only solution to improve public health!

Summary of Environmental Change in Copenhagen

  • Environmental Initiative: Air quality monitoring, data based air pollution maps, improved bicycle infrastructure
  • Community Engagement Methods: Community polling and referendums 
  • Environmental Impact: Reduced air pollution, targeted air pollution reduction

As we’ve explored in the case studies above, environmentally friendly and nature-based solutions often provide multiple benefits to community health such as cleaner air, cooler urban temperatures, flooding mitigation, and more. Initiatives such as tree planting also stand out with a super majority (90%!) of public approval

Nature-based solutions are critical for health and resiliency in the face of climate change and extreme weather, but they are no substitute for reducing direct sources of pollution. In fact, these nature-based solutions must evolve hand-in-hand with source reduction to maximize sustainability. As always, ensuring equity and community engagement stand as the enabler to long term success of such programs, especially when failure to implement such programs leave vulnerable communities most at-risk. This is why at JustAir we pride ourselves in creating platforms that allow community members to engage with and digest air quality data to make informed decisions within their communities! 

DeVynne Farquharson, Ph.D
June 13, 2024
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