How urban planning is leading the way to cleaner air

Switching from fossil fuels to environmentally-friendly alternatives is no easy feat – and even more so when you consider that most cities’ transport networks are completely reliant upon fossil fuel derivatives.

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The majority of cars and buses on roads across the world are fuelled by diesel or petrol, derived from crude oil. The combustion of these products in engines creates fumes which affect both human health and the environment.

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This impact on air quality is one of the lesser considered consequences of high volumes of traffic in cities, and to combat the comprised air quality, the European Union has issued guidelines on the air quality in major cities to limit its effect on human health.

There are a number of ways to solve the problem of poor air quality, and it’s interesting to see the range of solutions offered up across the globe; from enforced reductions on diesel vehicles – as was enforced in Paris in 2015 – to improved public transport networks and dedicated cycling infrastructure.

From Santiago in Chile to Copenhagen in Denmark, cycling has been given increased prominence as governments seek to improve air quality.


In London – a city notorious for poor air quality – the construction of cycle superhighways made cycling safer, and the Netherlands has become the standard-bearer for cycling infrastructure, with as much as 26% of all journeys in the country made by bicycle.

The introduction of bike hire schemes and car-free days alongside dedicated cycle infrastructure has shown the benefits of cycling – cleaner, healthier, less obtrusive than conventional traffic and cheaper to maintain, as well as less compromising to air quality.

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As well as changing the type of traffic, cities can be architecturally designed to reduce the impact of excess traffic.

In Barcelona, the introduction of superilles, or superblocks, aims to minimise traffic through a multi-faceted approach which will re-imagine traffic routes, introduce new speed limits, re-route current public transport services and construct new cycle paths. This short video explains how the superblock plan will work:

This is as much a social approach as an environmental one, with an emphasis placed on reclaiming urban space for citizen use. Other measures are being investigated and implemented as a means of reducing noise and air pollution alongside the superilles programme.

By limiting the number of vehicles on the road, it really is possible to limit the compromising of air quality. To do so is to take the next step in reducing global dependence on fossil fuels, and to begin the transition to a zero-carbon society.

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