With Mayor of London Sadiq Khan launching low-emission bus zones in some of the city’s most polluted areas and planning to pedestrianise a chunk of Oxford Street by December, steps are clearly being taken to tackle the city’s pollution levels. But we’ve still got a long way to go – the air quality in London is worse than most other places in Europe, the US and Mexico.
Step in, Clean Air Now – the campaign raising awareness about pollution in our capital city. We sat down with Co-Founder Vasilisa Forbes to find out everything you need to know, and how you can help…
Tell us more about the campaign…
Backed by Sadiq Khan, Clean Air Now is a campaign for greater transparency and awareness of London’s pollution levels. With artist Vasilisa Forbes and graphic designer Claire Matthews at the helm, the group of 18-35-year-olds are campaigning for positive environmental change in London, through creating and placing billboards, posters and street art on some of the city’s most polluted roads.
“We’ve been breathing this toxic air for over a decade without much press coverage or awareness,” explains Forbes. “We wanted to inform the public in an editorial and artistic way the effects pollution can have on our bodies, and why it's worth discussing these issues.”
How did it come about?
Forbes and Matthews met at school in south west London and had both lived in the capital all their adult lives, but it wasn’t until February 2016 that they became increasingly aware of the city’s toxic air quality. “Whilst travelling to work, Claire started noticing her nose would collect soot,” Forbes recalls. “I’d been living in London Bridge and would notice my lungs stinging after a day in the city… once I got home I struggled to breath and had shortness of breath.”
The pair found themselves discussing their mutual grievances, realising the issue was not a personal one but a real threat to the health and lifespan of millions of people. It was then they knew that something needed to be done to raise awareness, and they decided to employ their skills as an artist and graphic designer to launch Clean Air Now.
Just how bad are the city’s pollution levels?
London exceeded its annual allowance of pollution levels in just two weeks at the beginning of 2017. This means the air present in London is never clean, and is always at a level where breathing it is unsafe and harmful. It’s the nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions from cars and busses that are the main problem and, according to Forbes, diesel vehicles are the worst perpetrators. “It's the diesel particles in particular that lodge into the lungs and skin, and cause various health issues as well as ageing the body,” she explains. “Areas such as Tower Hamlets are particularly bad, but both poor and wealthy areas are choking.”
Who’s most at risk?
While pollution levels are bad across the city, high streets, main roads and areas that see a steady stream of traffic and heavy vehicles like Brixton and Putney hold the most risk. Unsurprisingly, those who expose themselves more to the toxic air – such as walkers and joggers taking main roads – are more at risk. Rather than stopping exercising outside, though, Forbes suggests finding a large park or common instead of jogging by a busy road or dense part of the city, for example.
What could be done to reduce toxic air in the city?
Forbes and Matthews believe the problem could essentially be solved by political will, citing the creation of more green zones, pedestrian centres, smarter cycle routes, and incentives to use electric cars and ban diesel vehicles as possible options. “The city has become catered for the driver, but it should belong to the pedestrian as most Londoners use public transport,” says Forbes, who also warns of the dangers hiking up train fares pose. “The cheaper public transport is, the more desirable it becomes and the more people use it. It's very sad to see train and rail fares getting more expensive each year and alienating commuters.”
How can people get involved?
If you want to get involved with Clean Air Now, or tackling the issue of London’s pollution in general, there are various things you can do. “Helping raise awareness is our biggest issue,” explains Forbes, “so tell others about the causes and effects of air pollution, share the images and content, and support charities acting on the issues such as Client Earth, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth.” Writing to your MP and local government body stressing your concerns on the issue is also effective. “With more public awareness and pressure, the government will be forced to act on the issue.”