How to clean up our air

Air pollution is clearly a serious public health issue. Should I try to leave the car at home? That would be a great start. Walking and cycling are fab ways to get exercise and avoid sitting in queues of traffic, especially if you use one of the new pop-up cycle lanes in the city.

Image: Tejvan Pettinger/Flickr Creative Commons

What about electric cars? No nasty air pollution from them, right? Not true. They don’t have exhaust pipes but still produce tons of fine particles through brake & tyre wear, and road abrasion. Electric cars are also still cars – contributing to congestion, road traffic accidents, divided communities and pavement parking. And they don’t help tackle obesity either: 64% of adults and 1 in 3 children in Southampton are overweight or obese.

MattBonner – DieselElectricCars – Bristol2020 /

Ok, I’ll walk more, but then come home and relax in front of a cosy fire. I’m afraid that even if you have a top of the range ‘eco-stove’, firing it up is the same as having 6 HGVs running their engines outside your house. Open fires, including bonfires and fire pits, are much worse for air quality, especially if you burn ‘wet wood’ (rather than kiln-dried wood). This is especially important during the current pandemic as air pollution can make respiratory problems worse.

Emissions of PM2.5 (fine particles) from residential heating (Defra, 2018)

But I thought wood-burning stoves were meant to be sustainable? We were also sold diesel cars on the basis that they would help tackle climate change and that didn’t turn out well. Wood burning still releases carbon dioxide, which is the key driver of climate change.

Of course, there are a large number people living in fuel poverty in the UK who rely on wood fuel to keep warm in the winter, but if you’ve got central heating, that would be the cleaner, healthier choice for your family and your neighbourhood.

I’m just one person, how can I make a difference? You can talk to your friends and neighbours about how you feel air pollution is impacting you. You might be surprised to learn that others feel the same way. At our Clean Air Cafés in St Denys, residents shared their views on air pollution and healthy streets. The council took notice and asked the community to co-design plans for the city’s first low-traffic neighbourhood.

Thinking locally and transforming our communities into ‘20 minute neighbourhoods‘ – where everything you might need is available within a short walk – would be a great way of turning Southampton into a liveable, healthy city.

Our first Clean Air Café, March 2019, St Denys

How can I protect my children from dirty air? Walk, cycle or scoot wherever possible because air pollution is actually worse inside a car. If you’re not feeling confident about getting on two wheels, Bikeability training will give you the skills you need. Organise a Play Street for your children to play freely outside your home (like many of us used to do back in the day). Or perhaps an Open Streets event such as a Big Lunch or winter festival.

You can also support local School Streets by helping to steward timed road closures. These help to reduce pollution levels outside schools at drop off and pick up times, whilst creating a safer street and space for social distancing. If your school doesn’t have one yet, nudge them to find out more!

Are there ways I can get involved online too? Yes, you can add comments about improvements you’d like to see for walking and cycling in the city – the Southampton Commonplace map or Sustrans #SpacetoMove website. If you feel that clean air is important, you’ve enjoyed using the new cycle lanes in the city or want to have a low-traffic neighbourhood, then please email your MP, local councillors and also the transport team at the council. Positive feedback is needed to ensure that support & funding for such measures continues to flow into the city.

You can also get in touch with Healthwatch Southampton and My Journey to find out more about actions for health and how to get around the city sustainably. We have been working with them to get more people talking about air pollution and active travel, and providing recommendations to health organisations about some of the changes that they could make. 

Together we can create safer and healthier streets for us all!

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