Urban Political Ecology and Air Pollution

By Maddie Peace

This blog post starts to look at the implications of air pollution in cities like London using an urban political ecology lens. I do this by speaking about some of the technology that has been put in place recently to monitor air pollution rates and how this type of activity may exclude vulnerable groups to certain kinds of risks.

The issue I am looking to address is the problem of air pollution in city locations, specifically London. Air pollution is known to cause health risks when inhaled. Problems include asthma, irregular heartbeat and inflammation of artery walls which in turn increases the risk of heart disease. Air pollution may even contribute to conditions such as dementia. There are numerous other conditions that can be attributed to air pollution. Professor Frank Kelly, Director of the Environmental Research Group at King’s College London, and also a medical expert, states that “All of the organs in the body seem to be affected in some way by breathing in air pollution” (British Heart Foundation, 2019). This suggests that areas of high air pollution need to be looked at under the microscope to alleviate the chances of these conditions developing in the public. The top cities for air pollution in the UK are London, Birmingham, Manchester and Bristol (British Heart Foundation, 2019). Air pollution is also known to cause damage to the environment, as emissions are linked to global climate change.

Air pollution, its levels and management has been scrutinized recently due to COP24, following the Paris Agreement and the popular documentary about the Chernobyl disaster (which shows how bodies in power do not consider everyone’s wellbeing in a pollution disaster). This means that more of the general public are becoming aware of the issues they face when it comes to air pollution; it is now common knowledge.

I am specifically speaking of air pollution from human factors such as mobile and stationary sources. Mobile sources include modes of transport and stationary includes industrial waste. I am focusing on the waste produced by industries and vehicles and how we can establish the parties which are most vulnerable. I am also looking at why the parties involved or not involved are important for us to address, and if industries (like chemical manufacturing and car producers) and vehicles are adequately managing air pollution to the best of their ability today. I will also look to see if there are any specific groups who are overlooked in the process or are receiving more of a benefit.

I am uncovering the issue of air pollution by looking at urban political ecology and environmental justice. “Urban political ecology seeks to understand the ways in which our urban environments are produced and reproduced, focusing on questions such as who decides, how they decide, who benefits and who loses” (Andreucci et al, 2017). This is particularly relevant in terms of air pollution, be it from mobile, stationary, area or natural sources. Environmental justice is ensuring that all groups are equally represented in relation to the enforcement of environmental laws and regulations.

I will start by establishing why we are concerned about air pollution as a problem for the health of populations, before looking at densely populated cities, specifically London. Then I will consider the Sustainable Development Goals in terms of air pollution, lastly looking at these problems in light of urban political ecology and environmental justice.


Air pollution in cities

Air pollution is a hot topic in cities with high readings and especially London. London has introduced a way of monitoring air pollution across the city which produce hourly results. The city has also implemented a policy which means the pollution levels cannot exceed 200 micrograms of nitrogen dioxide per cubic metre more than 18 times a year. However, this is consistently exceeded (British Heart Foundation, 2019). The Mayor of London introduced an air quality monitoring system this year (2019). One of the monitoring systems was in the form of backpacks given to primary school students to measure the air pollution levels on their journey to school (London Assembly, 2019a). This is part of the Breathe London scheme which is a charity with the agenda to create awareness of air pollution, allowing changes to be implemented in the areas that need it most (Breathe London, 2019).

Another scheme that has been introduced in London is the Ultra-Low Emission Zone, which began on the 8th of April 2019. This has increased the cost for drivers of any form of transport in the congestion zones. This has been put in place in the name of the public health crises created by London’s air pollution (London Assembly, 2019b). The Breathe London project will assist in determining the effectiveness of the Ultra Low Emission Zone by creating comparable data, before and after the event of further congestion charges.

04. Maddie blog image

The above image from the Financial Times (2018) shows us how air pollution in London is distributed, taking into consideration the density of such pollution. Images and data like this can help policy makers establish what type of policy would be most effective in certain locations.


Sustainable Development Goals

London is part of the C40 Cities group, which is a climate leadership group working with the most influential cities of the world. Specifically, in the case of air pollution, C40 Cities focuses on monitoring and measurement, health impact analysis, making a case and policy implementation (C40 Cities, 2019). This allows for the production of policies that promote sustainable living. This ultimately derives from the sustainable development goals, targeting the following in relation to air pollution;

Goal 3: Good Health and Wellbeing

Goal 7: Affordable and Clean Energy

Goal 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities

Goal 13: Climate Action

Goal 15: Life on land (Sustainable Development Goals, 2019).

This body is an agent in determining the policies that are enforced on communities to live a more sustainable life. How does this body determine who is at risk? How does it cater for those that they deem of low/lower risk? How does it cater for those that they deem of high/higher risk? How do they justify their decisions? These are questions that need to be posed to organisations such as C40 Cities to gain further understanding.

Environmental justice is the fair distribution of environmental burdens and benefits. The Sustainable Development Goals are the overarching agenda for all countries involved to follow in order to live sustainably. They help implement environmental justice throughout the countries involved in the scheme. Environmental burdens such as air pollution are difficult to manage in densely populated areas like London and so equipment is being used to help monitor the situation in order to improve the overall pollution rates through policy. Is the burden of air pollution in London evenly distributed within specific groups? Are more areas or groups affected more than others? How are these groups catered for? Is there a pattern in the type of people that are being overlooked? An example of this could be an individual with a heart condition; the effects of air pollution will only exacerbate the condition. This is an area for further investigation as by looking at the case study of London from an urban political ecology and environmental justice perspective, we can establish if some groups are unfairly represented or disadvantaged and why.



Andreucci, D. et al (2017). “Value Grabbing”: A Political Ecology of Rent. Capitalism Nature Socialism, 28(3), pp.28-47.

Breathe London (2019). About – Breathe London. [online] Breathe London. Available at: <https://www.breathelondon.org/about/&gt; [Accessed 19 Jun. 2019].

British Heart Foundation (2019). Watch: Why is air pollution a problem?. [online] Bhf.org.uk. Available at: <https://www.bhf.org.uk/informationsupport/heart-matters-magazine/news/air-pollution&gt; [Accessed 19 Jun. 2019].

C40 Cities (2019). C40. [online] C40.org. Available at: <https://www.c40.org/networks/air-quality&gt; [Accessed 19 Jun. 2019].

Financial Times (2018) London’s pollution problem. [online] Financial Times. Available at: <https://www.ft.com/content/9c2b9d92-a45b-11e8-8ecf-a7ae1beff35b> [Accessed 19 Jun. 2019].

London Assembly (2019a). Mayor launches air quality monitoring backpacks trial. [online] London City Hall. Available at: <https://www.london.gov.uk/press-releases/mayoral/mayor-launches-air-quality-monitor-backpack-trials&gt; [Accessed 19 Jun. 2019].

London Assembly (2019b). The Mayor’s Ultra Low Emission Zone for London. [online] London City Hall. Available at: <https://www.london.gov.uk/what-we-do/environment/pollution-and-air-quality/mayors-ultra-low-emission-zone-london&gt; [Accessed 19 Jun. 2019].

Sustainable Development Goals (2019). SDGs .:. Sustainable Development Knowledge Platform. [online] Sustainabledevelopment.un.org. Available at: <https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/sdgs&gt; [Accessed 19 Jun. 2019].

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