More than 1,100 London schools, from nurseries to secondary schools, are near roads carrying 10,000 or more vehicles a day, which could be responsible for up to 30% of all new cases of asthma in children. How can we make the streets safer and more pleasant places for our children? Last Friday (May 17), I had the pleasure of accompanying London Sustainability Exchange (LSX) to Tiverton Primary School in North London as part of their “Bubble Day” outreach project on air quality. Bubble Day encouraged children to travel to school by sustainable means within a 1 km ‘bubble’ from the school, and allowed children to measure their own local air pollution using citizen science techniques. It was very encouraging to see how many students raised their hand to say they had come to school on foot or by public transport. Only two out of a class of thirty said that they arrived by car! On a separate note, it was also heartening to see how the kids in such a multi-ethnic and diverse school got on so well with each other.
Casting my mind back to when I was in primary school, I can remember going on Nature walks to the forest on the edge of my town in the west of Ireland. I have fond memories of collecting frogspawn and leaves, identifying birds and trees. We were reconnecting and learning a new-found respect for Nature but it wasn’t such a big deal when you lived in a small town surrounded by fields on all sides. The sea air that swept in from the Atlantic was sweet and pure; our lungs were fit and healthy. Inner city London is an altogether different world where education on air quality carries far greater significance and where children often don’t have a choice about whether their air is safe to breathe or not.
The staff at LSX were well organized under Ali Lin and delivered a thoughtful and effective programme of events that were equally fun and educational. The day’s activities included learning about how distribution of moths and lichen can indicate good or poor air quality; ‘seeing’ pollution using Ozone strips and sticky tape analysis, monitoring and mapping local travel methods to and from school, and making badges to share with others the importance of clean air in the local area. Travel surveys found that currently only 3% of pupils cycle to school, yet 60% wished they could. Additionally 95% of lichens observed by pupils are only found in polluted areas.
My own experience of citizen science has been an overwhelmingly positive one. I spent one week in Wytham Woods near Oxford in 2010 with the environmental NGO Earth Watch when I was employed at HSBC. Time was spent collecting data on moths (I didn’t realize there were so many different species) and measuring tree growth in the fragmented woodlands nearby. Not only did I learn a great deal about climate change impacts on native species, but it also brought people together from many different backgrounds and countries and all in a fun environment. Because the programme continued over several years assisted by many dozens of citizen scientists, more data was collected than could ever have been achieved by a team of dedicated researchers.
Air pollution is a hot topic for London. The Mayor of London has faced down several threats of fines from EU regulators due to air pollution along major transport arteries in the city. The Congestion Zone charge has probably had the single biggest effect on driving down air pollution in London. Hybrid buses, that use a combination of an electric battery and diesel engines on certain routes, are also to be commended. However, there needs to be more incentives for people to use sustainable transport. The roll out of a network of electric car charging points has been too slow so far. Green infrastructure needs to be developed further – not just to provide green spaces for health and leisure but also to increase biodiversity and improve air quality. Green walls absorb particulate matter (PM10s) from the air and act as a natural filter that can improve quality of life for asthma sufferers and the like. Urban sustainability is one of the ongoing photo projects I’m working on and I hope to raise awareness of initiatives such as urban farming and green infrastructure through photography. We need to engage school children on such issues and I believe that photography is a powerful way of achieving this. With camera in hand, your sense of sight is sharpened many-fold and you find yourself wanting to share your vision of the world with others.
Improving air quality and reducing CO2 emissions go hand in hand. The threat to remove climate change from the curriculum is very real. Under new education guidelines by Michael Gove, UK Secretary of State for Education, climate change will be dropped from the National Curriculum for students under 14 (Michael Gove: Don’t scrap climate change education). There is also a chronic shortage of scientists and engineers that are needed to make the UK a world leader in technological innovation for the green sector. No doubt that lack of investment in our education system is one reason for this. Our schools need to form more partnerships with the private sector and in particular with NGOs such as LSX. We need interactive and fun activities both in and out of the classroom. We owe it to our future generation if not to ourselves.
What can you do?
The Bubble Day activities are part of the LSX Cleaner Air for Manor House Schools project, part of a wider project called PACT, Prepare, Adapt, Connect and Thrive. Over the next three years, this project aims to promote simple and practical lifestyle changes, which prepare the Manor House community for challenges associated with climate change. PACT is also looking for local people interested in volunteering as PACT Champions. This is a great way to learn new skills and to learn about climate change. For volunteer opportunities, please contact Trish Disbrey at Volunteer Centre Hackney on 0207 2414443 or at Trish@vchackney.org