Greater Manchester has amongst the worst air quality in the UK. Air pollution causes many health problems, as well as worsening pre-existing health conditions. Increasingly, Greater Manchester residents are concerned about poor air quality and want actions to be taken. Yet, budgets that could support change are under more and more constraints. In this article, Professor Sheena Cruickshank addresses how focused community research and partnerships can identify and prioritise transport needs, while simultaneously reducing the impacts of air pollution.
- Engaging with communities is key to promoting awareness of pollution risks, as well as understanding local sources of pollution and the barriers to active travel.
- Collaborative working between local communities, healthcare workers and researchers is a vital tool to develop effective active travel infrastructure.
- By engaging with communities, priority actions can be identified that represent “quick wins” to encourage active travel uptake which may in turn reduce pollution.
Air pollution in Greater Manchester
Outdoor air pollution from vehicle exhausts, industrial waste, fuels and refuse burning contributes to 4.2 million deaths every year. Pollution is a causative factor that can also worsen conditions such as heart disease, stroke, COPD, asthma and acute respiratory infections such as COVID-19 and influenza. The impact of pollution on health is unequal, disproportionately impacting the elderly, the very young, those with pre-existing health conditions, and people in lower income neighbourhoods.
Greater Manchester (GM) has among the worst levels of pollution in the UK. It has been estimated that poor air quality contributes to around 1,200 premature deaths each year in the city region. Vehicular transport is still a major contributor to pollution. Plans to improve pavements and implement cycle lane networks are underway in some boroughs of GM as part of the Bee Network. However, the network does not include all parts of GM and notably some areas remain pollution “hot spots”. One such place is Ardwick, a central area of Manchester which is bordered by busy major roads.
Residents in Ardwick are concerned about the impacts of pollution on their health and, particularly, their children’s health. Indeed, analysis of pollution levels near several GM schools including the primary school in Ardwick reveal high levels of pollution. In consultation workshops, Ardwick residents expressed concerns about high levels of pollution, and safety of pathways, pavements, and traffic crossings, stating all contributed to a reduction in physical activity and use of active transport (such as walking or cycling).
Harnessing the knowledge of community hubs
Building on a previous project, we received funding to conduct follow-up research in Ardwick to explore the barriers to active travel and develop solutions to encourage walking in the area. Researchers conducted participatory mapping exercises with Ardwick residents via community hubs, including Ardwick Climate Action, Medlock Primary School, the local Scout Group and Brunswick Church Women’s Group. Ardwick Climate Action are a group of local committed residents who, amongst other projects, have established a programme called Ardwick Stepping Stones, which has involved both renewing green spaces and creating small planted havens throughout the neighbourhood.
The purpose of the mapping sessions was to facilitate discussion and capture information about the regular journeys that people make, the routes they choose, the modes of transport selected, and the general traffic-related issues experienced in and around the area. In addition, site visits were conducted to observe the traffic, roads, footpaths, cycle routes, parks, and facilities in the area.
The work identified hotspots for fast-moving, dense traffic and poorly lit paths, with one resident remarking: ‘I really think we should have more traffic lights and lamp posts.’ It was notable that busy roads were heavily used by pedestrians, particularly children on the school route, yet the roads were felt to be dangerous, as one resident highlighted: ‘Cars come flying off the roundabout, cars don’t stop.’ People cited that at busy times it could take 15 minutes or more for a gap in the traffic to enable them to cross such roads safely. Other issues identified included blocked drains close to dropped curbs, making access difficult for wheelchair and pram users.
Hyper-local pollution monitoring
The mapping exercise and site visits enabled focused research on pollution monitoring. Multiple readings of black carbon were taken at different locations surrounding busy polluted areas, quieter roads, and green areas included in the Ardwick Stepping Stones project. Black carbon is found in PM2.5 (that is, particulate matter smaller than 2.5 microns) and comes from fires and vehicle emissions. PM2.5 is known to be very damaging to health when breathed into the lungs. Although black carbon is not routinely measured, research suggests average street levels of 1039 ng/m3 in urban areas. However, in Ardwick, pollution, at times, exceeded 3000 ng/m3 on busy roads. Quieter roads and green spaces had significantly lower levels. This was most notable at the school entrance points next to the main road (the A6), which had significantly higher levels of pollution than the entrance on the residential road. The mapping exercises had revealed many children walked to school along the A6. This is a cause of particular concern, given the A6 is one of the most polluted sites.
Based on the collective data, a walking route was planned in partnership with Ardwick Climate Action and residents that would avoid busy areas and take in more of the green spaces. An artist, Sally Gilford, was commissioned to create wayfinders in the community to indicate the walking route for residents. These have QR codes linking to information about the plants, the research conducted at the University and local information. During installation of the wayfinders, a resident passerby commented on how moved he was to see this and how this type of project really matters. Work in Spring 2024 will seek further resident feedback about the project.
By partnering with the community, the project has been able to highlight particular areas that may require safety interventions and should enable targeted action which, in times where there are budgetary constraints, is all the more important. Notably, planted areas were linked to lower pollution, supporting the idea that planting, even in small pockets of land, can make a positive, cost-effective difference to air quality. Ardwick, like several boroughs in GM is a spoke that connects areas that are well served by local bicycle hubs (known as the Bee Network). Enhancing infrastructure for active travel therefore enables safe travel, not just for the community in Ardwick, but has positive effects for neighbouring communities who may want to take active travel via Ardwick. This approach highlights that by taking a local community-centred approach to policy interventions, you can deliver real improvements to active travel take-up. Given the known benefits to health and wellbeing for communities of active travel, it is imperative that we learn these lessons for how we construct and deliver policy locally.
- Policymakers should adopt place-based participatory research geared towards the needs of local communities to tackle air pollution levels. By employing community research, policies can be targeted to need, maximising impact and community value.
- Transport for Greater Manchester and local planners should strengthen links with neighbourhoods and community groups – for example, via community champions or funding similar schemes – to enhance the effectiveness of the long-term Greater Manchester Combined Authority transport strategy and the continued development of the Bee Network. This can ensure that the transport options and infrastructure work for each community and connect communities and areas in a way that allows residents and commuters to use active travel for their complete journey.
- Green spaces, even small, planted areas, lower pollution levels, and encourage active travel take up. Urban planners and developers should include a minimum green space quota in all new transportation infrastructure projects. This might include ‘pocket parks’ along busy roads to significantly and cost-effectively reduce pollution exposure.