The fight against air pollution

London has the highest levels of air pollution in Western Europe, exposing over 2 millions of its residents to illegal levels of air pollution. 

High concentrations of nitrogen dioxide (NO2), an irritant gas and one of the most dangerous pollutants, can lead to severe respiratory problems.  

Air pollution is responsible for approximately 10,000 premature deaths in the British capital every year, a factor that has prompted all boroughs to put together Air Quality Action Pans in hopes to reduce pollution and improve air quality in London.

A study by Breathe London conducted over the spring of 2019 revealed children were exposed to higher levels of pollution when walking to and from school, especially when taking the busy main roads. 

More than 250 pupils were invited to take part in the Wearables Study, which involved five London primary schools across five different boroughs of the capital; Richmond Upon Thames, Greenwich, Haringey, Hammersmith and Fulham, and Kensington and Chelsea.

While not covering Hackney, Croydon, Tower Hamlets and Lewisham, the study revealed that “on average, across all schools, the children were exposed to higher levels of [nitrogen dioxide] five times higher when travelling to school in the morning, and four times higher travelling home in the afternoon, than while at school.”

Air pollution contamination can drastically reduce children’s lung capacity, a factor that has pushed the councils of Hackney, Tower Hamlets, Croydon and Lewisham to make public health and awareness a priority in their respective Air Quality Action Plans.

Here are some of the steps undertaken by the boroughs of Tower Hamlets, Croydon, Hackney, and Lewisham. 

Tower Hamlets

Tower Hamlets has some of the lowest air quality in London; 40% of the borough’s residents live in areas with “unacceptable air quality”, while 37 primary schools and 11 secondary schools are located in areas where pollution exceeds the legal limits.

However, a recent report by London Air Quality Network revealed that the nitrogen dioxide emissions in Tower Hamlets are at the lowest they have been since 2013.

While the annual mean of NO2 levels remain above the legal limit, the data collected throughout 2018 and released this month shows that nitrogen dioxide emissions recorded around Mile End Road and Blackwall have significantly decreased. 

The report came as Tower Hamlets council announced it was consulting over 650 of Bethnal Green’s residents about its plan to “relieve gridlock on local streets.

Roads in Bethnal Green may undergo changes as part of the Liveable Scheme programme, an environmental scheme designed to improve the air quality in Tower Hamlets, currently rated as the fifth worst borough for air pollution in London.  

The project seeks to “improve the look and feel of public spaces in neighbourhoods across the borough”, as well as facilitate road access by foot, bike and public transport. 

The scheme is schedule to be delivered over four years, and includes a total of 17 areas across Bethnal Green. 

John Biggs, Mayor of Tower Hamlets, said: “We estimate that 12,000 vehicles pass through Bethnal Green every day from other boroughs.

“We want to encourage more residents to walk and cycle and reducing congestion will be key to making our neighbourhoods safer, cleaner and greener.”

The council is working to bring the project to other areas of Tower Hamlets, including Bow, Barkantine, Brick Lane and Wappping. 

Because most of the the borough’s air pollution comes from the motorways that link North and South London, as well as East and West London, the council hopes to work more closely with TfL on reducing emissions from busses, and push to be included in the Ultra Low Emission Zones.

The council has thus pledged to reduce emission levels by choosing to focus on raising public awareness through programmes such as the AirTEXT messaging tool, improving and expanding low and zero-emission vehicle network by adding more electric vehicle charging points, increasing the number of “green infrastructure” in the borough and in schools, as well as continue to engage with the local community through schemes like the Zero Emission Network and the Low Emission Neighbourhoods.


Man-made pollution was linked to 7% of deaths in Hackney in 2013 and 2014.

Despite remaining at illegal levels, Hackney’s nitrogen dioxide emissions, which are regularly measured at the borough’s monitored site in Old Street, have drastically decreased since 2014.

The borough of Hackney decided to tackle air pollution through local actions, transport-related actions, and by continuing to actively monitor pollution levels.

Local actions include schemes such as the Zero Emission Network or Ultra Low Emission Streets.

The Zero Emission Network, which has also partnered up with the borough of Islington and the borough of Tower Hamlets, encourages businesses in the City Fringe (areas that include Shoreditch, Spitafields, and Bunhill) to switch to low, or zero emission vehicles.

Ultra Low Emission Streets, on the other hand, aim to “reclaim the roads in Shoreditch from parked vehicles and motor traffic congestion and transform them into attractive and liveable neighbourhoods” by restricting circulation on two zones to walking, cycling or low-emission vehicles only. ULES operate during peak hours only (from 7am-10am and 4pm to 7pm from Monday to Friday) across five streets in Shoreditch.

Hackney council has also committed to actively monitor 50 schools and nurseries across the borough, as well as have a total of 17 “school streets” by 2022.

Councillor Feryal Demirci said: “ Working together we will continue to change the way we all live, travel and do business to make Hackney one of the cleanest Central London boroughs and most attractive places to live, work and visit in London and London the best place to be in the world.”


Air pollution contributes to over 200 deaths in Croydon every year. A report conducted by the charity Asthma UK revealed that the borough of Croydon has the worst cases of asthma attacks in all of London, making it “the worst place in London to have asthma”.

Croydon, like the boroughs of Hackney and Tower Hamlets, saw a steep reduction in nitrogen dioxide emissions over the years. However, NO2 have increased in Norbury between 2017 and 2018.

With over 60% of nitrogen dioxide levels emitted by vehicles, Croydon council has chosen to focus on reducing emissions from development sites and buildings, raising public awareness and health awareness, as well as encouraging the borough’s residents to adopt eco-friendly transport systems, such as cycling or electric cars.

Croydon’s most recent air quality action plan includes reducing the speed limit to 20mph in more residential areas of the borough, increasing the number of electric vehicle charging stations, establishing “pedestrian days”, as well as adding and improving green infrastructure to encourage cycling and walking.

One of Croydon’s most notable achievements is the creation of the AirTEXT service – “the first of its kind in Europe”- which allows users to receive air quality alerts. It has since been adopted in a number of other boroughs, including Lewisham and Tower Hamlets. 


Lewisham’s attempts at reducing nitrogen dioxide emissions have proven largely successful with figures showing a significant decrease in NO2 in 2018, even achieving the legal level in Catford.

The borough of Lewisham has chose to improve air quality by reducing emissions from new developments, improving eco-friendly transport systems’ infrastructure, and raising public health and awareness.

Road transport represent 64% of the borough’s nitrogen dioxide emissions, with TfL buses and diesel cars emitting the most pollutants (26% and 22% respectively). 

The council thus decided to prioritise the expansion of a “sustainable transport infrastructure” by increasing the number of electric vehicle charging points, implementing more pedestrian days, offering free or discounted parking permits to drivers of zero-emission cards (a strategy deemed successful as it led to a 4.5% increase on issue permits between 2015 and 2016), and developing the North Lewisham Links Projects, which aims to improve the walking and cycling roads in New Cross and Deptford.

Pollution-related artworks have also been exhibited along the Brockley Corridor as part of an air quality project meant to raise public awareness over the dangers of toxic air. 

Additional initiatives include encouraging the population to use the Lewisham Air app, which notifies users of the borough’s air quality on a daily basis, as well as push more school pupils to join the TfL Star travel planning programme, which is already in place in 80% of Lewisham’s schools.

Lewisham Council’s Director of Public Health, Dr Danny Ruta, said: “The effects of air pollution are felt most strongly by the most vulnerable, including the young, the elderly and those with heart and lung diseases.

“By working together, we can create a healthier environment in Lewisham which will deliver many health gains: longer health expectancy, reduced obesity, reduced sickness absence, greater social connectedness and improved wellbeing.”

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