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Why has London’s response to the smog crisis been so sluggish? With 6-8% of all deaths in the capital reportedly a result of air toxicity, it seems absurd that this week’s deterioration in local atmosphere was not met by a more radical response from City Hall. Saharan dust helped air pollution reach levels bad enough for official diktats to recommend Londoners stay indoors, but Dr Steve Arnold from the School of Earth & Environment at the University of Leeds asserts that it is not the only contributing factor: “A big fraction is likely to be man-made pollution.” Blaming the Sahara goes some way to explain why there was no effort to replicate measures introduced in Paris when smog skyrocketed there a couple of weeks ago – providing free public transport or limiting the numbers of vehicles on the roads. The comparative paternalism of London’s ‘stay indoors’ instruction revealed a paltry ambition to truly clamp down on polluters.
London’s dysfunctional management of its environmental health crisis is perhaps best explained as a result of the current narratives informing our understanding of urban space. As the French philosopher Henri Lefebvre said, space is shaped by interpretation, which is in turn shaped by power, meaning that it “not a pre-existing void, endowed with formal properties alone. To criticise and reject [it] is simply to refuse a particular representation”.
In the case of London, the dominant interpretation or meta-narrative is characterised by a development boom spurred by the influx of foreign capital that is co-opting space as a commodity above all, with wide-ranging social and environmental implications. If the city is understood in computing terms as a ‘software’ of programmes and policies defined by the ‘hardware’ (buildings and infrastructure) of urban space, then any environmental or health effort not fully aligned to London’s hardware-economic imperative is frustrated. City Hall’s inaction this week is a symptom of this trend, as is continuing loss of open space in capital – with 215 hectares of loss in the three years leading up to 2012. Another symptom is the city’s persistent failure to keep to European nitrogen dioxide regulations, which has recently led the EU to launch legal proceedings against the UK for London’s noxious emissions excess.
If City Hall is going to introduce policies to tackle London’s environmental health challenge at a city-wide scale, it will need a change in its hardwired understanding of urban space.
Earlier this week, one such measure to establish change at the systemic level may have emerged: the Greater London National Park. This idea, the brainchild of guerrilla geographer Daniel Raven-Ellison, is to turn London into a national park that fulfils the same roles that equivalent parks do across the country, namely “to conserve and enhance their natural beauty, wildlife and cultural heritage; and promote opportunities for the understanding and enjoyment of the special qualities of National Parks by the public”. This inversion of our compartmentalised thinking about space could breakdown the perceived dichotomies of rural-urban and nature-people to promote a new approach to the city, one that prioritises ecological and social sensitivities.
An urban national park could recalibrate the London’s perception of its urban space. Its value would not be understood on economic terms alone, but they would become closely connected to the ecological and social aspects of the city. Valuing the city in this way would increase the impetus for maintaining and promoting biodiversity, and could spur a London development boom that works to help retrofit the infrastructure in response future climate change challenges rather than against it. Perhaps a city that understood itself differently would not have been so sluggish in confronting this week’s unprecedented air pollution.
Marco Picardi is an urbanist and campaigns for a greener Westway. @greenWestway
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