Communicating air pollution with Imperial College London

We worked with Rosie Riley from the Centre for Environmental Policy at Imperial College to understand how we can use behaviour change and public engagement as a way to build cities that are healthier, fairer, more inclusive and more sustainable places to live.

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All of this work took place in late 2019 and early 2020, before the Covid-19 pandemic transformed our perceptions and our ability to change.

Co-design workshop

We began by working with Rosie to recruit a diverse group of people from the local community to understand what good air meant to them and to gain a deeper understanding of the problems and solutions that they felt might help to create clean air in their lives.

We then had great fun reviewing everyone’s contributions to look for patterns and inspiration from their responses. In particular we were looking to see how their ideas fit into Donella Meadows’ system change theory which suggests that the greatest lever for change comes from paradigm shifts while the weakest levers come from material change. In reality, we see these different system levels as intimately linked, so that when people experience a completely different environment they may well sense a philosophical conversion.

We also used the workshops to understand the metaphors and references that communities use when they talk about good air and bad air – from mountains, trees and children playing in the park to lungs filled with disease, facemasks (pre-covid), chimneys and cars.

Good air is?

‘Mountains, Trees, A blue planet, Bikes, Children, A picnic in a park, Lungs filled with the world inside you, Artists and architects exploring the physical and creative aspects of our lives, People walking / cycling along car-free streets, Flowers, sunshine and clouds, Happy faces, a poem from your child…“Amazing Air. Air looks like plain bright sky. Air smells like fresh oxygen from a tree. Air tastes like energy in your lungs. Air sounds like a whispering friend. Air feels like it‘s not there”.’

Bad air is?

‘Explosions, War, Us against them, Airplanes, Cars and trucks in the city, Tombstones with the names and ages of loved ones, Lungs filled with disease, Drowning in dirty air, A poem about bad air being invisible but in your nose, mouth and brain, an algae roundabout, Face masks, Chimneys, Cars and motorbikes...’

Steps from good air to bad air

Finally, we shared the steps, barriers and opportunities that people felt could help their communities move from ‘bad’ air to ‘good’ air. These included reducing car use and increasing the quality of cycling infrastructure but also wider environmental ambitions around community campaigns, free public transport and reduced flights:

• Get rid of car / reduce car use / slower speeds
• Create a car club / share
• Get family friends to change habit
• Create quiet ways / low pollution routes / walk / cycle only areas
• Get many to change the way they travel to school
• Better bike infrastructure
• Clean public transport
• Share data with the world / learn from wider world
• Community manifestos / nicer neighbourhoods / campaign locally / write toMPs
• Car parks to park lets
• Free public transport
• Reduce flights
• Plant trees
• Spread the word
• No Uber – plan ahead to avoid trips
• Make it harder to use motor vehicles in London
• Electric only roads etc

Creating change

We used this research as a starting point to develop potential communications and signage that Rosie could use to assess the impact of visual communications on people’s desire to change. We mapped these communication touch points across the environment and showed how they could be used in different settings.

Guilt, Time excuse, Personal ‘freedom’, Can’t afford it, Fear, Reticence, Apathy, Ignorance, Wilfulness, Laziness, Poor legal Framework, Echo chambers, Self interest, Cold and wet winter, etc.

Opportunities behaviour
Reward schemes, Learn at school / education, Campaign together, Cycling lessons, Public discussion around responsibility, Support local conversations, Just do it – Car free days, Public street signs – switch off engines, Bigger fines for breaking the law, Green party / Caroline Lucas, Public health approach to transport, etc.

Rosie’s research is ongoing and we are looking forward to working with other researchers and organisations who are passionate about the transition towards a healthy and truly sustainable environment for people and our fellow creatures.

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