Air quality and noise pollution are major concerns for European cities

30 December 2021

Every year, around 7 million people die prematurely due to diseases related to air pollution all over the world – over 350 thousand of them in the EU area. Imagine if the entire population of the Dutch city of Utrecht or the Bulgarian city of Plodviv died in just one year due to air pollution and then you have a bigger picture of the problem for European cities and citizens.

Along with air quality, noise pollution is another major preoccupation of European cities. Invisible, yet dangerous, it can cause serious health issues, not to mention it also affects wildlife, being harmful to both humans and animals alike. Noise-inducing hearing loss is one such illness brought about by noise pollution – that is often associated with air pollution through, for instance, heavy traffic and traffic jams.

Both air and noise pollution affect the lives of citizens and several cities are looking for ways to mitigate the problem and even to plan ahead in order to avoid issues in the near future.

Valencia has a plan

The city of Valencia. Photo by travelnow.or.crylater on Unsplash

In Valencia, city officials are currently working on the current Air Quality Improvement Plan for the ‘ES1016 agglomeration’, which includes the city of Valencia. This plan has been developed by a working group made up of technicians from the City Council, the Regional Government (GVA) and CEAM (Mediterranean Environmental Studies Centre) — it was last updated in March 2019.

According to Ana Viciano, Head of Beaches, Acoustic and Air Quality Service at the Valencia City Council, “the current Air Pollution Monitoring Network has been expanding with new stations in recent years. If in 2015 the Network had 6 measurement stations, so complying with the minimum established in the current legislation, it currently has 11 stations.” Valencia’s Noise Pollution Surveillance Network is also in place with different stations distributed throughout the city.

Valencia is also promoting and transforming its urban transportation system, implementing a Low Emission Zone and advancing in the decarbonization of the city with a grant from the European Union. Measurement and monitoring of air and noise pollution meet 4 new bike lanes and the plan is to also incorporate 20 new electric buses and improve accessibility at bus stops.

Despite a broad set of strategies within the city’s Action Plan to tackle air and noise pollution — such as acoustic improvements in sensitive areas, reduction of noise associated with mobility, etc —, challenges arise.

Among the challenges, explains Viciano, are to “obtain more and better quality information that helps decision-making. In this way, the network of both acoustic and environmental sensors will be expanded through various initiatives, including the implementation of Low Emission Zones; involving citizens in the achievement of the objectives; and obtaining more financing for the development and maintenance of the city model.”

Stara Zagora and Kosice don’t want to be left behind

Photo by Georgi Kyurpanov on Unsplash

Just like Valencia, the Slovak city of Kosice and Stara Zagora, in Bulgaria, have plans to mitigate noise and air pollution.

“In November 2021,” says Miso Hudak, member of the strategic development office of the city of Košice, “we finished the Social and Economical Development Masterplan for Kosice, and we have seven chapters dedicated to the topic of Green Development.”

He explains that “noise and Air quality have their own chapter with the main goals of creating their own monitoring network, increasing sustainable mobility with dedicated sub-goals for pedestrians, cyclists, public transport and support of e-mobility and to decreasing of use of individual cars. However, we are waiting for the last meeting of the municipal council in mid-December, which will add the master plan into the 2022 budget.”

Kosice is home to one of the biggest steel plants in Europe and, says Hudak, “our main hope is that the company will be able (with support from EU funds) to turn own production into a more sustainable way of decarbonisation via replacement of two blast furnaces with electric furnaces”

Photo by Mohammed Thoufik on Unsplash

In Bulgaria, Stara Zagora participates in an integrated project ‘Bulgarian municipalities work together to improve air quality,’ whose main goal, explains Rositsa Ryakova, Head of Investment Department at the Municipality of Stara Zagora, “is to contribute to the reduction of the number of fine dust particles — a major problem of air quality in Bulgaria.”

“The project includes the implementation of measures from the municipal programs for improving air quality in six Bulgarian municipalities and the focus is on reducing the pollution from domestic heating with wood and/or coal.” Measures that can be taken to improve air quality in Stara Zagora will aim at limiting heating with solid fuel and encouraging the use of forms of heating with a much lower footprint on the environment.

Raykova notes that some of the planned initiatives are the “ban on the use of wet wood for heating and to gradually limit, and ultimately stop, the use of coal for heating; implementation of programs to stimulate the replacement of household heating appliances and to install chimney filters in all catering establishments and public buildings that use solid fuel; redirecting energy aid to alternatives to solid fuel heating, etc.”

Helsinki steps up its local planning focusing on traffic

Helsinki during autumn. Photo by Tapio Haaja on Unsplash

In Helsinki, “air quality is usually good compared with the larger cities of Europe”, explains Milla Susi, Environmental Specialist at Helsinki’s Urban Environment Division, adding that, however, “occasionally air pollution can reach dangerous levels in the city.”

“The main factor affecting Helsinki’s air quality is transport and the most hazardous exhaust gas emissions of transport are fine particles and nitrogen oxide. Traffic is also the main source of street dust. Another challenge especially during wintertime is emissions from small-scale wood burning,” she further explains.

The measure of the air quality in the city is done by the Helsinki Region Environmental Services Authority (HSY) that also releases real-time information on air quality on the HSY website and the city “follows an Air Quality Plan which contributes to the realisation of the objectives of the City`s Environmental Policy as regards air protection.”

There are three themes in the plan, says Susi: “traffic, street dust and small-scale wood burning. In total, the plan includes 48 measures, 24 of which concern traffic, 18 concern street dust and 6 concern small-scale wood burning.”

On noise pollution, Susi says that “Helsinki follows a Noise Abatement Action Plan, which is also divided into three themes: planning and guidance, affecting the noise source, and structural noise abatement. Preventing the problems caused by noise is the primary means of noise abatement. Solutions used in land use and traffic planning are essential. In addition, noise level reduction actions are needed. These measures include the use of anti-noise coatings, reductions in speed limits and reducing the use of studded tyres.”

In Portugal, Matosinhos and Valongo have different experiences

The beach of Matosinhos. Photo by Pedro Menezes on Unsplash

Noise and air pollution are major concerns for Matosinhos. Located just north of Porto, the city is a passageway for cars, which leads to long traffic jams and thus to a worsening of air quality in the region — the expansion of the city port and the consequent increase in passing loads, will also increase the pressure on air quality.

The way to combat this inevitable increase in lorries, explains Tiago Gomes, Senior Technician of Matosinhos’ Environment Department, will be “to encourage the use of soft transport and improve the infrastructure to make it possible to cycle safely in the city centre.”

According to Gomes, the city constantly monitors noise and air pollution. “The municipal noise map is drawn up and updated every five years and with regard to air quality monitoring, in Matosinhos, there are 5 fixed monitoring stations that send data in real-time to CCDR-Norte ( Northern Regional Coordination and Development Commission), which collects the information and sends reports,” he says, noting also that Matosinhos “has a good and careful monitoring of air quality, and is now in a phase of initiation of projects aimed at reducing the emission of atmospheric pollutants.”

Also on the outskirts of Porto, Valongo does not encounter the same problems as Matosinhos — but plans for the future.

“In terms of noise, in Valongo we don’t have big problems. We don’t have critical zones, only in the proximity of railways and roads, but it’s an area that has to be worked on,” explains Gisela Martins, Head of Environment Division of the city of Valongo.

River in Valongo. Image by PixaBay

However, she also notes, “the quality of air, concerns us more especially as air has no administrative boundaries and should be a concern for all of us.”

“Valongo is concerned with monitoring the levels of noise and air quality in the areas of the greatest concentration of traffic and urban barriers, for integrated planning with a view to better dispersion of pollutants, as well as adaptation to climate change, and is developing a project to that effect,” says Martins.

The city has worked on improving traffic and urban mobility, deconcentrating traffic from the city centre and fostering alternative mobility means through, among many different initiatives, the purchase of hybrid and electric vehicles by the municipality, to set an example and promote good practices aimed at decarbonisation; promotion of the use of public transport to the detriment of individual transport; actions to reconvert the vegetation cover and reforest burnt areas; construction/lowering of pavements in pedestrian crossings, with the application of podotactile materials, removal of obstacles and repainting of pedestrian crossings; construction of cycle paths, etc.

The efforts of Valongo have been noted and the city has just been awarded the 2022 European Green Leaf Award for their efforts in protecting their natural areas and their support to low-income citizens in the transition to sustainability, and the city has joined various international networks and commitments to become more sustainable and environmentally friendly.

The Green City Accord is here to help and inspire

All these cities are signatories of the Green City Accord (GCA), which commits cities to step up their efforts in environmental management and to become cleaner.

They joined an online peer-learning visit hosted by the city of Valencia, from 8-10 November, which focused on air quality and noise pollution.

As part of the Green City Accord peer-learning programme, this visit was the first one of a series of four (until now) opened to GCA signatories and which aimed to foster exchanges between GCA signatory cities, to ultimately increase local authorities’ capacity and knowledge to tackle environmental challenges and to develop integrated and ambitious actions to achieve their GCA commitments.

Additionally, this visit offered the opportunity to participants to provide and receive constructive feedback on these issues, to share inspiring practices, and collectively think of solutions and innovations to address common challenges. And the experience was positive for the participating cities.

“The experience was, without a doubt, very positive both due to the organization’s own challenge, as well as the coordination, updating and exhibition of assets and results in terms of protection and municipal action against air and noise pollution,” said Ignacio Lacomba, Head of Sustainable Gardening Service at the Valencia City Council.

He also noted that “the workshops held during the two days gave rise to discussion, joint reflection and exchange of experiences; the solutions proposed to improve air quality and noise pollution in terms of pedestrianization of public space, tactical urban planning and alternative mobility were found to be suitable and effective. On the other hand, the experience conveyed by Valencia in terms of developing a cycling city was very satisfactory and inspiring.”

From Helsinki, Milla Susi believes the peer-learning visit was “a pleasant exchange with fellow European cities. It was a great window into the different challenges and solutions regarding air quality and noise pollution in quite different European cities.”

And Rositsa Ryakova thought “the visit to the city of Valencia was extremely fruitful and enriching, which is once again proof for us that by signing the green city accord, the Municipality of Stara Zagora joins a community of cities that can contribute to a larger extent for addressing the priorities within the Green Deal agenda. For us, the benefits are precisely the opportunity to meet other representatives of municipalities from Europe, and to gain experience and expertise in conducting good policy.”

For Tiago Gomes, the experience of the visit to Valencia was very good for Matosinhos. “Besides it is clear that Valencia has a very focused vision on mobility and improving transport for its citizens, it is also clear that there is great importance on ecosystem conservation (e.g. dunes and lagoon).”

And, finally, Gisela Martins noted that Valongo “uses the GCA to learn, replicate best practices, and peer learning in Valencia is part of that journey. When I saw this invitation, I was very enthusiastic because it shows proactivity, it is exactly what is intended: creating networks, collaborations between partners at the institutional level. It is rare to see in such an agile way the sharing of experiences, I saw a very big will to change and I felt that we were all in tune.”


Raphael Garcia Eurocities Writer