An interactive installation is helping residents of one of Europe’s worst cities for air quality learn more about what they are breathing, and educate on steps to improve the environment for all residents.
The Pollution Pavillion was erected last month in London’s iconic Covent Garden Piazza, and is set to return to the city this spring when it will take up residence in Grosvenor Square.
Featuring huge balloons that change colour to reflect the level of Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) at five different points across London, the Pavillion provides a stark visualisation of the risk to human health caused by NO2, which has been linked to asthma, cancer, and reduced life expectancy.
A 2018 study commissioned by Greenpeace ranked London the third-worst European capital for air quality, ahead of Moscow and Rome.
The brainchild of environmental charity Hubbub and Grosvenor Britain & Ireland to promote their #AirWeShare campaign, the new installation was designed by members of creative collective Climate and Cities, which aims to encourager those who interact with the Pavillion to contact their MPs and lobby for measures to improve air quality.
One of the designers involved with the Pollution Pavillion is Rebecca Lardeur, who told us about the reaction to the installation, and the importance of visualising air quality levels in order to motivate the public to demand better.
Originally from Paris, Rebecca said her collective’s goal is to offer city dwellers the opportunity to see what cannot normally be seen in regards to their air.
“The public is invited to come and interact with five buttons, linked linked to five different monitoring stations in different parts of London – such as main roads and parks. Users press the buttons and the colours of the balloon will change accordingly,” Rebecca explained.
“The piece uses nitrogen dioxide data provided by Kings College. When you click you have a centre that knows the data, and its relation to the World Health Organisation NO2 levels – it would be blue if below, pink if above, and half pink, half blue if it was on the limit.
“We are trying to allow people to visualise what normally can’t be seen, but can impact their health and wellbeing.”
Many visitors to the installation during its Covent Garden stint were unsurprised at the levels of NO2, Rebecca revealed, showing that many people are already aware of air quality issues, while others were shocked at what they saw.
Despite its serious message, the project was also a chance for visitors to have fun, with many children loving the interactive nature of the installation, and people happily posing for selfies with the balloons.
“The lowest recorded NO2 area was Richmond, and we had visitors from Richmond very happy about that,” added Rebecca, whose previous work has also focussed on climate and environmental issues.
A Masters graduate of London’s Royal College of Art, Rebecca is keen to emphasise the risks to things we take for granted, such as access to clean drinking water, resulting from climate change.
Her Masters project looked at the impact of global warming and biodiversity loss – two factors set to have a dramatic effect on day-to-day living.
“The Pollution Pavillion was commissioned by Hubbub, so there were always people from the charity on hand to discuss the installation, and to encourage people to send letters to their MPs and ask for more policy change regarding air quality,” Rebecca continued.
“They also offered tips on avoiding nitrogen dioxide, such as avoiding congested roads and choosing back roads, for example, where the NO2 levels are lower.”
“The reality is that NO2 is a mostly human-made gas resulting from the burning of fossil fuels, such as in cars and heating. It’s not a greenhouse gas, so it’s not causing climate temperature to rise, but it is extremely toxic to humans, and can cause lung problems, and trigger issues in people with asthma, for example.
“Unfortunately, research is showing that it’s bad for other organs in the body.”
Other areas the Climate and Cities collective is keen to highlight in future projects include the ecological impact of cloud computing, resulting from the enormous amounts of energy required to run, and effectively cool, data centres.
“The energy required to cool these is so much that there are plans to build data centres underwater in order to cool them more effectively and at less cost to the environment,” Rebecca explained.
“Our vision as a collective is that climate change is happening and a lot of us don’t know what it means or how to adapt – our work explores ways in which we can all make a difference to the environment, and to our own health.”
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