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Viewpoint | Taking the lead on air quality

For the past 200 years, civil engineers have been intimately involved not only in the construction of the UK’s towns and cities  but in finding solutions to the many problems that come when millions of people live so closely together.

Suzanne Moroney 2

Suzanne Moroney 2

Suzanne Moroney

The work of Sir Joseph Bazalgette in the 19th century to build London’s sewer system was a solution to a public health crisis.

As the UK struggles with the challenges posed by air pollution, civil engineers again need to think how to respond.

In London, it is commonplace for congested roads to breach annual pollution limits in the first month of the year. While London may lead the way in having the poorest air quality, this is an issue for most, if not all, of our major urban areas.

Premature deaths

Figures vary depending on the source but the impact is significant, with up to 10,000 Londoners each year dying prematurely due to toxic air.

How our cities are designed has a direct impact on the level of pollutants in the air and the number of people exposed to those pollutants.

For example, London’s Oxford Street is not only one of Europe’s most polluted roads; it is also one of the busiest, with almost 4M people a week visiting the famous shopping street.

Pedestrianisation is one way of taking the pollution away from the people. Any design or redesign of a city takes careful planning and implementation.

Engineers’ role

As our city leaders are tackling air quality, we need to play our role and take part in these conversations, and come up with innovative workable solutions.

There are obvious things we as an industry can do in the short term.

High volumes of construction materials are transported along the UK’s roads every day. Usually, these are by diesel-fuelled lorries, making them some of the most air-polluting sources of transport.

Consolidation – where deliveries of materials and goods are combined to reduce the number of vehicles on the road – can be an effective way of reducing road traffic. Construction consolidation could lead to a reduction in freight traffic to site by up to 70%.

Minimising pollution

Many of the UK’s major engineering projects are located in congested areas with office blocks and homes in close proximity. We have a duty to make sure our sites are chugging out as little pollution as possible.  

Diesel-fuelled construction machinery pumps out nitrogen oxide to the communities around a site and importantly to those working on site. It is a pollutant that inflames the lungs, stunting their growth and increasing the risk of respiratory diseases such as asthma and lung cancer.

On site construction machinery is subject to lower emission standards than road vehicles, and so adds higher levels of pollution to the air. A typical on-site excavator equates to the pollution of 15 London buses.  Do we really want our people working in such an environment?

As part of our work in tackling this issue, the ICE London air quality taskforce is preparing a report on how civil engineers and policy makers can improve air quality. The report will be published on 2 October.

  • Suzanne Moroney is ICE London and South East England director

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