IMAGE: Miljøpunkt Amager

A breath of fresh air: NGO create urban spaces

to reduce air pollution in Copenhagen

October 14, 2021


By Priscilla Castro

Officer, Communications and Member Relations, ICLEI Europe

Amid industrial areas, congested traffic zones, and increasing wildfires, taking a breath of fresh air has become more and more difficult. Even in cities considered pioneers in meeting air quality standards, a rise in the number of premature deaths due to air pollution has made urgent the need for action. In Copenhagen, non-profit Miljøpunkt Amager (MPA) used environment and climate data to design urban spaces to protect citizens from harmful air pollution.


Named Thrive Zone Amager (TZA), the 1-year project implemented by MPA installed three pilots in the city’s Ørestad district: two domes and one green wall were built in public urban spaces as an alternative for citizens to spend time outdoors while breathing clean air. The project is financed by the ICLEI Action Fund – a granting scheme conducted by ICLEI Local Governments for Sustainability in collaboration with -, and counts on technical experts from Gehl Architects, the City of Copenhagen, Studio Profondo, Technological Institute, UrbanDigital and other partners.


Aimed at creating a model to assess the impacts of air pollution and citizens actions in defined areas of the city, local actors and urban sustainability experts used data-driven approaches in the co-design and implementation of the interventions. Sensors were installed around the installations to measure the quality of the outside air while inside sensors assess the air indoors. Both data sets are then compared to establish if there is a significant reduction of harmful pollutants in the air inside of the installations.

IMAGE: Priscilla Castro

“Air pollution management in cities requires an integrated vision to protect citizens' health while improving the quality of public spaces. While working with local governments, research organisations, the civil society and local partners is key to advance in this journey, data-driven analysis of air quality, citizens movement, traffic pollution and other components of daily life are also needed,” says Alis-Daniela Torres, Senior Officer, Sustainable Resources, Climate and Resilience, ICLEI Europe.


The project works with specialists to monitor its outcomes. “The monitoring follows a dual perspective: firstly, the sensors on each side of installations provide an insight into the direct difference of air quality. Secondly, since the installations also influence the overall conditions by creating a turbulence around the green wall, a baseline study is conducted with and without the installations being present,” says Rasmus Reeh, advisor for the Copenhagen Solutions Lab, Founder of UrbanDigital and part of TZA’s experts’ team.


In Copenhagen, the decision to select the Amager Orestad district to receive the installations was based on collected survey data from citizens of the Islands Brygge and Orestad districts. Almost 800 participants answered an online questionnaire aimed at investigating their movements around the area, as well as their use and experiences of the different urban spaces available. The purpose was to gather knowledge on the role that city spaces have on people's everyday lives, and how this influences their priorities and challenges.




IMAGE: Priscilla Castro

Green innovation and healthy public spaces


According to the European Environmental Agency (EEA), air pollution is the single largest environmental health risk in Europe. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has recently disclosed new research associating prenatal exposure to high levels of air pollution and developmental delay, anxiety and depression. In Copenhagen alone, approximately one in ten premature deaths are due to the effects of air pollution.


Taking into consideration the rising risks for human life, TZA’s interventions shed a spotlight on health and well-being standards. Contributing to the City’s efforts to reduce local air pollution and increase citizens quality of life, the domes and the green wall aim to offer outdoors leisure spaces where users can be protected from the atmospheric ultrafine particulate matter (PM) with a diameter of fewer than 2.5 micrometres (about 3% the diameter of a human hair).


Between the 9th and 13th August, the project team assembled two domes made of polycarbonate: one of 3,5 metres diameter near a bus stop and one of 5 metres diameter in a green space between residential buildings. Apart from the sensors connected on both sides, the inner decorations do more than please the eye. Flowerpots and waxy, broadleaf, hairy, evergreen plants fix an inviting mood, while reducing the number of fine particles in the air. In the bigger dome, users can relax on pillows or the beach chairs.


IMAGE: Priscilla Castro

In both locations, the domes draw the attention of passersby. At first, for its unusual shape, then for its attractive and appealing visuals with inviting, transparent walls that welcome people in for a closer look. Children are particularly attracted to the interventions. Two-year-old twins Gustav and Ania brought their nanny after seeing it from a distance. When questioned why they enjoyed the space, the twins mentioned the plants. “It’s nice here,” said Ania.


When not dragged in by the kids and dogs, people stop to take pictures or to see what is inside. “It’s beautiful. I pass by every day and I already entered twice. It just fits,” says local resident Lenka Zemanova. The domes were supposed to be temporary in order to establish whether the tested pollution measurement method works, but it’s proved so successful that the local stakeholders purchased both installations to keep them permanently on-site.




IMAGE: Priscilla Castro

Between the 12th and 16th August, the third intervention was put into place: a wooden green wall and a temporary playground were erected near a set of residential buildings. The goal is to test if the green wall can reduce atmospheric pollutant concentrations coming from the road. Besides the air quality sensors, the wall counts on specific types of plants to do the job, such as Hedera helix (common ivy) with geraniums, anemone and vincas at its base. The wood was also carefully selected for being an easy, organic material to build in, providing flexibility for custom-built structures, and, most importantly, creating positive environments where people like to stay.


Berit Nielsen doesn’t live in Copenhagen but is often in the city to visit her daughter who lives in the building nearby. At her last stay, Berit had a different place to spend time with her 2-year-old grandson. “When I arrived, my daughter told me there was something new and that I should bring him here. I think it is a great idea and can serve as an example for other spaces. I have a green wall at home and when the plant grows, it gets thicker and even better. I hope this one becomes permanent,” she said.


According to Rasmus Reeh, the data assessment is expected to be ready in November. “The next steps are to scale and replicate the models in relevant places like underpasses, sound barriers, etc. The project team is working to enlarge the testing of the Thrive Zone toolbox,” he concluded.



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