The Citizen Sense project held an air-quality-monitoring walk in New Cross Gate and Deptford as part of the International Visual Sociology Association (IVSA) annual conference. On 9 July 2013, members of the Citizen Sense project along with participants at the IVSA conference and researchers at the UK National Health Service (NHS) set out to investigate the various ways in which air pollution might be monitored, assessed and experienced, whether through digital, bodily or other means.
Air pollution has emerged as an environmental problem with considerable negative impact, contributing to bodily and environmental harm. The EU has designated 2013 as the “Year of Air,” since air quality has become a significant environmental health issue. The walk is situated within this set of concerns about air quality, and considers how to experiment with environmental engagement in air quality.
Setting out from Goldsmiths, University of London, the walk participants made their first stop at the New Cross Road monitoring station, located adjacent to the Hobgoblin Pub and directly across from the New Cross Gate train station. This monitoring station is one of four in the Borough of Lewisham, and one of nearly 100 stations in the London Air Quality Network (LAQN), which is managed by the King’s College Environmental Research Group.
At this first stop, we discussed the location and type of monitors in the LAQN, and considered the particular pollutants that this station monitors. Nitrogen oxide (NO) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2), as well as sulfur dioxide (SO2), particulate matter 10 and 2.5 (PM 10 and PM 2.5) are monitored at this station. The pollutants monitored are set in relation to EU-led policy that is developed in response to health research on the damaging effects of air pollution.
New Cross Road is a “hotspot” for NO2, and typically exceeds the long-term or annual objectives for air pollution. The EU air quality directive has set the annual limit of NO2 at 40 micrograms per cubic meter (µm/m3). New Cross Road reached 50 µm/m3 for 2012. The short-term limits for NO2 are no more than 18 1-hour episodes above 200 µm/m3, which the New Cross Road station falls within. However, while we were standing at this site we also were carrying DIY environmental sensors that gave readings up to 76 µm/m3. A discussion ensued as to what would be the effects of regular exposure to these NO2 values in between the long- and short-term limits. Would pub workers who are frequently working during the evening rush hour be subject to higher accumulative NO2 levels (particularly as the pub doors are often left open) than passersby in the middle of the day?
Part of the objective of the air walk was to consider how air is experienced, whether as a visual, embodied or informational experience. The walk then experimented with the various experiences of air quality. As we made our way from the New Cross Road monitoring station to a less busy residential street, we stopped to consider the ways in which smell might enable distinct experiences of air quality, while potentially not capturing others. For instance, the smell of a nearby waste transfer station had been subject to fines for noxious smells, while the relatively odorless and colorless pollutants of NOx and CO (not to mention CO2) were potentially less evident as they did not prove to be as immediately noxious.
Mercury Way and the SELCHP Incinerator
In the heat and grit of this rather hot 27-degree day in London, we then made our way to the Mercury Way monitoring station adjacent to a waste transfer site, and somewhat proximate to the Southeast London Combined Heat and Power (SELCHP) incinerator. The Mercury Way station, also one of the four stations operated by Lewisham Council and managed within the LAQN by King’s ERG, is classed as an industrial monitoring station, and the data from this site—gathered only in the form of PM 10, as this site does not have NOx or other sensors—is not included in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) data reported to the EU as constituting relevant exposure. Although housing surrounds this site, the industrial classification of the monitoring station (one of only seven in the LAQN) situates the data from this site as of less relevance in comparison to hotspots such as New Cross Road.
We considered at this station how the monitoring station is situated—is it downwind or upwind of SELCHP? What exactly is the PM 10 instrumentation gathering and would PM 2.5 also be relevant to gather in this site of high industrial activity? Should NOx also be monitored given the high number of heavy vehicles traversing this area. And why does this street have the designation of “Mercury Road?” Is this a monument to that particular chemical? We also discussed the dust abatement strategies deployed in the form of chemical fixatives (calcium magnesium acetate) applied to the road surface here, which were meant to prevent particulate matter from re-suspending with traffic recurrently passing by. While this strategy was deemed a “failure,” it also contributed to considerable controversy about what might be the best ways in which to address air pollution—at source, or end-of-pipe? We also looked at the Clean Air in Cities app, a tool that directs people to consider the number of deaths associated to air pollution—estimated to be approximately 19,000 per year in the UK alone.
As we passed by the SELCHP incinerator, we considered the uncertain relationship between monitoring and emissions, and the ways in which incinerators were perhaps less frequently addressed as environmental matters of concern. At one time, the looming chimneys of incinerators and factories were icons of environmental harm, but attention had increasingly shifted to automobiles and individual consumption. But how might the environmental impacts of these more collective infrastructures also be addressed?
Deptford Park and DIY
With these questions in mind about what monitoring makes evident, and how monitoring is located and operationalized, we walked to Deptford Park, a large green field surrounded by plane trees and offering welcome relief from the full blaze of the sun. Here, we considered how the rise of citizen-sensing activities attempted to proliferate and democratize the technics and practices of monitoring environments in order to provide more data points and to speak to individual exposure as much as fixed sites of emissions monitoring.
The walk raised many questions about how DIY sensors travel through environments, multiplying the experiences and data points gathered in monitoring activities, while also creating a new set of issues with which to grapple in order to have the kit work and be legible as a site of environmental practice and politics.
In what ways do these DIY devices provide useful additional data, and how is data made actionable? To which new and possibly collective environmental and participatory practices do sensing devices give rise, and in what ways might these sensors also delimit environmental practice within specific ways? Are sensors as participatory and DIY as they are presented to be, or is there a considerable amount of expertise needed to code and assemble this kit for monitoring?
At this point in the walk, we had engaged with official LAQN monitoring stations located to comply with EU air quality objectives, apps designed to give publics some sense of the quality of air, and apps designed to make explicit the connections between air quality and health, as well as bodily engagements with air pollution and DIY sensing devices. Across this array of kit, infrastructure, bodies, places and digital platforms, it became apparent that the ways in which we experience and monitor air pollution are multiply constituted, and provide ample space for considering how we develop practices in and around these sites of engagement.
Moving toward the final stopping point on the walk, we finally visited Convoys Wharf in Deptford, a 46-acre site on the Thames for which a planning application has been submitted by Hutchison Whampoa to Lewisham Council, and which raises many more questions about how DIY engagements might extend to sites of major urban development. At the same time, inevitably new development projects generate additional environmental impacts that require assessment, and potentially mitigation or monitoring. New densities and transport configurations, as well as construction, heating technologies and more, change the environmental conditions of sites and bring new requirements for how to address air quality.
We made our way back to Goldsmiths along Douglas Way, an alternative walking route along a greenway that Lewisham has promoted as a way to minimize individual exposure to air pollution that one might otherwise experience if walking along New Cross Road. Emissions and exposure are two ways in which air quality informs the management of air pollution, as well as the development of practices for mitigating or abating air pollution. Currently, the practice of taking alternative walking routes is frequently suggested and adopted as a way to minimize individual exposure to air pollution. But what other practices might emerge in this complex terrain of air pollution, in and through monitoring or other environmental practices yet to be articulated?
This air walk was undertaken as an initial pilot study of how environmental sensing is practiced through multiple modalities, and how DIY citizen-sensing devices inform the types of environmental practice with which we might experiment. As part of the Citizen Sense project, which runs from 2013-2017, we will be testing several more walking events, sensing workshops and DIY kit in order to research and experiment with environmental practice. Please feel free to contact us if you are interested to learn more about the project.