Urban Agriculture is the Solution to Air Pollution

Urban air pollution is a major concern for city planners and policy makers. But is it a concern to the city’s residents? Action plans have been implemented by cities across North America to control air pollution. Tremendous health concerns have arisen recently because of new research about what really makes air pollution so harmful. A shift in strategies is now occurring in order to appropriately deal with these real problems. We believe the increased presence of plants can solve them.


Wuhan, China battles urban air quality and subsequent health problems. Image via Getty Images.

Poor Air Quality Causes

The United Nations Environment Program estimates that outdoor air pollution affects over one billion people annually. One million premature and pre-natal deaths have also been because of ongoing exposure to urban air pollution. In Canada, air pollution has caused nine times more deaths than car crashes have according to research from the University of British Columbia.

Gas emissions in high density urban areas contribute to poor air quality in these cities. However, buildings are now recognized as air pollution culprits making the need for sustainable building and urban planning solutions all that more dire as urban expansion increases.

Nitrogen oxide emissions are produced by burning fossil fuels. These have traditionally been the target of air quality control strategies. New research shows that low-level ozone is a major threat to city health and is caused by volatile organic compounds (VOC’s). VOC’s result from chemical-based products like scents from aerosol, some paints and glue, and other chemicals used in personal products and in construction. The offgassing of these chemicals traps harmful fumes and emissions in our atmosphere and inside the buildings in which you work and live.

Ongoing exposure to poor indoor and outdoor air leads to chronic respiratory problems and particularly affects children and the elderly. Poor urban health is the result of neglectful urban design and a lack of communicating the problems to those who can make the change: the residents of the city.


A living wall in a subway station. Image via Michael Hellgren, Vertical Garden Designs.

Solutions to Urban Air Pollution

The solution might seem obvious: drive less and don’t use harmful products. Well really it is that simple. Change won’t happen overnight but by putting in a one percent effort every day we will see vast improvement in 10 to 15 years.

PowerHouse Growers advocates for the vital role that plants should play in our lives. Plants act as natural air purifiers which is why planting trees and gardens throughout high-density urban areas is crucial. Buildings that contain offgassing materials must incorporate plants both in their interiors and exteriors to help clean the air that’s damaging the health of the building’s inhabitants.

Potted plants, green roofs, vertical gardens, and living walls are all great ways to incorporate plants into buildings and cities to improve air quality. The added benefit of using these systems is that they can grow edible food making them that much more useful.

Though environmental toxins are also harmful to plants, with proper care and maintenance plants can typically withstand the pollutants and continue to deliver important health benefits.

A 2012 report from Environmental Science & Technology, a journal from ACS, states that incorporating green infrastructure into a city’s design can improve urban air quality by eight times more than researchers had previously thought. Researchers say “urban street canyons” – city roads running through the glass and concrete jungle – contain stagnant air that traps toxins at ground-level. Toxins NO2 and PM – particulate matter – can be reduced by 40 and 60 percent respectively with the planting of trees, shrubbery, and the construction of living ivy walls.


Eco housing project in Nanjing, China featuring living walls. Image via Inhabitat.

What it Means for Cities

Urban air quality taxes, policies, and decision-making committees are all expensive and drawn out processes that don’t always provide direct solutions to its residents. With the clear solution before us cities should be focusing on incentivizing businesses to add green infrastructure in their new and existing buildings, communicating to its residents what they need to start growing the right plants indoors and outdoors based on their hardiness zone, and implementing educational programs in schools to start the habit at a young age.

City council meetings surrounding design and expansion should also have the solution of vegetation at the forefront of their decisions. The only way to maintain this accountability is to generate awareness. PowerHouse Growers encourages you to send this information to your mayor and community leaders because urban health should be the number one priority.

About The Author

Natalie Brooks
Natalie is an avid blogger and writer with a passion for sharing her stories and ideas about sustainable design and integrated urban agriculture. Her motto: "Green is beautiful!"