The global challenge of air pollution is characterized by its frequent imperceptibility – without numerical measurements and monitoring equipment, the problem is often difficult to quantify, and sometimes harder to relate to everyday life and health.
Consequently, a number of people across the world are developing inventive ways to visualise the problem, and make air pollution a relevant and urgent issue. The latest innovation on this front takes an unlikely form: LED-illuminated bird houses mounted on trees on the streets of Amsterdam, which emit free Wi-Fi in exchange for improving air quality.
Bikes lined along a canal in Amsterdam. Eoghan OLionnain / CC BY 2.0
With Amsterdam’s reputation as the global cycling capital, such a hub of green transport doesn’t jump to mind when thinking of cities struggling with air pollution. However, a number of Dutch cities including Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Maastricht have all flouted EU regulations for nitrogen dioxide emissions, making air quality a pertinent issue. Air pollution is the third biggest killer in the Netherlands according to DutchNews, after smoking and obesity; whilst road transport remains the most significant sector contributing to the Netherlands’ mortalities from air pollution, even despite the country’s impressive cycling culture and bike lane network. A study conducted by the Germany-based Soot Free for the Climate campaign ranked European cities in order of best practice in tackling air pollution; surprisingly, Amsterdam ranked lower than London and Paris, both sprawling cities well-known for their air pollution within Europe. This was partly due to Amsterdam’s failure to implement a Low Emission Zone in the city for private vehicles.
Credit: Joris Lam/TreeWifi
TreeWifi is a start-up with an innovative approach to tackling Amsterdam's air pollution problem. Their aim is to engage Amsterdam’s local communities in taking an active role to lower their neighbourhood’s air pollution, offering the birdhouses’ free Wi-Fi as a reward for improvements. The birdhouses respond to changing air quality with a changing colour of light: green shows that air has become less polluted and Wi-Fi is provided; a red light shows that air remains polluted and thus no Wi-Fi is given. They claim their project has multiple goals: to make air quality visible to citizens, generate more local air quality data, and encourage citizens to take action against their local air pollution. Many of their suggestions for bettering local air quality involve conscious transport choices: encouraging cycling, promoting electric vehicles over fossil-fuelled ones, and driving more slowly.
In a society that increasingly desires to be connected online at all times, could dangling the carrot of free Wi-Fi really provide the motivation needed to change people’s lifestyle habits for the cleaner? At the least, visual strategies like these unusual bird houses should serve to keep the problem of air pollution fresh and relevant in people’s minds, and engage citizens with the issue in new ways.