Showing posts with label Urban. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Urban. Show all posts

Monday, March 30, 2020

Early evidence that governmental responses to COVID-19 reduce urban air pollution

There is no doubt that the global spread of COVID-19 represents the defining crisis of the last decade. Governments around the world have scrambled to try to reduce person-to-person spread and deal with pressures on public health infrastructure. Regions with community spread have almost universally faced restrictions on travel, business and social activities. These restrictions are designed to reduce the exponential spread of COVID-19 (that is, to flatten the curve), these restrictions will also have a large number of other economic, social and environmental repercussions. Here, I ask a simple question: Has reductions in economic activity and movement caused by governmental responses to COVID-19 improved air quality in cities? I compare February 2019 and 2020 air quality measures and show that six cities that were impacted early by government restrictions in response to COVID-19 show consistent declines in five of six major air pollutants compared to cities that were impacted later (the text in this post has been modified from Cadotte 2020).

One of the most pernicious and inevitable consequences of urbanization and industrialization is the release of air pollutants. The WorldHealth Organization (WHO) estimates that about 90% of urban residents experience air pollution that exceeds WHO guidelines and that air pollution is responsible for more than four million premature deaths annually (World Health Organization 2018). Air quality is adversely affected by the aerosol release of a number of chemical compounds from agriculture, manufacturing, combustion engines and garbage incineration, and is usually assessed by measuring the atmospheric concentrations of six key pollutants: fine particulate matter (PM2.5), course particulate matter (PM10), ground-level ozone (O3), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), sulfur dioxide (SO2), and carbon monoxide (CO). These pollutants have a number of serious human health impacts (Table 1). Reducing inputs of these pollutants into urban areas requires a combination of technological advancement and behaviour change that can be stimulated by governmental regulations and incentives.

Table 1: The six commonly measured air pollutants in cities and their human health impacts.

Alterations of human, transport and industrial activity are usually the result of long-term economic and behavioural change and difficult to legislate under normal situations. However, the recent emergence of the global COVID-19 pandemic has had clear epidemiological impacts with, as of March 25, 2020, almost half a million confirmed infections and close to 20,000 deaths (World Health Organization 2020). This pandemic has resulted in emergency measures attempting to reduce transmission rates that limit activity, movement and commerce in jurisdictions around the world. While these emergency measures are critically important to limit the spread and impact of the coronavirus, they also provide a glimpse into how governmental calls for behavioural change can alter air pollution levels in cities.

Early evidence reveals that pollution levels have dropped in places that have undergone COVID-19 shutdowns. As Marshall Burke showed in a blog post,  PM2.5 and PM10, levels are lower than expected in parts of China. Here I examine January and February 2020 AQI levels for the six pollutants in Wuhan to what would be expected under normal circumstances. I further compare the change in February air pollution levels over the past two years in six cities that instituted emergency measures by the end of February (early impacted cities) to 11 cities that did not declare states of emergency until March (later impacted cities) using freely available air monitoring data (World Air Quality Index Project 2020) -see Table 2 for a list of cities.

Table 2: The eleven cities used in this analysis, the month that emergency measures were enacted and two- to six-year AQI averages of the pollutants
City-data come from monitoring agencies listed at the end of this post

Wuhan, China was the epicenter for the December 2019 emergence and the first person-to-person spread of the novel coronavirus.  In response, authorities initiated a series drastic measures limiting human movement and activity in Wuhan and large parts of Hubei province by the end of January. Three air pollutants: PM2.5, PM10 and NO2 all showed substantial January and February declines in Air Quality Index (AQI) (U.S.Environmental Protection Agency 2014) values over 2019 levels for those months and what would be expected from long-term trends (Fig. 1). These long-term declining air pollution trends do reveal that China’s recentpollution reduction and mitigation efforts are steadily paying off, but the government-enforced restrictions further reduced pollution levels. The expected air pollution values predicted by temporal trends (red dashed lines in Fig. 1) are all substantially higher than the observed levels, with observed values being between 13.85% lower than expected for January PM2.5 and 33.93% lower for January NO2. Further, the reductions in the pollutants shown in Fig. 1 increased the number of days where pollutant concentrations were categorized as ‘good’ (0 < AQI < 50) or ‘moderate’ (51 < AQI < 100) according to the AQI. The three other pollutants: SO2, O3 and CO, all showed idiosyncratic or non-significant changes, mostly because their levels have already reduced significantly over time or appear quite variable (Fig. 2). 

Fig. 1. Temporal patterns of Air Quality Index (AQI) PM2.5, PM10 and NO2 values in Wuhan, China. Both January and February, 2020 values show significant declines compared to 2019 levels and to that predicted from long-term trends (red dashed line).

Fig. 2. Temporal patterns of Air Quality Index (AQI) SO2, O3 and CO values in Wuhan, China.

Once COVID-19 moved to other jurisdictions, and confirmations of community spread emerged in February 2020, emergency measures, like those in Hubei province, were instituted to limit human movement and interaction. The cities subjected to February restrictions include, in addition to Wuhan, Hong Kong, Kyoto, Milan, Seoul and Shanghai, and the AQI values from these cities were compared to other cities that did not see the impacts of the novel coronavirus or have emergency restrictions in place until well into March. Log-response ratios between the air concentrations of pollutants observed in February 2020 to those from February 2019 reveal that all air pollutants except O3 show a decline in the 2020 values for the early impacted cities (Fig. 3). For later impacted cities, there is no overall trend in changes in the concentrations of pollutants between 2020 and 2019 and the individual cities in this group showed less consistency in the differences between years (Fig. 3). 

Fig. 3. Log response ratios for Air Quality Index (AQI) PM2.5, PM10, NO2, O3, SO2 and CO values between February 2019 and February 2020 values. Negative values indicate a decline in 2020. The green symbols indicate values from an assortment of cities that did not have emergency measures in place until March, 2020 (later impacted cities) and orange symbols are for cities that were impacted by the end of February.
These results indicate consistent air pollution reduction in cities impacted early by the spread of the novel coronavirus. However, the analyses presented here require further investigation as governments increasingly restrict activity world-wide, and some are discussing the possibility of prematurely lifting restrictions in order to spur economic growth. Further, the data analyzed here present point estimates of air quality but air pollution impacts are not homogeneous through urban landscapes and is influenced by spatial variation in industrial activities and transportation (Adams & Kanaroglou 2016). Thus, as higher resolution spatial air pollution data become available, it would be valuable to see how reduced activity affects air quality in different parts of cities.

This analysis of early data indicates that governmental policies that directly reduce human activity, commercial demand and transportation can effectively and quickly reduce urban air pollution. While the COVID-19 pandemic represents a serious risk for health and wellbeing of populations globally, especially those living in high density urban areas, the impacts of air pollution are equally consequential. If governments are willing to expend trillions of dollars in direct funding and indirect economic costs to combat this disease, then why do these same governments permit or even subsidize activities that emit air pollution? Maybe the lessons learned with COVID-19 can serve as the impetus for further action. Perhaps mandating changes to economic or transportation activity or investing in clean technology would better protect human health from the effects of air pollution.

Cited sources
Adams, M.D. & Kanaroglou, P.S. (2016) Mapping real-time air pollution health risk for environmental management: Combining mobile and stationary air pollution monitoring with neural network models. Journal of environmental management, 168, 133-141.
Cadotte, M. W. (2020) Early evidence that COVID-19 government policies reduce urban air pollution. Retrieved from
Cesaroni, G., Forastiere, F., Stafoggia, M., Andersen, Z.J., Badaloni, C., Beelen, R., Caracciolo, B., de Faire, U., Erbel, R. & Eriksen, K.T. (2014) Long term exposure to ambient air pollution and incidence of acute coronary events: prospective cohort study and meta-analysis in 11 European cohorts from the ESCAPE Project. Bmj, 348, f7412.
Fann, N., Lamson, A.D., Anenberg, S.C., Wesson, K., Risley, D. &Hubbell, B.J. (2012) Estimating the National Public Health Burden Associated with Exposure to Ambient PM2.5 and Ozone. Risk Analysis, 32, 81-95.
Greenberg, N., Carel, R.S., Derazne, E., Bibi, H., Shpriz, M., Tzur, D. & Portnov, B.A. (2016) Different effects of long-term exposures to SO2 and NO2 air pollutants on asthma severity in young adults. Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, Part A, 79, 342-351.
Kampa, M., & E. Castanas. (2008) Human health effects of air pollution. Environmental Pollution, 151, 362-367.
Khaniabadi, Y.O., Goudarzi, G., Daryanoosh, S.M., Borgini, A., Tittarelli, A. & De Marco, A. (2017) Exposure to PM 10, NO 2, and O 3 and impacts on human health. Environmental science and pollution research, 24, 2781-2789.
Raaschou-Nielsen, O., Andersen, Z.J., Beelen, R., Samoli, E., Stafoggia, M., Weinmayr, G., Hoffmann, B., Fischer, P., Nieuwenhuijsen, M.J. & Brunekreef, B. (2013) Air pollution and lung cancer incidence in 17 European cohorts: prospective analyses from the European Study of Cohorts for Air Pollution Effects (ESCAPE). The lancet oncology, 14, 813-822.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (2014) AQI: Air Quality Index. Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards, Research Triangle Park, NC.
World Air Quality Index Project (2020)
World Health Organization (2018) Ambient (outdoor) air pollution:
World Health Organization (2020) Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), Situation Report –65.

City air quality monitoring agencies:
1 Division of Air Quality Data, Air Quality and Noise Management Bureau, Pollution Control Department, Thailand (
2 Delhi Pollution Control Committee (
3 Hong Kong Environmental Protection Department (
4BMKG | Badan Meteorologi, Klimatologi dan Geofisika (
5South African Air Quality Information System - SAAQIS (
6 Japan Atmospheric Environmental Regional Observation System (
7 UK-AIR, air quality information resource - Defra, UK (
8 South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD) (
9 INECC - Instituto Nacional de Ecología y Cambio Climático (
10 Agenzia Regionale per la Protezione dell'Ambiente della Lombardia (
11 CETESB - Companhia Ambiental do Estado de São Paulo (
12 Department of Public Health of the Sarajevo Canton (
13 Air Korea Environment Corporation (
14 Shanghai Environment Monitoring Center (
15 Israel Ministry of Environmental Protection (
16 Air Quality Ontario - the Ontario Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change (
17 Wuhan Environmental Protection Bureau (

Thursday, March 12, 2020

The Homogenization of Urban Macro-systems

*This post is by Rabia Ahmed, a student in Marc's 'Causes and Consequences of Diversity' class.

If you have ever walked along a residential street in the city or suburbs you will notice many similar features in each backyard. Often times personal gardens are representative of peoples’ identities and reflect their membership in the neighbourhood. With the expansion of the urban population, an increasing area is covered by personal yards. While each homeowner views their yard to be small and therefore quite insignificant to the overall ecosystem- aggregated across the country, this area quickly adds up. 

 Despite the expansion of urban ecosystems little research has been devoted to understanding the patterns of ecosystem biodiversity, function and assembly. The findings of a recent paper by Pearse et al. (2018) investigated the extent to which “residential macro-systems” are the same across different US cities. The main focus of the paper was to compare the diversity, composition and structure of cultivated yards to the natural ecosystem in different climates across the US.

The results of the study showed that indeed the phylogenetic and species composition in yards had greater homogenization across regions compared to the corresponding natural ecosystems. There was also evidence of homogenization in vegetation as the tree density in yards remained similar across regions, despite the fact that, due to environmental filters, the tree densities in the different urban climates varied significantly. For example, the natural ecosystems in Salt Lake City and Los Angeles almost had no trees, but the tree density in the yards was well above zero.

Figure 1. The above diagram shows the convex hulls (dashed line) for three species pools: cultivated (orange), spontaneous (blue) and natural (green). The regions are abbreviated, Boston, Baltimore, Los Angeles, Miami, Minneapolis–St. Paul, Phoenix, and Salt Lake City as BOS, BA, LA, MI, MSP, PHX, and SL, respectively. The data shows that cultivated and spontaneous pools are more similar across regions than natural area pools, and in all cases, pools in the same geographical area are more similar than pools across a geographical region.
(Retrieved from Pearse et al. 2018)

Surprisingly, however, it was found that urban vegetation whether directly planted or spontaneously growing in the yards, had greater species richness than the comparative natural areas. The greatest phylogenetic diversity (MPD) was found within the fully cultivated yards, suggesting that these species would be better suited to future climate stressors due to their evolutionary distinctiveness. This variation in species lineages provides evidence that people prefer to have a variety of plants and flowers in their backyards which are not often found in the species pool.

Overall the data suggests that similarities in land cover and residential structural characteristics lead to a decrease in microclimate divergence at a continental scale.
These results underscore the common human preference for maintaining yards that are aesthetically pleasing and low maintenance. This homogenization has broad implications as it takes effort to keep these ecosystems the same, across forests, deserts and planes. For example, it has been observed that there is little difference between the amount of irrigation and fertilizers used by homeowners in the driest (Phoenix) or the wettest (Miami) cities.

While many argue that urban and suburban habitats do not compare to natural landscapes, recent research shows that they are more biologically diverse than previously assumed. The increased biodiversity is mostly because of the fact that people plant non-native species along with the native species, and artificial maintenance is used to overcome the environmental filter. Therefore, artificially enriched environments such as yards have both positive and negative consequences on the surrounding environment. For instance, researchers at Boston University found that trees in urban yards grow twice as fast as those in nearby forests, and store carbon at a faster rate. On the other hand, it was found that the rich mulched soils in suburban yards emitted twice as much CO2 as the soil in rural forests.

In conclusion, although yards have been given diminished importance in the study of human-dominated environments, they can provide great insight into how we can make our communities more sustainable. Residents, municipalities and neighbourhood associations can help reshape their residential macro-system into a thriving eco-system one backyard at a time. The key is to keep a balance between human preferences and other organisms’ needs, thus designing landscapes that are not only aesthetically pleasing but also support pollinators and birds.


Groffman, Peter M., et al. “Satisfaction, water and fertilizer use in the American residential macrosystem.” Environment Research Letters, vol.11, 29 Feb. 2016, doi:10.1088/1748-9326/11/3/034004
Humphries, Courtney. “The Residential Macrosystem.” Anthropocene, 21 June 2017,
Pearse, William D., et al. “Homogenization of Plant Diversity, Composition, and Structure in North American Urban Yards.” Ecosphere, vol. 9, no. 2, 15 Feb. 2018, doi:10.1002/ecs2.2105.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Where the wild things are: the importance of urban nature

Cities represent our ultimate domination over nature. They are landscapes that are completely modified to meet all of our needs and desires. In cities we drastically change the vegetation, reroute rivers, seal the Earth’s surface in impermeable cement, and often change the chemical composition of the air around us. For most people, this unnatural state of affairs seems completely natural. Its how we grow up.

What we don’t notice is all that is missing. The trees, the birds, and the mammals are largely absent from big cities. But not all cities are equal in this missingness. For those of us that live in cities like Toronto, Nashville, or Sydney, seeing birds and mammals is part of our normal life. In my back yard in Toronto, I am likely to see racoons, skunks, possums, red squirrels, eastern grey squirrels, chipmunks, deer mice, and a plethora of birds, and just down the road, foxes, coyotes, and deer are not uncommon. One morning I heard a ‘thud’ come from our sunroom window, and outside was a stunned red-tailed hawk (he was fine in the end). These cities are evidence that nature can persist and coexist with urban development.

However, there are other cities where nature is almost completely absent. While living in Guangzhou, China I saw just cats, dogs and rats, and barely any birds –shockingly no pigeons. Recently in while in Montpellier, France, it became obvious to Caroline and I (the two EEB & Flow contributors) that besides a small lizard species, pigeons and a few sparrows, we were not going to see any wildlife in the city. Guangzhou and Montpellier are very different cities in terms of size (16 million vs. 300 thousand), density, building height, pollution levels, etc.  But one way they are similar is that they are old. People have living and changing the landscapes in these regions for thousands of years. Of course the same could technically be said of North America and Australia, but the magnitude and intensity of human modification has no parallel in North America and Australia. Long-term intensive human activity removes other species in the long run. Is this the natural endpoint for our younger cities?

Cambridge, England. While quite beautiful, it is a typical old european city with a lot of stone.

Why we should celebrate raccoons

Toronto has a war against the raccoon. To most Torontonians, the raccoon is a plague –vermin that get into garbage cans and pull shingles off of roofs. Their density in Toronto is about 10 times higher than in wild habitats and many people in Toronto support removing them all together.

I have a different stance. We should be celebrating the raccoon. Yes raccoons cause problems; yes they carry disease; yes they damage property; yes their density is unnaturally high. But the same can be said of people (I don’t think I ever caught a flu from a raccoon). If raccoons were to recede to distant wilds and disappear from Toronto altogether, we would be no different than all those other cities where nature has completely lost. Raccoons give hope –hope that nature can flourish under the repressive and cruel dominion of urban centres. Raccoons remind us that nature has a place and can thrive in cities, and that we can share this world. They give me hope that Toronto’s destiny is not prescribed and we are not bound to the same fate as so many other cities.

I have a couple of new Chinese scientists visit my lab each year, and the differences between Toronto and say Beijing or Shanghai could not be more stark for them. To see deer, squirrels and raccoons in the city is a marvel. Every time one of these visitors comments on the wildlife in our city, I am reminded that we are really fortunate and have something that should be cherished.

Raccoon family –not an uncommon sight in Toronto (CCBYgaryjwood

Need to rethink urban nature

The problem is that Toronto, and most other cities, is continuing to grow and become more densely packed, making it more difficult for nature to endure. We need to rethink how cities grow and develop, and we need to keep a place for nature. There is no reason why new developments can't accommodate natural elements and green space –this often does not happen in most cities. Singapore is unique in this sense, new public infrastructure projects explicitly incorporate novel green space and infrastructure. I toured green sites there recently and saw a new hospital where it was impossible to tell where the park space ended and the hospital started (see picture below). There I saw patients tending gardens on the roof, nearby residents strolling through the forested courtyards, and turtles, wading birds and a large river monitor in the neighbouring pond. Also, Singapore's new large pump house infrastructure that reduces flooding in the city has a full sloping lawn on the top that is used by picnickers. In most North American cities this type of building would be grey industrial cement with little other function than to house pumps.

Singpore's Khoo Teck Puat hospital -the world's greenest hospital? 

Large old cities devoid of wildlife need not be the natural endpoint for a city.  Smart development and accommodating nature needs to be woven into the tapestry of cities. Toronto’s raccoons are great, and I wouldn’t want to live in a Toronto without them.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

#EcoSummit2016: Conferences –the piñata of ideas.

One of the greatest benefits of attending conferences is that they represent learning opportunities. I don’t necessarily mean learning about new techniques or analyses, though you can undoubtedly find out about these at conferences, but rather conferences are opportunities to hear about new concepts, ideas and paradigms. In some ways conferences are like a piñata of ideas –they are chalk full of new ideas but you never know which you’ll pick up.

Ecosummit is not the typical conference I go to, it is much more diverse in topics of talks and disciplines of the attendees. This diversity –from policy makers, to social scientists, to ecologists, means that I am exposed to a plethora of new concepts. Here are a few nuggets that got me thinking:

  • Knowledge-values-rules decision making context. Policy decisions are made at the interface of scientific knowledge, human values (what is important to people –e.g., jobs), and rules (e.g., economic laws). This seems like a nice context to think about policy, though it is not clear about how we prioritize new knowledge or alter values.


  • Adaptation services. I work on ecosystem services (e.g., carbon storage, pollination support, water filtration, etc.), but I learned that ecosystems also provide adaptation services. These are aspects of ecosystems that will help human societies adapt to climate change (e.g., new products).

  • Trees and air pollution. The naive assumption most of us make about trees in urban areas are that they improve local air quality. However, I saw a couple of talks where this may not necessarily be the case. Some species in North American (red oak, sweet gum, etc.) release volatile organic compounds. Spruce plantations may not take up nitrogen oxides, and in fact might release it. Thus we need to be careful on how we sell the benefits of urban trees.

  • Transformative. This is a term I have certainly heard and used before, but in listening to a wide variety of talks, I realize it is used in different contexts to mean different things. I think it best to avoid this term.

  • a-disciplinary.  I heard a guy say in a talk that he was a-disciplinary and so was not bound to the dogmas and paradigms of any discipline (I already have a hard time wrapping my head around interdisciplinary, multidisciplinary, transdisciplinary, etc.). He then presented a new paradigm and a number of prescribed well-formulated tools used to move from idea, communication, to action. I think the irony was lost on him.