Archive for ‘Cities’

April, 2014

Let’s heed the canary

Professor Rob MacKenzie


IMAGE: Smog in the city (

Day three of southeast-England-in-the-murk, and still a pool of smoggy gloom catches your throat and wipes out the middle distance. This little week of blogs, with which I had hoped to engage with the large-scale and chronic challenges highlighted by the University of Birmingham’s Saving Humans theme, has — in the event — mutated into reflections on a local and acute threat to health and well-being. Such a change of focus may actually be for the better; perhaps through learning what pollution ‘feels like’ the debate about how to ameliorate the pollution that surrounds us every day can be reignited.

My suspicion is that there is a window of opportunity in public engagement with issues that are difficult to perceive directly most of the time. If nothing brings air pollution to our attention — really, tangibly to our attention — then we have to rely on expert opinion and ‘white-coat fatigue’ can set in. If we have to struggle through a pea-soup of pollution each and every day then it becomes easy to regard it as unavoidable and irremediable. But, in communities in which public engagement counts, sudden and perceptible reductions in quality of life can cause a commotion and galvanise governments into action.

Having issued the smog alerts and kept the message simple, scientific commentators are now beginning to fill-in some details. The analyses may, in the end, change our diagnosis of the event quite radically, reducing the role of Saharan dust and increasing the role of chemical production of particles in air travelling to us from Europe. A more complete diagnosis will enable policy-makers to consider options to minimise the risk of a repeat of these conditions in the future. Controlling local pollution would improve our chronic exposure to pollution and provide a little more ‘head room’ within which natural particle loadings and long-range transport of pollution can vary, but car bans and the like are unlikely to be a useful measure in the middle of episodes. International action to limit emission of the gases that react in the atmosphere to form particles looks to be necessary. Certainly we should not accept that there is nothing we can do simply because the particles did not, in the main, originate from within our borders.

International environmental regulation has enabled us to avoid catastrophic damage to the ozone layer and has outlawed many environmentally persistent poisons. Where, as in these instances, technological ‘fixes’ to industrial processes reduce the emission of pollutants, the chances of binding international agreement seem relatively high. Unfortunately, for smog, improving engine efficiency and fitting stack and tailpipe filters only gets us so far; human behaviour can subvert our best efforts. To go the next step towards clean air requires joined-up ‘systems thinking’ that, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change advocated this week, seeks win-win-win solutions, recognises that there will be unintended consequences, and privileges a love of life over incomplete measures of cost and benefit.

Professor Rob MacKenzie is Director, Birmingham Institute of Forest Research and Professor of Atmospheric Science, School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Birmingham.

April, 2014

The three-legged race to sustainability

Professor Rob MacKenzie


Image: Dawn Smog (

The old adage says if you want to give God a laugh, tell her your plans. I had the best of intentions of putting all the cares of everyday academic life to one side for a day in order to enjoy the Trees, People & Built Environment conference, here at University of Birmingham. Then, late on Tuesday night, news began to filter through that weather patterns had conspired to produce a situation in which local air pollution, regional-scale pollution from north and central Europe, and Saharan dust were all contributing to an air pollution episode. So, instead of musing deeply on urban sustainability and our innate connection to “nature”, I spent the day saying what amounted to the content of the third sentence of this blog. Well, truth be told, I did manage to smuggle in a few sneaky references to what I think is really the “big picture” when we are confronted by one of these environmental episodes, be it flood, or heat wave, or smog: these are symptoms of a systems failure, and the system (or system-of-system) that is failing is UK land management.


Image: Green City (

We can apply sticking plasters to a particular transport bottleneck, or a particular river, and relieve the problem for a while, only for it — or something quite different but subtly related — to pop up somewhere else. But perhaps there is another approach. I am feeling fired-up enough by Tuesday’s seminar on the biophilic city to venture an outlandishly ambitious vision: to reconfigure our relationship with “Nature” and with the City so that we break apart the old-fashioned dichotomy of town and country. Breaking these boundaries would usher-in a new view of human life: shared with every other form of life that can help us turn a linear highway to hell into a circular pattern of birth, death, regrowth. We have the visionaries to show us some of the way and we should not be scared to add to the canon of those ideas, so long as we recognise that ideas only work when in harness with strategy and serendipity. We are in a three-legged race to sustainability and, as I eventually learnt as a child, that can be an exhilarating race once you learn how not to fall over.

Professor Rob MacKenzie is Director, Birmingham Institute of Forest Research and Professor of Atmospheric Science, School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University of Birmingham.

October, 2013

Refugee camps

Zaatari refugee camp, Jordan

Zaatari refugee camp, Jordan
Click image for source

In my post on Monday I wrote a bit about refugee camps. The words seem to go together naturally: where there are refugees there are also camps. But the practice of putting displaced persons in camps is historically fairly new, a twentieth-century phenomenon, and as I suggested on Monday, the camps themselves are politically and morally complex places. They may provide refugees with shelter, and make it easier for aid agencies or host states to provide food and medical assistance; but they serve other purposes, too, and they create political logics of their own. They’re not an unproblematic means of saving humans.

Most Syrian refugees today aren’t actually in camps, though camps provide most of the images of refugees we see. (The picture at the top of the post actually comes from a photo-essay entitled Beyond the camps, accompanying a fine recent piece on the refugee ‘catastrophe’ in the New York Review of Books, and most of the pictures in it are of refugees outside camps.)

Turkey has established a kind of refugee-camp archipelago in and beyond the border zone (the high quality of the camps being widely recognized), but even there refugees outside camps outnumber refugee inside them by three to two—or, more precisely, three hundred thousand to two hundred thousand. Jordan has a similar number of ‘encamped’ refugees, all concentrated in a single vast camp, Zaatari, which is said to have become Jordan’s fourth-largest city; a second vast camp is being built at al-Azraq, but Jordan also has even more refugees living outside camps than Turkey does. Lebanon, meanwhile, which hosts the largest number of Syrian refugees—about three quarters of a million of them—doesn’t have any camps at all.

Al Azraq Refugee Camp (as of 25 Jul 2013)

Construction of al-Azraq refugee camp (as of 25 Jul 2013)
Click image for source

This makes it harder to track individual refugees, and for humanitarian agencies to gather reliable and comprehensive information about refugees’ needs—let alone provide assistance to meet those needs. The flood of refugees has sent the cost of living soaring in parts of neighbouring countries and put enormous pressure on essential services. Rents in some parts of Jordan rose 300% in the six months to April 2013 alone (and have certainly risen further since). The half-million refugees there have added nearly 8% to the total population—which in one of the world’s most water-scarce countries is a serious matter. Putting refugees in camps would be one way of limiting some of these impacts, and ensuring that the international community can shoulder some of their cost.

But there are reasons why the refugees themselves may be reluctant to move into camps, and why not all governments want to establish them—and a historical perspective can help explain them.

For example, uprooted Syrians have, since 1948, lived their lives in close proximity to generations of Palestinian refugees. In Syria, Palestinians were reasonably well-integrated into the host society (the camps weren’t ‘closed’), but only up to a point: ‘Ibn al-mukhayyam [the child of the camp] will never be like ibn al-balad [the child of the country]’, as a young Palestinian from the Yarmouk camp told an interviewer a few months before the war in Syria began. And Syrians are well aware that in Lebanon, Palestinians in their camps were excluded from the host society in all sorts of ways: barred from many occupations, for example. During the civil war, Palestinian civilians in Lebanese camps were often targeted directly: the massacres at Sabra and Chatila in 1982, or later during the ‘war of the camps’. For Syrians informed by the Palestinian experience, camps may represent exclusion from the host society, the risk of massacre—and the possibility of permanent exile.

Wariness of camps exists on the side of states too, for related reasons. When Palestinian refugees housed in camps started to organize themselves politically in the 1960s, their aims and aspirations clashed with those of the host governments: ultimately they came to threatened state sovereignty. The camps, where refugees lived in isolation from the host societies and exclusion from their political institutions, became fiefdoms of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), and it was difficult or impossible for host governments to control them, even when they launched attacks across the border on Israel and the occupied territories. In its conflict with PLO militants, Israel did not hesitate to target the host states. In Jordan this process led to the expulsion of the PLO leadership, after a short but bitter conflict in 1970, to Lebanon—where the same process contributed to the outbreak of the civil war, in which camps themselves became targets. It is little wonder that Jordan is uneasy about placing Syrians in camps, and Lebanon positively allergic to it.

Getting assistance to refugees—and host communities—becomes more complicated, and perhaps more costly, when the people you want to help are dispersed through towns and villages. But my own view is that it’s a necessary effort, and history can help us understand why. The UN increasingly takes the same view: “You cannot lock people into a camp”, the UNHCR’s representative in Turkey said recently, while talking about mechanisms for supporting refugees outside camps, like cash assistance programmes. So, even though the UNHCR has its own complex and not always positive history, I’ll end by linking to its current appeal on behalf of Syrian refugees. The UN’s appeals to help those displaced inside and outside the country are barely 50% funded (and their relative success may be making it harder for the UNHCR to attract support for other refugees). And the crisis isn’t going to go away.

July, 2013

Cities are for life – not just for people

A guest post by Rob MacKenzie, Professor of Atmospheric science, School of Geography, Earth & Environmental Science. This article was first published in the University of Birmingham’s Original magazine, June 2013.

Gezi Park Protest

Click image for source

“The city” defines an increasingly large part of the 21st-century human condition. We are living through “the human epoch”: the Anthropocene. So far as we can tell, over half of the human population already resides in cities — striving, producing, and innovating. The creation unlocked by urban living is dazzling. Imagine how much you could make in a single day of self-sufficiency. Multiply that by every working day in a life. Now look around you. What fraction of what you can see could any one person make in a lifetime?

Our time is the Anthropocene and, more and more, our place is the Astysphere – the urban space, possibly most easily visualised from space at night. It is like having tens of thousands of glittering Hollywood A-listers astride the planet, tens of thousands of Clark Gables, say. According to many of his co-stars, and to his legions of fans, Clark Gable was the most attractive man who ever lived. But by some — doubtless apocryphal — accounts, Gable had very bad breath, which dulls some of the glamour of the famous Rhett-Scarlett kiss from Gone With The Wind.

Something of this sensory dissonance is true of our modern cities. Glamorous as they are, the breath of contemporary cities stinks. The government’s Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollution estimated in 2010 that the burden of microscopic air particles measured in 2010 would affect UK mortality equivalent to a loss of life expectancy from birth of approximately six months. The same study calculated that reducing the annual average UK concentration of these microscopic particles by 1 unit (out of an atmospheric load of roughly 20 units) would save approximately 4 million life-years for those born in 2008. Of the many air pollution thresholds, set by the UK government, that for the annual average of a gas called nitrogen dioxide is most often exceeded. The Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs lists 712 ‘air quality management areas‘—where specific problems with air pollution have been identified—across the UK, including all of the West Midlands except Solihull. Who would kiss Marylebone Rd in London, or Broad St, Birmingham, and taste the nitrogen dioxide and microscopic particle concentrations so high they contribute more to mortality in the UK today than environmental tobacco smoke or road traffic accidents?

The simplest and most effective way to improve the situation with urban air quality is to reduce emissions from fossil fuel burning. Emission controls have been very effectively implemented for large industrial complexes in the global north but there is still much to do elsewhere in the world, particularly in those places with economies reliant on power from coal. In the UK, the most problematic pollution is that from traffic, especially traffic congestion in narrow streets. Improvements to engine design have led to fewer emissions per vehicle, but improvements in air pollution have stalled for almost a decade. Apparently as a society we have managed to undo the good work of the automotive engineers by driving bigger cars and driving our cars more and more.  It is hard to think of a more obvious example of how dynamically complex and difficult to predict is the Astysphere.

One way to intervene in the complicated social-economic-ecological system that is the Astysphere is to use vegetation as “green infrastructure”, analogously to the water, energy and information infrastructures that permeate our cities. Vegetation in cities can provide many and varied benefits: decreased urban heat island effects, improved air quality, increased biodiversity, improved water quality, resilience to flooding, and greater feelings of wellbeing.  Realising these benefits requires careful planning and proactive engineering: “the right tree in the right place”. Get it wrong and trees — street trees in particular — can even make things worse, by preventing air pollution from mixing away from the roadside, for instance. Get it right, mind you, and cities could have better air quality and more biodiversity than the agricultural prairies surrounding them, leading to increased wellbeing, happiness and productivity.

In all likelihood this planet will have to carry 8-10 billion people sometime in this century. Cities are our best hope for accommodating so many people, but cities will fail ultimately if we don’t investigate the processes underlying the functioning of these super-systems, if we don’t diagnose and value the services provided to us by the non-human urban system, and if we don’t recognise the vulnerability of all human and non-human complex systems. That’s a lot of detailed and complicated work to undertake, but perhaps the most important work simply is to change our mind-set and realise finally that, for our own good, cities should not just exploit the potentials that people and finite natural resources offer, but should enhance the lived experience of all those who live, and will live, in them. Cities are for life, not just for people.

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