Architects In Barcelona Use Data To Make Air Pollution Visible

NO2 pollution in Europe Aria Barcellonian architects realised the project Aria, an unprecedented mapping of the city that show...


Barcellonian architects realised the project Aria, an unprecedented mapping of the city that shows the impact of air pollution on the health of citizens and their vulnerabilities. As a result of the research, 12 urgent measures have been identified – including changes in transport modes and new designs that take the existing urban morphology into account.

Born as a proposal to represent Catalonia, in Spain, at the 17th Venice Architecture Biennale (postponed to 2021), the research for Aria began in 2019 and pushes the boundaries of the theme chosen ‘How will we live together?’. “In fact,” says the curator Olga Subirós, “we have read this question in a very radical way, as ‘How will we survive together?’”

The project started from a call for a curatorial proposal and was then commissioned and produced by the Institut Ramon Llull, the public body for the international promotion of the Catalan language and culture. The proposal was deployed in multiple facets and formats including a research commissioned to the 300.000km/s studio.

Aria was based on the scientific evidence that pollution and climate change are jus two sides of the same coin. This year, COVID-19 added on top of those pressures.

“We can also see that these three crises highlight an accompanying social inequality,” Subirós explains. “The awareness that we cannot breathe, in the most literal and metaphorical sense, has spread globally: we breathe the air of the Anthropocene, an air full of particles that come from the fossil fuels of the machines we use. You could say that our air is designed by humans. We must redesign that air for life.”

“As part of one of the largest and most influential international architecture events, our project highlights the essential role of architects in drawing up new cartographies that can represent new ways of thinking about our cities and also change the current model of the city that has so far prioritised economy over health. As architects, we must redraw cities to make their complexity visible; we must include what is invisible, including the negative of what was built: the air, an apparently empty space invaded by human action and filled with atmospheric pollution that endangers the survival of our species and non-human species.”

Air pollution affects seven out of 10 cities and nine out of 10 people in the world breathe polluted air. According to the European Environment Agency’s (EEA) Air quality in Europe 2019 report, exposure to air pollution caused more than 370,000 premature deaths in the EU in 2016.

As a case study, architects from the 300,000 km/s studio picked Barcelona because of its high vehicle density and because Spain has been failing to comply with the levels of the European directive on air quality for more than 10 years now. Although measures such as the Low Emission Zone have been applied recently and innovative tests such as ‘super blocks’ have been carried out, dangerous emissions are still in excess.

Mar Santamaria and Pablo Martínez, from 300,000 km/s, say that they are collecting all the available data “with the aim of bringing out conflicts and evidence that guide us towards a planning in which the health of the citizen is the ultimate objective.”

They hope to set health as a top priority in city decision-making. “We want to spread the message that improving air quality in cities means working against pollution and for the global climate crisis,”  adds Subirós.

This work was pursued on five lines: carry out an urban planning research based on innovative methodologies that can be extrapolated to other cities, organize citizen science workshops and actions to collect air data, publish a monographic issue of the the Catalan College of Architects magazine, create an artistic and sound project with an activist vocation, and design an immersive exhibition that materialize the research project for the Biennale. To do so, they also consulted with leading scientific research teams such as CALIOPE-Urban of the BSC Barcelona Supercomputing Centre, IDAEA CSIC, Lobelia, ISGlobal, Barcelona Public Health Agency, University of Barcelona, among others.

Mar Santamaria and Pablo Martínez say the obstacle was to visualise and describe together different scientific evidences in terms of urban planning: “from the physical city made up of streets and buildings, to the ethereal and invisible city made up of chemical compounds that are emitted and move themselves in a coordinated manner”.

So far, the architects have been participating in debates, round tables, media programmes and in the festival Sónar+D, reaching the general local public. Before the end of the year, the research will be published as a monographic issue of Quaderns, the magazine of the College of Architects of Catalonia.

“The project has a vocation for political action, so that we have started conversations to further explain the project to the top local politicians in order to study its implementation.”

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Newsrust: Architects In Barcelona Use Data To Make Air Pollution Visible
Architects In Barcelona Use Data To Make Air Pollution Visible
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