Air pollution is a complicated science, with messy and multiple causes, from architecture and engineering to social policy, environmental law and history.  An interdisciplinary mindset is crucial if researchers are to understand its origins and translate insights into actionable policies. The University of Birmingham’s multifarious research and international collaborations are helping policy-makers promote meaningful change.

“Our struggle for global sustainability will be won or lost in cities”, announced UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in 2012.  Air quality will be a central battlefield in the struggle to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals as economic growth and industrialisation threaten to undermine health and wellbeing for the masses.  

Understanding the causes of air pollution requires a broad range of disciplines from health through to politics, engineering and sociology. Urban planning, the politics and governance of space, land values mechanisms - and the public and private relationships that shape them - are all essential ingredients to understanding where air pollution comes from, and what can be done about it. 

“When you want to do research that works and that has an impact on people, you need to think beyond your own expertise,” says Dr. Lauren Andres, senior lecturer in spatial planning at the University of Birmingham, who leads the GEES Urban Initiative at the University of Birmingham, an interdisciplinary virtual centre spanning the School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences, with a focus on human and physical geography, urban planning and environmental and health sciences. 

A notable interdisciplinary effort to air quality management is ASAP, led by Professor Francis Pope, through which ten partner organisations are developing a systems-based approach to air pollution in three cities in East Africa. It combines researcher diversity - combining those from the African continent to others around the world - as well as interdisciplinarity, drawing expertise from urban planning, economic geography, public health and development studies. 

Dr. Andres cites other multi-institution interdisciplinary project she is involved in: in Sao Paulo, Brazil -“Re-inhabiting the City”, which convenes experts at Birmingham, Nottingham  and Sao Paulo, and interweaves research in architecture, urbanism, geography and engineering, to inform the regeneration, reoccupation and revitalisation of under-used urban spaces, through temporary urbanism. Research by the University of Birmingham’s Emma Ferranti and Andrew Quinn also typifies research diversity, including traffic, engineering, planning and geography, to explore the impacts of mega-events like the World Cup, the Olympics and the Pan-American Games, to inform resilience strategies for cities.  

While this eclecticism might seem to complicate research, for Dr. Andres “the urban is completely interdisciplinary”. Translating expertise across disciplinary lines makes research more usable by policy makers, because it prompts experts to de-mystify their work and communicate outside of their peer group. 

This can all lead to concrete insights for the policy community. The SAPER project, for instance that she leads, investigates how urban planning practitioners are educated in South Africa and their needs once in practice. Having produced the first and largest to date comprehensive overview of the state of the profession in South Africa, lessons are being learned with applicability both in South Africa and in other African countries with regards to the transition between education and practice and specifically the needs and gaps towards planning capacity, mentoring and continuous learning. 

Results also apply to higher education institutions abroad, to better understand the knowledge transfer needs of international students. Overall, this research also stresses the needs for interdisciplinary and holistic understandings of the urban environment specifically in context where the number of planners is spare and challenges significant. This embraces recent calls made by the World Economic Forum in their report published in September 2018 “Agile Cities: Preparing for the Fourth Industrial Revolution” that  “cities must be “agile” – able to move quickly and easily – to enable their citizens to thrive”. Now, this isn’t possible within siloed disciplinary approaches.

There are further opportunities for interdisciplinary research in air pollution; Dr. Andres would like to see contributions from environmental lawyers and historians, for instance, who can offer context in tracing how environmental or urban practices change over time and why. This involves thinking beyond one’s own network, and viewing knowledge production as contributing to a broad range of scientific, social and human concerns.  


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