Breathing Space

Unmasking London's polluted airways

Cities around the world are grappling with the often dangerous side effects of rapid urbanisation. One of these is air pollution, named by the World Health Organisation as 'the world’s largest single environmental health risk' in 2014.

Like many other cosmopolitan centres, London is facing a battle to maintain air quality at healthy, breathable levels. Earlier this month, the Mayor of London said the city was "tackling the biggest public health emergency of a generation".

Despite measures to reduce emissions, levels of harmful pollutants across London regularly exceed UK and EU Air Quality Standards and objectives. High levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and particulate matter (PM10) are currently putting Londoners at increased risk for respiratory and cardiovascular damage.

As the city's population and densification increase, the problem requires intervention now to ensure London is liveable in the future.

You are what you breathe

In collaboration with global engineering consultants Arup, we created an installation to help people visualise the severity of pollution in the capital, using London Design Festival as a platform for dialogue about what can be done to make moving through cities more healthy.

At Shoreditch's Tabernacle Square, Breathing Space transformed an overlooked public square in East London into a place of respite during the festival, providing pedestrians, cyclists, festival visitors and local residents with a green haven in the heart of the city. 

With bold graphic artwork by Art + Believe, the installation used interactive, immersive digital technologies to provide visitors with real-time information about air pollution in London. Using wireless networks, data was streamed from the ‘London Air’ website – a King’s College initiative providing real-time information on pollution levels. 

The structure was made up of 11 bisected prisms, each one representing a different location in London. LED lights installed on wooden seating structures varied in colour as levels of pollution went up and down in a each location. 

The design included an enclosed lighting installation containing 11,000 litres of air – the amount the average person breathes every day. 

HASSELL has collaborated with Arup on hundreds of built projects around the world. For London Design Festival, we joined creative forces on a very different scale, using a temporary installation to challenge conventional thinking.

As designers, we're constantly looking for ways to make our cities better and Breathing Space was an intervention designed to shake people out of complacency and to offer a fresh, and perhaps unexpected, perspective on how things could be different.

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