Deep breath: change the conversation

Air quality in our towns and cities is a critical issue but action and progress will be sorely limited unless we grasp the challenge of awareness, behaviour and pro-active communications.

Deep breath: change the conversation

Polluted air, dubious emissions and the continued rise of respiratory disease have all sparked debates over the state of the environment in our British cities and even though a Government plan was released in Summer, there’s little to be seen in terms of action as yet. 

Green leaders have described the plan as a ‘woefully tiny step’ and city mayors have written to Michael Gove asking for much more to be done.

As well as more funding for cycling and walking, vehicle scrappage schemes and more green infrastructure (trees and green space to the uninitiated) there is a behaviour change challenge, too, and that’s something that towns and cities all over the world have already started to tackle.

Could it be that Metro Mayors and civic authorities need to do some work on heart and minds, before they deliver some good news for our lungs?

What does the problem look like?

The average human being will inhale 250 million litres of air during their lifetime, making clean and breathable air without a doubt the most critical commodity on our small, blue planet.

Across the world, and here in the UK, there is mounting alarm that the quality of our air is failing and that as a result, lives are being cut short and local neighbourhoods, particularly in poorer areas, are feeling the brunt of a very contemporary ‘silent spring’.

According to a report out earlier in 2016 from the Royal College of Physicians (RCP), every year around 40,000 deaths can be attributed to outdoor air pollution. Once you add indoor air pollution the toll climbs higher still. 

In their report, entitled ‘Every Breath You Take’, the RCP states that air pollution is now an urgent cause for concern on public health and has been linked to cancer, asthma, stroke and heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and even to dementia.

And here’s the real wake up call in the report. Even though we’re ‘breaching’ air quality limits set by the EU across a number of UK cities, that really isn’t that meaningful a calculation. The fact is there is no safe limit, at all, for these pollutants. 

The conclusion drawn by the RCP and others is that what we really need is urgent action to halt the inexorable rise of air pollution that is costing lives and weighing in hard on stretched NHS resources.

In cities like Manchester, London or Leeds, airborne pollution comes largely from traffic and more specifically diesel engines are a key contributor. This pollution affects you throughout your life but is particularly dangerous for babies in the womb and toddlers, as their growing heart, brain, hormone systems and immunity can all be harmed. 

Older people, and adults with long-term health conditions, are also vulnerable. 

Fairness is a factor. Pollution hits hardest those who live in deprived areas – which often have higher levels of air pollution – it impacts those who live, learn or work near busy roads and those who, ironically, are least likely to own a car. Poor quality housing, lack of access to green space, lifestyle factors such as smoking, the stress of being on a low income and compounding conditions like being overweight or obese all amplify the risk.

All this comes at a cost. According to the RCP, costs from exposure to air pollution add up to more than £20 billion every year for business, insurance, social services and most critically of course, the NHS.

Human-created problems have human-centred solutions

We’re not helpless of course. This is a problem created by humans so we should be able to figure out a way of handling it. There’s a very direct action we can take individually, which is to avoid pollution in the first place: try and avoid walking through areas of high congestion; understand what times of the day might mean the highest risk; make sure to report in to your GP if you think air quality is adversely affecting you. 

And in every home and business we can stop burning oil, reduce our fuel use, drive less and make a whole host of changes that will help limit pollution at its source and create cleaner streets for our kids, older people and of course, ourselves.

There’s plenty that can be done, if there is the will to change and a call to action.

Good communications can play a significant part in delivering a major change in air quality. 

This is not new territory for our team at Creative Concern. As well as launching with Manchester Friends of the Earth and others a ‘Clean Air Now’ campaign in Greater Manchester a few years back, we’ve been behind campaigns for public transport, more bike use, electric vehicles, the ditching of fossil fuels and the planting of street trees as a way to boost urban air quality.

Last year we also supported the brilliant ‘Invisible Dust’ team as they launched an art project in the heart of Manchester to highlight hotspots of particulate pollution in the city.

Campaigning on air quality

Good, compelling and creative communications can be a central part of any strategy to tackle air quality and pollution. In fact it’s difficult to find an area of action that doesn’t rely on shifting hearts and minds in the right direction to make change happen. 

Campaigning communications can:

  • Inform and embolden urban design decisions, because as many city leaders will admit, tackling the daily practices of car drivers in particular can be a vote loser as much as a winner; 
  • Achieve behaviour change amongst those contributing to air pollution, which in practice means driving less, switching fuel sources, trying walking or cycling or even just signing up for a lift share;
  • Increase awareness of air pollution issues amongst health professionals, especially GPs, so that problems can be spotted early and the voice of health experts can be added to those calling for action;
  • Alert people to areas and times of peak pollution so that those who are vulnerable can avoid exposure, this is particularly important for parents of young children; 
  • Underpin a public consensus and support for new programmes such as the scrapping of diesel cars; and
  • Raise awareness and as a result, provide a wider political mandate for taking action.

Given that we all breathe, and we’ve all got an interest in not taking in poisoned air, the audience for any air quality campaign is, let’s face it, universal. If pushed to prioritise though, the following groups could be said to be on the front line, and the first call for air quality communications:

  • Local authorities and politicians – taking action on this requires political will and a mandate;
  • Community groups and networks – these can be critical in mobilising support, but also in providing local mitigation of air quality issues;
  • Transport companies – particularly buses or freight operators – with a view to emission reductions and fleet improvements;
  • Large employers – they can help to promote behaviour change amongst their teams but also look at their everyday practices to ensure they’ve made a sympathetic environment for those looking to switch from the car; 
  • Professionals who are focused on public health, such as GPs, health visitors, midwives and others; and 
  • The actual communities at risk -– should we have more health alerts and awareness raising to help people avoid exposure at specific locations and times?
  • Car drivers, where we need to urgently bring about behaviour change, and a switch from diesel particularly in our urban centres.

Communications around air quality issues, and the accompanying calls to action, are not without their challenges. There are a group of key issues and barriers to understanding which agencies like our own have had to tackle and will continue to face:

  • It’s probably blindingly obvious but the most threatening pollutants are invisible, making this something that’s harder to represent than other forms of environmental threat;
  • Previous studies have revealed that most people tend to think the problem is ‘owned’ by someone else, or the government, making personal action or advocacy less likely;
  • Those at greatest risk often have the lowest understanding of the science behind air quality (and are least likely to be contributors due to low levels of car ownership);
  • Behaviour change, whatever area you’re tackling, is a significant challenge and doesn’t happen overnight; and
  • Personal liberty vs. the common good is a classic challenge for communicators.

These barriers need to come down, that much is certain, and as ever it means the messaging needs to be clear and proven, and any creative treatment needs to be strong enough to cut through the thousands of commercial messages most people are subjected to every day.

Pollution is a brand issue

Poor health means poor productivity and, of course, exhausts our finite health resources. The return on an investment in air quality communications will be felt immediately in reduced health costs and a better quality of life for the population concerned, but there are other benefits that would be felt, too.

This is a big story and tackling it is an equally arresting and potentially high profile narrative. Each year thousands of people die and many thousands more suffer ill health as a result of air pollution. The ongoing problem has an impact on our reputation, across our cities, and for the post-industrial cities of the North, like Manchester, the quality of our environment is a critical, underpinning issue for talent attraction, tourism, investment and ongoing economic success. 

Put bluntly, this is a brand issue for cities and regions. 

Some actions on air quality have genuinely iconic potential. People have created pollution absorbing billboards, architectural facades that tackle the problem, there’s even a ‘smart’ paint that you can use in urban areas that uses nanotechnology to actually absorb air pollution.

And of course, planting more trees and creating green roofs and facades can be a critical part of our response, with an accompanying boost for the image of our cities, as well.

There is a tough and important message embedded within air quality campaigns too, one that speaks to environmental justice and personal responsibility. 

The fact that air pollution hits the poorest hardest, even though they are least likely to have been the cause of it, can and should underpin a wider programme to address injustice and build more inclusive city regions. 

Just as traditional economic strategies have not managed to address a widening gap between the richest and the poorest in society, the state of our metropolitan environments is also in a state of imbalance, and so any air quality campaign can, and should, be part of building a fairer and more ‘just’ city too.

A collective conversation on air quality could indeed be part of a wider discussion around shared values and what we want our collective future to look like. And in asking people to take personal action on air quality, alongside other forms of civic engagement, any communications on this issue can help to rebuild trust and connectivity across our communities, as long as it’s done well.

Poor quality public campaigns on issues such as this equally have the potential to lead to backlash, disengagement and a reduced appetite for change. Fear and threat need to be used in moderation; the key narrative that this is a shared problem and requires a shared response also needs to be high in the mix; remember most people think that the blame lies anywhere else but with themselves.

Across the world, particularly in cities and regions where air pollution has been an ongoing problem, there are some great and strong examples of creative responses to air quality issues. Some ad agencies have won awards for their campaigns on the issue; these are the same ad agencies that sold you the cars that caused the problem, incidentally. 

What we do know from other behaviour change campaigns, such as successful campaigns to reduce smoking or encourage healthier lifestyles, is that change doesn’t happen overnight, and so any strategy for air quality communications needs to tackle the fact that awareness of the problem itself and of its causes is too low currently to move straight to a call to action; we’ll need to build first a shared sense of importance for tackling air quality and then, when the time is right, switch our messaging to a call to action on personal behaviour.

The model used elsewhere on behaviour change, moving through phases of precontemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, maintenance and then termination, would probably fit well against any campaign on air quality where we’re asking drivers in particular to switch their behaviour. Far better this than trying to wrest them from behind the wheel too abruptly, because as relatively recent campaigns on congestion charging, for example, will tell you, asking drivers to change their behaviour without building a broad base of evidential support, and offering them a high quality alternative, is a tactic likely to meet with failure. 

Time to make change happen

So what are we waiting for? This year in our agency’s home city of Greater Manchester around 2,000 people will die because of air pollution. That means the time for action is now, and every moment wasted is, potentially, a life lost.  

As cities and metropolitan regions choose to tackle air quality alongside other critical issues such as climate change, resource efficiency, biodiversity and green infrastructure, they will need strong and clear leadership from city leaders on this issue, not just from city mayors but business leaders, NGOs, faith groups, educators and others who have a voice and a constituency.  In many respects this issue is a litmus test for the resilience of our cities and the resolve of their leaders. 

And as a shared threat to all of us, and as we have a shared responsibility for the problem, the campaign to tackle air quality is one that we all need to embrace. It is not an issue for environmentalists alone, or for those with a designated role in public health. 

We all have a part to play in delivering clean air, now.

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