Investigating informal greenspaces and their benefits for residents

A new publication by CAUL Hub researchers has used systematic observations and interviews with local residents to examine how residents engage with and benefit from the presence of informal greenspaces in their neighbourhood.

While many studies have shown the numerous benefits of greenspaces, these studies have mainly focused on formal spaces such as parks. Informal greenspaces are particularly common in cities, including areas such as vacant lots, brownfields, and railway or waterway verges. This paper drew on an empirical study of Upper Stony Creek – a concreted drainage channel in the Melbourne suburb of Sunshine North. An informal greenspace of around 40,000 square metres is located towards the east of the Creek.

The findings showed that dog walking was the main activity conducted in the informal greenspace, and the lack of regular maintenance, perceptions of unsafety and littering were among the most critical concerns regarding its use. The paper also included recommendations for ways informal greenspaces can be managed and improved to add value to urban environments and fully capitalise on their potential as integral parts of liveable neighbourhoods.

You can read more about the Upper Stony Creek Transformation project in this brochure.

Featured image: Upper Stony Creek Transformation. Credit: Leila Farahani

Why heat waves produce pollution

With extreme heat events becoming more and more common during Australian summers, there has been much national and international attention on the effect of heat waves on health. Heat waves are associated with increased illness and death, as well as increased ozone pollution which can trigger a range of breathing problems. However, there are still many large gaps in knowledge. Why do heat waves cause pollution? And given they are so dangerous to our health, what can we do about it?

By conducting a range of air quality measurement and modelling campaigns in the Sydney region, our research has explained the causes of extra air pollution – stemming from stressed vegetation and the speeding up of chemical reactions in the atmosphere. At the moment, air quality warnings are mainly issued at times of fires. However, our research shows the need to broaden these warnings, to allow for people with respiratory difficulties to take preventative measures. When policy makers and agencies such as the NSW Government Office of Environment and Heritage (OEH) adopt this knowledge, it will help to better prepare our communities from adverse health effects during heat waves.

During the air quality measurement campaign in Wollongong (2012-2013), Sydney recorded some of its highest temperatures ever, with temperatures exceeding 40 degrees Celsius. These high temperatures were associated with high ozone pollution in the area, and by using an air quality model we were able to understand why. This required us to first check that the model could simulate high ozone events, and then turn off some of the model processes to test which process was responsible for the high levels of pollution.

Our analysis showed two factors to be equally responsible for the high levels of ozone pollution: extreme emissions of various compounds (biogenic volatile organic compounds, or VOCs) from plants, caused by the extreme heat, and changes in the chemistry of the atmosphere, also caused by the extreme heat. Given that there was no industrial pollution involved in these events, there is little we can do to reduce the problem. We can however, include air quality warnings along with heat stress alerts to reduce the serious health implications of such days in future.

In order to get a comprehensive understanding of extreme heat events in the Sydney region, our research incorporated a combination of air quality measurements and modelling: routine measurements made by the OEH and the Environmental Protection Authority (EPA); a detailed measurement campaign involving researchers from CSIRO, the University of Wollongong and other partner universities; and modelling from CAUL Hub researchers at the University of Melbourne. This collaboration was critical, as it meant data was easily attainable and ensured results were reliable.

Featured image: Steven Utembe’s paper, Hot Summers: Effect of Extreme Temperatures on Ozone in Sydney, Australia on the cover of Atmosphere

A community of scientists and citizens address air quality in Liverpool

There is increasing public and government concern about poor air quality all around the world, with recent studies linking air pollution with “devastating impacts on children’s health” (WHO 2018). Last year, Liverpool in Sydney’s south-west recorded the worst air pollution of fine particles (PM2.5) in New South Wales and worsening (Ewald 2019). This makes it a critically important region to study diminishing air quality. Concerns around this issue were also raised in community consultations at CAUL Hub’s roadshows in 2018 and for a Smart Cities project in Liverpool, involving CAUL Hub researchers and Liverpool City Council.

In order to better enable local government to address community concerns around air quality, CAUL Hub has been conducting large-scale, atmospheric modelling work in western Sydney. It was this initial research which set the stage for a larger collaboration – providing the opportunity for young female scientists to contribute to cutting-edge air quality research and help make their community healthier.

This collaboration brings together scientists, the council and potential future female scientists from Liverpool Girl’s High School. Following a lengthy approval process, a state-of-the-art air quality monitoring station was installed on the school’s grounds in late February 2019. This work was initiated by CAUL Hub and will add to other research from a Smart Cities grant between Liverpool City Council and The University of Wollongong. Not only will the site provide critically important air quality measurements from the area, it will also provide the rare opportunity for the high school students to be involved in such research. Using this equipment, the students will be able to learn about, design and run their own citizen science air quality projects in their community. Students will also have access to data from a network of air quality monitoring sensors from around Sydney.

CAUL Hub researchers initially worked with the Principal and senior science teachers at the Liverpool Girls’ High School to help design engaging Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) projects around air quality. CAUL Hub researchers were able to build upon this through long-time relationships with the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage (OEH) and Australia’s Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO), to install a suite of reference-grade air quality measuring equipment in the high school. OEH has provided the air quality station, which measures a number of pollutants, including PM2.5. and ANSTO have provided a Radon Detector, which measures atmospheric turbulence. There will be long-lasting impacts from the installation of this equipment, with both agencies continuing to contribute to STEM education and the equipment remaining at the school well beyond this year’s classes.

Data collected from this new air quality monitoring site will contribute to wider research into what makes healthy public spaces in Liverpool. Site surveys and interviews with people in public spaces will help guide local council as it plans public spaces for the future expansion of the suburb. Air quality and pedestrian counting sensors from the 2017-2019 Smart Cities project have also helped formed the foundation for this research. Students will be able to use the sensors developed by CAUL Hub researchers for the Smart Cities project to make mobile measurements around the streets of Liverpool. This data will determine the quality of air pedestrians are breathing every day and help the community find safer, less polluted routes around the city centre. All this data will be made freely available to the public – helping address community concerns and unease about air quality in the area.

This large-scale collaboration and comprehensive engagement promises to yield lasting benefits for the community, as well as provide rare opportunities for young female scientists to be involved in cutting-edge research.

Featured image: Sydney CBD. Credit: Jeremy Kerwin via flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Does low level air pollution impact on health?

There is substantial evidence that long-term exposure to air pollution causes increased mortality and cardiovascular and respiratory illness in cities with high air pollution (WHO, 2016). Globally, air pollution was estimated to have caused 4.2 million deaths in 2015, up from 3.5 million in 1990 (Cohen et al 2017).

Most data on these adverse health effects come from populations exposed to relatively high pollution levels in North American and European cities. But we know less about the risk to health at the lower concentrations of pollution that we typically see in Australian cities. For governments in Australia that are responsible for reviewing air pollution standards – to protect the health of the population – this is a critical policy question.

The main pollutants of concern in Australian cities are particulate matter less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter (PM2.5) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2), which mainly arise from combustion of fossil fuels, through traffic, power generation and wood-heaters. In collaboration with researchers from the NHMRC Centre for Air pollution, energy and health Research (CAR), the CAUL Hub has enhanced the estimates of individual exposure to these pollutants through sophisticated modelling techniques, helping improve our assessment of the relationship between air pollution and health. Our research has indicated that there is no threshold for health effects from air pollution, as adverse health effects continue to occur at the lower levels of pollution seen in Australian cities.

CAR and CAUL Hub researchers worked together to link data on individual exposure to air pollution to two large cohorts: the ‘45 and Up Study’ in Sydney, NSW and the Health in Men Study (HIMs) in Perth, Western Australia (funded by NHMRC).

Our estimates of exposure indicate that the annual average concentration of PM2.5 was around 4.5µg/m3 for both Sydney and Perth. In comparison cities included in the European Study of Cohorts for Air Pollution Effects had averages ranging from 7.7 – 31.0 µg/m3. (Beelen et al. 2014).

By analysing data from HIMS, we found that PM2.5 absorbance, a marker of black carbon (diesel) exposure, increased the risk of all-cause mortality by 12% per unit increase (adjusted hazard ratio (aHR) of 1.12, 95%CI:1.02–1.23). (Dirgawati et al, 2019). These findings suggest that at the lower levels of pollution observed in Perth, there was an important impact upon deaths.

In the 45 and Up Study, we observed a small non-significant increase (aHR 1.10, 95%CI:0.89-1.37) in hospitalisations for asthma associated with PM2.5 among the participants (Salimi et al. 2018). No association was observed for respiratory hospitalisations overall. We also looked at Western Sydney participants only and found no associations between exposure to air pollutants and hospitalisation for all respiratory diseases. The impact on respiratory disease is less clear from our study, but they are suggestive that air pollution may increase asthma hospitalisations by 10%, even at these lower exposures.

An important outcome of this work was improved methods of assessing exposure. These methods involved using satellite and monitored data and novel statistical techniques (Hanigan et al 2017; Knibbs et al, 2018) as well as the development of techniques for regular updates of these data. The satellite-based land use regression estimates of PM2.5 and NO2 that we developed are now available for use in other studies through Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network’s (TERN) CoESRA Virtual Desktop. This will enable further research in the area to build upon our findings.

These studies have provided valuable data for the lower end of dose response curve, which has been a significant gap in knowledge about the impacts of air pollution on health. Evidence that there are health effects, even at low level of pollution, will be important for Government health and environment agencies when reviewing current standards for air quality.

A central part of this research has been the collaboration formed with researchers from CAR. This group has a long history in researching air pollution and health and were able to lend their considerable expertise to help us study the health impacts of air pollution in Sydney and Perth.

Featured image credit: Seb Zurcher via Unsplash

Creating Liveable Cities report awarded National Research Excellence Award

Last week, the Creating Liveable Cities report was awarded the Planning Institute of Australia’s National Research Excellence Award. This is a massive team effort from RMIT’s Centre for Urban Research, UWA and ACU (funded by CAUL Hub, The Australian Prevention Partnership Centre and NHMRC Centre of Research Excellence  in Healthy Liveable Communities), that builds on seven years of liveability research.

The report examines seven domains of a city’s liveability that also promote the health and wellbeing of Australians – walkability, public transport, public open spaces, housing affordability, employment and the food and alcohol environments. In doing so, it is the first “baseline” measure of liveability in Australia’s state and territory capitals.  Dr Melanie Davern and Carl Higgs from the Healthy Liveable Cities Group and the CAUL Hub/RMIT’s Centre for Urban Research are currently investigating the extended application of these liveability indicators in regional areas of Australia and will release liveability indicators for Australia’s largest 21 cities via the RMIT’s Urban Observatory in August 2019.

You can access the full Creating Liveable Cities report here and findings in brief here.

Featured image: Dr Lucy Gunn, Carl Higgs and Julianna Rozek collecting the PIA Award on behalf of the team.