Trees, bushes and other greenery growing in the concrete-and-glass canyons of cities can reduce levels of two of the most worrisome air pollutants by eight times more than previously believed, a new study has found. A report on the research appears in the ACS journal Environmental Science & Technology.
Thomas Pugh and colleagues explain that concentrations of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and microscopic particulate matter (PM) both of which can be harmful to human health exceed safe levels on the streets of many cities. Past research suggested that trees and other green plants can improve urban air quality by removing those pollutants from the air. However, the improvement seemed to be small, a reduction of less than 5 percent. The new study sought a better understanding of the effects of green plants in the sometimes stagnant air of city streets, which the authors term "urban street canyons."
The study concluded that judicious placement of grass, climbing ivy and other plants in urban canyons can reduce the concentration at street level of NO2 by as much as 40 percent and PM by 60 percent, much more than previously believed. The authors even suggest building plant-covered "green billboards" in these urban canyons to increase the amount of foliage. Trees were also shown to be effective, but only if care is taken to avoid trapping pollutants beneath their crowns.
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Effectiveness of Green Infrastructure for Improvement of Air Quality in Urban Street Canyons, Environ. Sci. Technol., 2012, 46 (14), pp 76927699
Street-level concentrations of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and particulate matter (PM) exceed public health standards in many cities, causing increased mortality and morbidity. Concentrations can be reduced by controlling emissions, increasing dispersion, or increasing deposition rates, but little attention has been paid to the latter as a pollution control method. Both NO2 and PM are deposited onto surfaces at rates that vary according to the nature of the surface; deposition rates to vegetation are much higher than those to hard, built surfaces. Previously, city-scale studies have suggested that deposition to vegetation can make a very modest improvement (<5%) to urban air quality. However, few studies take full account of the interplay between urban form and vegetation, specifically the enhanced residence time of air in street canyons. This study shows that increasing deposition by the planting of vegetation in street canyons can reduce street-level concentrations in those canyons by as much as 40% for NO2 and 60% for PM. Substantial street-level air quality improvements can be gained through action at the scale of a single street canyon or across city-sized areas of canyons. Moreover, vegetation will continue to offer benefits in the reduction of pollution even if the traffic source is removed from city centers. Thus, judicious use of vegetation can create an efficient urban pollutant filter, yielding rapid and sustained improvements in street-level air quality in dense urban areas.