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Seeing the invisible: Visualising air pollution

As our transport networks and urban environments expand to provide for an ever-growing population, education around air quality is vital and as part of this, making this scientific, and often complex, information accessible to non-specialists, is a key requirement, write Stephen Bell and Alice McLean of environmental consultant Temple Group.

How can we appreciate if planting more trees is going to be a suitable mitigation for a new development? How do we understand the trade-off associated with the introduction of traffic calming and the impact on air quality this may have? How can a local resident be confident that they can continue having their lunch on their favourite bench once changes to the local community have been made?

Whilst existing modelling assessments require traffic data, other scientific data and rely on tabular presentation or simple graphical representations, it is often difficult to truly understand what the impacts of development might be. As such, there need to be mechanisms to ‘experience’ the air quality to see the likely changes.

Seeing in colour

With this in mind, we can use technology to help. By taking air quality modelling outputs, developed using traffic data to estimate before and after scenarios, it is possible to convert the outputs into immersive Virtual Reality. Displaying the data using colour gradients that our brains are wired to translate and comprehend; we are then able to experience and understand whilst navigating around a virtual world.

Virtual Reality, by its immersive nature, has been demonstrated to improve recall accuracy, meaning we can better remember information provided to us through this medium. Through this mechanism, the testing of scenarios becomes engaging as you toggle between options to experience the impact on the ground. You can navigate around the local area to see where air quality improves or worsens and begin understanding why. You can then make this available to everybody who wants to be involved and has a vested interest in the local environment, and collectively we can have a role in fighting air pollution.

Vectos Temple Group 1

We partnered with immersive content creators MakeReal to create VRtitude AQ, to consider the role of immersive technology within the sustainability sector.

The standalone app can show an urban landscape together with the air quality of various scenarios. Outputs of air quality models are converted and displayed through simple colour gradients depicting concentration levels. Scenarios could be the current state against a predicted state, or show likely outcomes from various mitigation measures, in order to identify how interventions affect air quality.

VRtitude AQ aims to help open up complex scientific information and provide a platform for policy-makers, designers, and citizens to engage through and create informed decisions.

The app can be developed to understand the issues at discrete sites, for multiple sites to understand impacts from city-wide interventions, or as part of long-term monitoring to understand change over time. This can take the form of branded apps developed for specific purposes or as data to feed into existing models.

The technology is still reasonably nascent, but as immersive hardware and content improves, together with the advent of 5G, there is a real opportunity to learn and understand.

Driving sustainability home

Paul Whitaker, an associate at transport planning specialists Vectos, feels that there are real opportunities in using this technology to assist in the fight to improve air quality.

He said: “Having had my first experience of a Virtual Reality development world with Temple Group in Manchester, wandering around the existing streets, exploring the new development world, and having coloured air quality ‘particles’ floating around your face, it does bring home the fact that this really is all around us and is affecting all of us now.

“With all of the developments that we are involved with across the UK, we are continually striving to promote sustainable travel modes and facilitate the EV transition, with the aim of reducing road transport emissions. The tool that Temple Group have developed, combined with the sustainable access strategies that every development should look to implement and emerging technology, will allow us to continue to provide the best advice to our clients in the industry and would be particularly powerful as part of a public consultation event.”

He added: “In transport planning, we already provide traffic data calculations and future year forecasts which then inform quantitative air quality assessments. Where I see this tool being important is as part of an improved feedback loop whereby transport and air quality professionals work even more closely together to inform key development decisions.”

Stephen Bell is a principal consultant and the team lead of digital delivery at environmental agency Temple Group, Alice McLean is a principle consultant in Temple’s air quality & climate change team, and Paul Whitaker is an associate at transport planner Vectos.

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