World Environment Day: Addressing air quality through the built environment

June 4, 2019

How planning and design tactics can improve indoor and outdoor air quality for lasting impacts on our communities


By Blake Jackson, Kevin Madry, and Nels Nelson

World Environment Day aims to bring worldwide awareness and action around protecting our environment. It is a day that reminds us that even smaller, local-level actions can help improve the natural world around us. 

With this year’s theme focused on beating air pollution, we spent time with our experts—Blake Jackson, Kevin Madry, and Nels Nelson—in sustainable building design, air permitting, and urban planning to discuss strides being made in improving air quality and the environment overall. 


What practices or trends do you see making a promising impact on air quality?

Blake: I’m especially encouraged by the conversation around health and well-being in the workplace sector. Clients are realizing the profound impact the amount of time we spend indoors has on our health. As a result, they are proactively engaging ways to promote occupant health outcomes through operational protocols and design features. This impacts air quality through design and operational measures that focus on engagement around the internal and external environment of a building, which is where sustainability and health-focused ratings systems overlap the most.

The major building trend impacting North America is the proliferation of Passive House and net-zero energy buildings (NZE). By the end of 2019, there will be 600 NZE’s registered or being certified. This is astronomical growth compared to just a decade ago.


evolv1, a commercial office building designed by Stantec, is the first building to earn the Zero Carbon Building - Design certification.


Kevin: In the United States, there is currently more legislative activity occurring at the state level to help address air-quality standards and raise public awareness. California, for example, is a state that’s very active in regulatory developments focused on methane emissions and greenhouse gases. State leaders are also homing in on regulations that promote greater transparency on emissions, which is already driving some positive changes and controls as the public gains access to real-time emissions data. As that occurs more frequently, there likely will be regulations for further controls.

_q_tweetable:By working to reduce air pollution and increase opportunities for active living and social interactions through urban design, we can improve our physical and mental health._q_There are also states, like Colorado and Utah, where population and industry growth have created greater pressure on air-quality standards. In recent years, these states have exceeded the established ozone attainment thresholds, creating a need to enact increased regulations to help push those emissions down.

Nels: As we look at the evolution of our cities—and focus on establishing healthier cities—there are many new and emerging practices that will help improve air quality and quality of life. For example, the growing popularity of electric car technology has the potential to be a gamechanger for cities. Not only will they reduce air pollution but they are also much quieter than traditional vehicles, reducing noise pollution.

Also, the growing focus on urban forestry in cities like Toronto and Cambridge, Massachusetts, is bringing multiple benefits to communities through cleaner air, mitigation to heat-island effects, and improvements to resident wellness. Finally, evidence-based land use zoning practices are helping prevent nuisances such as pollution from industry impacting residential neighborhoods. Cities can govern land-use nuisances directly by monitoring for fine particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide, ozone, and sulphur dioxide.

We’re also seeing an increase in policies that make cities healthier such as reducing air pollution by banning smoking in public areas, banning idling vehicles, requiring construction and demolition dust be mitigated, and separation of homes and schools from busy roads by at least 300 feet. The WELL Community Standard is making promising strides in this direction.


Do you feel strides are being made to help balance the development of our built environment with protecting and enhancing our environment?

Blake: Too often, development has meant the destruction of natural habitat, but this cannot continue indefinitely. The growing densification of urban centers offers an opportunity to create more vibrant, healthier, and more desirable places that protect these areas from future climate risks.

One example is BIG’s “The Big U,” which is a linear park proposed to protect lower Manhattan from rising sea level, while offering greater access to public green space. Another example is the ImagineBoston 2030 masterplan, whereby the City of Boston is using the redevelopment of waterfront coastal property (like The Eddy in East Boston) to establish protection for previously vulnerable neighborhoods. The plan brings about a coordinated solution to long-term sea level rise, stormwater management, and heat-island effect by providing access to the waterfront through both hard and soft publicly fronted infrastructure projects.


Design of The Eddy incorporates resilient design elements in anticipation of rising water levels and storm surges.


The most pressing issue for resiliency in all cases will always be cost. Municipalities need better mechanisms to reward positive behaviors so developers can leverage development for greater goals. Take, for example, cities like Vancouver, British Columbia, where Passive House certification equates to additional height and/or square footage allowances.

Kevin: We are seeing promising steps being made in restrictive-legislature states and in areas with strong environmental awareness through mostly voluntary mechanisms to address stakeholder interests. A rising driver in the topic of air quality is the influence of public awareness on a company’s emissions, whether those stakeholders be company stockholders focused on corporate sustainability, employees, or local community members. In many cases, there is an enhanced desire to be a good neighbor. And, in some cases, that means companies are making voluntary efforts to reduce emissions outside of what is required.

Nels: While indoor air quality has been top of mind for the past decade, now is the time to think about what happens in our public spaces. Urban outdoor air quality is impacted by many sources, including pollution from traffic, construction, and combustion sources. The World Health Organization has determined ambient air pollution in the environment is a top health risk. It has been shown to relate to pulmonary disease, lung cancer, asthma, cognitive impacts in children, and cardiovascular effects.

The rising healthy cities movement is focused on environmentally determined health outcomes like air quality and active transportation to address such issues. In fact, the New Urban Agenda specifically calls out addressing vulnerability to air pollution.


Are there key projects you’re working on that exemplify these goals?

Blake: A surprising area where we (in Boston) are seeing sustainable and health-oriented design taking off is in the commercial speculative office market sector. We have worked diligently with our clients to inform them how to differentiate their properties, leveraging LEED in conjunction with newer standards like WELL and Fitwel, to promote health through their projects.

With large commercial projects, we are including amenities such as gyms, daycares, meditation spaces, multipurpose rooms, and even exterior amenities for growing food, exercising, and _q_tweetable:Ongoing engagement around energy use and health of spaces will help maintain the engagement necessary to measure the value of evidence-based approaches over a project’s lifespan._q_personal respite. These health-promoting features provide value to owners, help attract tenants, and play into a larger narrative that enables tenants to promote health and wellness in their fit-outs. We are currently working on The BEAT, which when complete will be the first core/shell office project in Massachusetts to simultaneously achieve both LEEDv4 (Silver) and 2-star Fitwel certification.

Kevin: I have many clients that have embraced regulatory requirements to measure, monitor, and report compliance status with regulatory requirements. These clients recognize that they live and work in communities with a vested interest in clean air and they align the community interests with theirs. In California, for example, we’ve helped oil and gas companies better manage their greenhouse gas emissions.

Additionally, states like California have a Cap-and-Trade Program that positions emissions as a business decision that impacts the bottom line. With this program, companies must reduce their calculated emissions over time each year. This can be accomplished by adding controls, implementing more advanced technologies, or buying credits (which are incredibly expensive—in some cases in the tens of millions of dollars annually). In our role, we evaluate how companies are quantifying their emissions and what emission sources can be replaced by less-impactful alternatives to minimize emissions and mitigate costs.

Nels: Our urban design guidelines and planning practices are helping make measurable improvements. Take, for example, communities in states like Ohio, Massachusetts, Louisiana, and Florida that we’ve worked with to establish guidelines like the addition of trees for every 30-feet of sidewalk. Or local municipal codes that require urban canopy for public projects. Working together, such guidelines help create a holistic network of urban greenery that delivers countless benefits to community members.


Increased urban greenery is among the planning tactics that help foster community benefits like improved air quality.


What do you see for the future of environmentally conscious development/projects? Are there new strides being made via new technologies, regulations, etc.?

Blake: I am encouraged by the rapid uptake, and even codification, of Passive House across North America. While LEED has been a great tool to bring ecological awareness to the masses and create a common language around holistic sustainability, it has not focused our attention upon the major greenhouse gas (GHG) emitters in buildings—energy use. With Passive House, we will start to see a drastic cut in GHG emissions, relative to development, providing an opportunity for existing and new construction.

Lastly, meaningful visualization of data into actionable insights is the “holy grail” of sustainable design. Especially as people impacts are the hardest to predict, design for, and improve. This has historically been done through policies, programs, and building dashboards; however, once ingrained, these become static. I believe projects of the future will take a cue from healthcare. Just like the study of genomics made healthcare a personalized industry, so too can data and applied research on the sustainability, health, and resilience of a project. Ongoing engagement around energy use and health of spaces will help maintain the engagement necessary to measure the value of evidence-based approaches over a project’s lifespan.

Kevin: Stringent regulations, mostly driven by requirements of the Clean Air Act, ensure the most effective control technologies are being used in new and modified projects. In some cases, we see clients also evaluating alternative processes or practices that can be incorporated to eliminate the creation of certain pollutants instead of controlling them after they are created. Air-quality regulations are continually changing, however, so it’s vital to stay informed. We spend a lot of time evaluating what regulations are coming next so that clients can be prepared and make sure they can comply.

Nels: Competition for human capital between cities has become the key driver for development and investment. By creating healthier places, cities have set themselves apart. For example, it is no coincidence that Arlington, Virginia, is rated one of the healthiest places to live and was able to attract Amazon HQ2. We now know that where and how we live determines two-thirds of our health outcomes (the other third is medical care and genetic disposition). By working to reduce air pollution and increase opportunities for active living and social interactions through urban design, we can improve our physical and mental health.


About the authors

Blake Jackson is certified as a LEED/WELL Faculty and a Fitwel Ambassador. Blake works with allied design professionals and clients to apply these national standards and other best practices across all building sectors.

Kevin Madry is a senior principal in Denver, Colorado. His expertise spans air permitting projects across the US for facilities with agricultural, energy/power, industrial, oil production, oil refining, and government sources.

Nels Nelson is a senior planner and member of Stantec's Urban Places. The US State Department and U.S. Green Building Council have recognized his award-winning work, and he’s published articles with Architectural Design, CityLab, and the United Nations Development Programme. 


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