The Air Pollution Paradox: How Amsterdam Punishes Its Residents Twice

Amsterdam, a city ranking high in sustainability indexes, is home to a new initiative: The TreeWiFi. The young startup behind the initiative has hung a bunch of birdhouses around the city that provide their surroundings with free wifi internet access. However, when air pollution around a treehouse exceeds a predefined limit, the internet access is turned off. The founder of the project hopes that these treehouses will reduce air pollution in the Dutch capital.

At first glance, that’s a beautiful innovation: rewarding residents for keeping their neighborhood clean. But a deeper look at the TreeWiFi concept reveals a downside it shares with many other social innovation startups: it’s really unclear if it can solve anything. While I’m sure that the intentions of the people of TreeWifi are great, the gimmick of turning on only when air pollution drops actually misses the point.

Air pollution in Cities

In 2015 Friends of the Earth Netherlands measured air pollution in 59 different locations in several Dutch cities, including Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague and Utrecht. They found that in 11 of these sites, air pollution exceeded the EU limit of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) of 40 µg/m3 a year.

Breathing nitrogen dioxide in high levels increases the likelihood of respiratory problems, inflames the lining of the lungs, and can reduce immunity to lung infections. The Australian Government’s Department of the Environment also states that high levels of Nitrogen dioxide can “cause problems such as wheezing, coughing, colds, flu and bronchitis”.

And what brings nitrogen dioxide to our cities? That’s right, cars. To be precise, some 80% the nitrogen dioxide in cities comes from motor vehicle exhaust, according to the Australians. The report by the Dutch Friends of the Earth came to the same obvious conclusion: ‘the busier the road, the worse the air quality’.

The sad side of the air pollution in our cities is that it seems that minorities and poorer people end up living next to pollution hazards. When the housing market is more open to you, you’d probably not choose to live right next to a congested highway. Money can’t buy you love, but it can help your lungs stay clean. While it’s unclear that this is the situation in the Netherlands, it is worth further investigation.

Another aspect of the  ‘Air Pollution Paradox’ is that communities that use the car the most are enjoying actually better air quality. A thorough research in the UK has found that  ”communities that have access to fewest cars tend to suffer from the highest levels of air pollution, whereas those in which car ownership is greatest enjoy the cleanest air". We are currently running the numbers to see if this is also the case in the Netherlands. We will come with an update on this soon.

Unsocial Carrot and Stick?

TreeWifi is designed as an incentive to residents to combat air pollution in their neighborhoods. However, it is uncertain that the people living in these polluted areas are really the cause of the problem. If they aren’t, then it is questionable that they can even solve it. It seems more likely that the source of the problem is car-drivers, many of which live in their comfortable clean-air-suburbs, that commute with their nitrogen dioxide polluters.

The birdhouses are a cute gimmick, but they sadly seem to penalize the wrong people. At the end, it’s the decision-makers – politicians, policy makers and planners – that shape how car-centric our cities are. A social innovation startup that really wants to tackle air pollution, should punish the real people who create air pollution.

So here’s a suggestion: why not make birdhouses that block the WiFi signal of pro-cars politicians. In that case, the birdhouses will at least penalize those who are responsible for the pollution, and not those who suffer from it.


Written by Lior Steinberg. Follow him on Twitter.