Gary Haq: Pollution on our doorstep damages the nation by stealth

OUR towns and cities have become noisier and brighter, our streets have become cluttered and our shops have become characterless carbon copies. These changes to our urban environment, that have occurred gradually over time, together constitute pollution by stealth.

Why do we put up with background music and traffic noise? Why are we allowing our streets to be cluttered by unnecessary furniture, signage and bollards? And why are we allowing the local distinctiveness of our high streets to be eroded by the invasion of cloned chain stores?

These creeping changes to our local urban environment have become so imperceptible that we have accepted them as part and parcel of every day life.

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Last month's Earth Hour event saw millions of people in 4,000 cities and towns around the world switch off lights for one hour to support action on climate change. Seeing urban centres and iconic landmarks such as Buckingham Place, Edinburgh Castle and 10 Downing Street plunged into darkness was a stark reminder of how bright our towns and cities have become. The energy used has both an environmental cost – producing greenhouse gas emissions – and an economic cost; energy bills associated with street lighting has doubled in the last five years.

Artificial light is used to illuminate streets, roads and hazardous areas; to promote security and to increase hours of usage for outdoor recreation facilities. However, lighting can be intrusive and create skyglow, which is an orange glow seen over towns and roads from upward light. This has become a serious problem for astronomers as the artificial brightness of the sky overpowers distant stars, especially those low in the night sky. It is becoming increasingly difficult to find areas where the view of the night sky is unaffected by illumination.

A report by the Council for the Protection of Rural England shows that light pollution in the Yorkshire and Humber region increased by 28 per cent in the period between 1993 and 2000 – an increase higher than than the national average. In particular, Humberside (North and Northeast Lincolnshire, East Riding of Yorkshire and Hull) lost half of its truly dark sky.

As well as becoming brighter, our urban areas have become noisier due to an increase in traffic. There is growing evidence to suggest that

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transport noise causes sleep disturbance, cardiovascular disease, elevated hormone levels, psychological problems and even premature death.

Government maps of noise pollution in key Yorkshire locations have shown that at some places Yorkshire folk are forced to endure noise

pollution as loud as a jet on take-off. In the European Union, 55 per cent of those living in urban areas with more than 250,000 inhabitants (almost 67 million people) suffer daily from excessive road noise levels.

Added to the bright lights and noisy streets is clutter caused by unnecessary signage, bollards, furniture, railings, road markings and traffic lights. Street clutter ruins both the look and feel of our surroundings. Street furniture is an essential part of urban life but its proliferation, poor siting and poor design can make it visually intrusive and a physical obstruction. The increase in road signs can be both distracting and confusing and at night are akin to Blackpool illuminations. Rather than promoting road safety, excessive road signage is more likely to reduce it.

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Keeping street clutter to a minimum improves the appearance of an area and contributes to a socially inclusive and safer environment. A "clear zone" policy bans certain types of street furniture which can be obstacles for people with a disability. Removing road signs and markings – a measure the Dutch have been trailing – can make drivers think more while on the road and encourage them to take fewer risks than they would otherwise do when signage is present.

All these factors collectively determine the quality of life in our towns and cities. There is no doubt we are more concerned about the environment than ever before. In a Government survey of public attitudes to the environment in England in 2009, 35 per cent of respondents mentioned the environment or pollution as the most important issue the government should be addressing, compared with 19 per cent in 2007.

Despite concern for the environment, we seem to endure stealth pollution and allow our local urban environment to be irreparably altered. Perhaps this is due to the fact that nowadays much attention is given to the potential environmental effects caused by climate change. This can make local issues such as noise and light pollution seem insignificant in comparison.

Our health and well-being is inextricably linked to the state of our urban habitat. Creeping degradation, if left unchallenged, will detract from our overall quality of life. We therefore need to remain vigilant and fight stealth pollution to protect our local urban environment in

every town and city throughout the nation.

Dr Gary Haq is a human ecologist at the Stockholm Environment Institute at the University of York