Did Amsterdam have all the answers?


These were just some of the thought-provoking questions that were posed at our ClairCity project meeting in Amsterdam, 10-11th November 2016. The first day of the event included presentations from local and national government, input from a local citizen campaign, project partners and two members of our Advisory Board. While the important details of our plans for Amsterdam, Bristol, Sosnowiec, Ljubljana, Aveiro region and Liguria were discussed amongst team members, the meeting was also an opportunity to learn more about some of Amsterdam’s unique problems and solutions around air pollution, transport, carbon emissions and health.

To an outsider, Amsterdam is remarkable for the sheer amount of bicycle traffic. Yet despite this, road transport – cars, but also delivery vehicles and coaches – is still a major cause of air pollution in Amsterdam. In addition, while the enormous cruise ships which visit the city bring welcome guests, they also leave a trail of air quality issues in their wake.

“In Amsterdam, primary schools and residences for older people are not allowed to be built within 300m of a motorway or 50m of a provincial highway.”

To tackle air pollution and the health problems it causes, the city has implemented range of innovative regulations: no primary schools and residences for older people allowed to be built within 300m of a motorway – a rule that targets the protection of the most vulnerable. There are “low emissions zones” which restrict access to central areas for certain types of vehicles. The city previously also experimented with legislation that prevented any new building in areas where air pollution was above recommended levels, which provided an important economic motivator for reducing air pollution. However, at the same time this legislation put pressure on data scientists, planners and other officials to manage pollution by dispersing it across neighbourhoods, where it could potentially cause health problems for a greater number of people, rather than concentrating it and focusing on removing the causes. Amsterdam is a city with many advantages, but it still faces many challenges.

Cyclist in Amsterdam

Representing Europe

Four of our six partner cities and regions were present at the meeting, and they brought a diverse range of experiences and solutions from their own situations. For many working in the field of air quality, the conflict between air pollution and climate change mitigation is epitomised in the choice facing car buyers (and government policy makers) between petrol and diesel, where each choice has its benefits but also enormous problems. We learned of two further complexities to that story. In many countries, the promotion of biofuels also exacerbates local air pollution, even though it is promoted in aid of climate change measures. Similarly, electric cars may solve some local air pollution problems, but promoting private motorised transport is a challenge to public health when many people struggle to stay active unless non-motorised or public transport features in their normal routines.

“Biofuels and electric cars solve some problems, but as with all changes there will be unintended consequences.”

For transport, as with so many issues, there are no simple answers that will fix all problems. Citizens, councils, organisations and governments have competing demands and multiple objectives that need to be balanced. Our partners from Liguria and Sosnowiec highlighted that transport is only one part of the air pollution, climate and health nexus. Heating and industry are key components of local and national carbon footprints, and particularly for Sosnowiec represent the largest threat to clean air in the city.

Fred Woudenberg, GGD Amsterdam.

In our project we are working towards solutions that can be applied across many different cities, each of which may have a unique combination of geographical, historical, industrial, cultural and political factors to consider. Through our combined citizen engagement and modelling approach, and by bringing experiences and expertise from across Europe together, we are on our way to building some adaptable responses to the air pollution and climate change challenges our cities face.


Dr. Corra Boushel, ClairCity Communications Officer.

Photograph by Andy King, Slide by Fred Woudenberg, GGD Amsterdam.