The Air Quality Living Lab is a project within the Leeds Living Lab – the Leeds Living Lab drives the University’s commitment to embedding sustainability through knowledge, engagement, collaboration and innovation – it brings together students, academic and operational staff to research and test sustainable solutions, enhance our curriculum and solve real world challenges using the University as a test bed. 

The purpose of the Air Quality Living Lab project is to bring together staff, students and City partners to build our knowledge of air quality and pollution. We then use this knowledge to inform decision making and shape our strategic approach to improving health and the environment. Driving positive, sustainable change that is scalable and replicable to the City is central to the project.

For example, how can we use the information to shape the University landscape and key thoroughfares for people and for vehicles. And how can we better inform our staff and students of the safest, healthiest, most sustainable ways to get to work or their place of study.

Key activities have included monitoring and mapping air quality across our campus, with over 30 staff and student volunteers taking part over a 12 month period and opening up the data for research and teaching purposes through a bespoke web-based hub.

We then built on this through two student Masters dissertations looking at commuter exposure to pollution on key routes into the University using various forms of transport. Again, data is plugged into the web-based dashboard so that we can support further research and teaching moving forwards. We are currently scaling up the research, working more closely with Leeds City Council to measure and monitor further into the City, both in terms of mapping and commuter exposure. 

The final key element of the project is developing our understanding of indoor air quality and its relationship to outdoor air quality. Two MEng students have begun to pilot this through their dissertations this year, monitoring air quality in campus teaching spaces.

The most valuable element of the living lab approach is driving the mutual benefits of operational improvement, research with impact, and building the knowledge and capacity of our students. We’ve learned a great deal about the air quality on our campus and more widely across the City. Being able to use this information to inform and influence decision making at an institutional and policy level has great value to the University and to the individuals involved.

The project is being used to inform decision making on campus, such as increasing knowledge in Estates Services of how and where to place walkways and plant trees to reduce exposure to pollution. It is supporting the University in working with the Council on the development and maintenance of surrounding roads and helping drive the development of new policy such as vehicles idling on campus.

Internally the project has brought together colleagues from several Schools and Services to work in an interdisciplinary way to address mutual challenges. This is hugely valuable in breaking down institutional boundaries and silos of working.

We have also been able to embed the project into the curriculum, building student knowledge and research skills through volunteer monitoring, dissertation projects, and assessed projects in modules (such as a recent project with Computer Science undergraduates developing innovative and engaging ways to present the data).

Data and information from this research helped the University to inform, support and influence decision making around the development of the Clean Air Zone plans for the City and we are currently working on ways to expand the project to incorporate more citizen science, allowing our local community to gather data and information and feed it in to the data hub. We also ran air quality engagement sessions as part of Clean Air Day 2018, inviting staff, students and the local community to try their hand at monitoring pollution whilst learning about environmental and health impacts.  

Our next steps for the project are developing a City Dashboard – an enhanced version of our current data visualisation that will be able to build in data from wider sources and present it in a format suitable for more diverse stakeholders across Leeds. Plus we are seeking ways to get into more detailed studies of specific areas of campus e.g. areas that we know currently have poorer air quality, or areas that are earmarked for development so that we can continue to work collaboratively across the institution to drive health and environmental benefit.

Activities begin this month building on the commuter exposure work. These will include studies of other key commuter routes as well as a focus on respiratory impacts on cyclists during rush hour. We are also working on opportunities to replicate elements of the project in Shanghai in partnership with Jiao Tong University

Overall the living lab approach provides our staff and students with a greater sense of pride and connection to the University as well as developing research that impacts the sustainability of the institution and has a key role in how we work in partnership with the City. 



About the Author

Thom Cooper (BSc MA CEnv MIEMA) has Sustainability Programme Officer at the University of Leeds since 2017. His key areas of focus are embedding sustainability across the University through collaboration, engagement and innovation, as well as the institution’s commitment to be single-use plastic free by 2023. Thom has 13 years’ experience in the sector having previously worked in both environmental management and strategic sustainability roles in the water industry and third sector.