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Nature & Health: AIR QUALITY

These indicators track the state of the natural urban environment,which is also linked to human health. How much green space is there in a community?

Do its residents enjoy clean air?

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Why this Indicator is Important

Air pollution includes fine particulate matter, ground-level ozone, and nitrogen dioxide. It comes from human-driven sources like fossil fuel burning vehicles, burning natural gas, certain industries, or natural events like wildfires.1 Poor air quality increases the risk of allergies, respiratory disease, and cardiovascular disease.2 According to researchers at the Canadian Urban Environmental Health Research Consortium, about 86% of Canadians live in areas where fine airborne particulate matter exceeds recommended levels, and 56% of Canadians live in areas where nitrogen dioxide exceeds recommended levels.3 Polluting industries may be more likely to be located in or near low income, Indigenous, and racialized communities, meaning those communities are more likely to be exposed to negative health impacts from air pollution. Air quality also tends to be worse in urban areas.4 While municipal governments may not be able to control all sources of air pollution, there are nonetheless strategies they can take to ensure cleaner air for their communities–and many of them overlap with the other indicators, particularly walkability, bikeability, public transit, and green space. One of the main sources of air pollution in urban areas comes from vehicles.5 Policies that encourage active transportation over driving, switching to electric vehicles, and reducing vehicle speeds can all result in improved air quality, as well as protecting natural vegetation in green spaces which can clean the air.

Data Availability and Accessibility: 2/3

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Air quality is measured on the Air Quality Health Index Scale, which measures on a scale of 1 to 10 the level of health risk associated with the current air quality, with 10 being the highest risk. Air quality readings are taken from monitoring stations situated all across the country—the availability of data depends on having a station nearby. Our main source of air quality data is the Weather Stats website, which draws on data from Environment and Climate Change Canada and provides a number of different summaries, including air quality data over the past year.6 Some provinces, such as Quebec7 and Ontario,8 also offer aggregated data results.

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Note(s): Data are from 2021. Data is from Environment and Climate Change Canada via

Winning Municipality

Three Canadian cities tied for best air quality in this year’s Standings: Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador, and Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. In 2021, each municipality registered a mere three days of daily readings below 3 (out of 10) on the Air Quality Health Index. The lower the index reading,the cleaner the air. While smaller, remote communities such as Yellowknife are less likely to suffer from vehicle-based pollution, the greatest air quality risk comes from wildfires, which will only increase with climate change.9 The city of Yellowknife offers the community’s fieldhouse (which is equipped with a high quality HVAC system) as a place to shelter and exercise when it is unsafe to do so outside. The city may turn this into a “clean air shelter policy,” where that process would be automatically triggered when the AQHI goes above a certain level.10 This past year, residents in Yellowknife and other NWT communities also received free air quality sensorsfrom the territorial government’s Community Based Air Monitoring Project, which will help provide more expansive real-time air quality data via a virtual map.11

International Highlight

Households that use open fires or simple stoves fueled by kerosene, biomass and coal see their air quality drastically fall. To address this environmental and public health issue, the city of Durban, South Africa, has created a new subsidy program to help with poor air quality in households. The program offers free eco-friendly cooking bags which allow households to slow cook food for hours after taking pots off the heat. This seemingly simple bag offers a cheap and quick way to reduce fossil fuel use, harmful emissions in households and water use.12