This article appears in our third print issue, Breathing Room.
You need some fresh air. You’ve been stuck indoors, and the air is stale. Eating, sleeping, working, cleaning, socializing, talking, thinking, reading, watching, being. Yes, for your own good, you must get out for a walk now and then. A loop through the park or around the block—it’d do wonders to clear your head. Out the window, things look as they always do, a normal—pandemic-relative normal, at least—day in the city, and the clear weather makes it no difficult decision at all. Still, you glance at your weather app to assess what to wear. Maybe you open your air quality app too, just in case. An “unhealthy” assessment of your neighborhood gives you pause.
If you’re one of the 24 million Americans with asthma, there’s good reason to be concerned about this. You might also be aware of air pollution’s link to a heightened risk of death from COVID-19. Or of the increased risk of heart disease and respiratory failure tied to air pollution. Or perhaps the idea of breathing in “unhealthy” air just doesn’t sound so refreshing. So instead, you gaze into the glassy surface of your Nest thermostat and set the room to a comfortable temperature. You command Alexa to set the lights to a level that better suits your mood. And finally, you call upon your control app for Live Air—or Molekule or Cube or Blueair or any one of the numerous smart home air-purifying systems now on the market—to make sure that you need not fear the air you breathe.
Your smart home furnished with these Wi-Fi-laden accouterments, you are immersed in the sensory certainty that, while the world outside may be unpalatable for those with even mild asthma or any underlying cardiovascular or respiratory issues, here, in the space you own or rent, you are in control of the air flow. And you are, perhaps, safer than you ever were out in the smoggy, exhaust-filled basin that is the city.
Since the ascent of industrialization’s malevolent smokestacks, urban air has been under assault from emanating particulate matter. It is telling that the first major regulatory environmental legislation passed in the United States was the Clean Air Act, which aimed to directly address the declining breathability of city air. Yet with the unceasing emissions of the automobile and energy industries, and the perpetual kneecapping of environmental accountability measures by corporate lobbyists, genuinely clean air—and a habitable climate for all—was never in the cards.
Luckily for you, there is seemingly no limit to the number of high-end air monitoring systems available today; this technology may yet deliver you from the increasingly hazy future of your city. If, of course, you can afford it. In any interior within the reach of green capital, in homes, apartments, cars, hotels, and offices, you can rest assured that clean air will flow. Not just clean air, but, thanks to our generation of corporate innovators, optimized air, maximizing a consumer’s “wellness” through targeted data collection. So long as you are an active consumer of these smart systems (which are entangled with big-data surveillance networks), you needn’t be too worried.
Yet beyond the smart borders, you are right to be wary. A study published in the September 2020 issue of Cardiovascular Research found that air pollution poses a significant threat to human life globally—rivaling the effects of smoking and far surpassing the threat of “general violence.” As a result of the ubiquitous secondhand smoke of fossil fuels, nearly 7 million people die from air pollution annually. The report also reveals that in recent years, air quality in the U.S. has declined. In many urban communities within nations that ostensibly enjoy clean air, noxious emissions linger in deadly quantities. Toxic industrial processes have also been exported to poorer countries, and the atmosphere transports their emissions worldwide.
In 2013, Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, a nine-year-old London resident, died of an asthma attack induced by exposure to elevated levels of NO2—a dangerous but commonplace urban emission, the primary culprits for which are fuel-burning vehicles and power plants. In the U.K., it has been well established that tens of thousands of premature deaths are caused by toxic air each year, but it wasn’t until 2020 that a court declared a death officially caused by pollution: nine-year-old Kissi-Debrah’s. Since the 1850s, contaminated air in London and the U.K. has plagued the working poor, often to devastating effect. London’s “Great Smog” of 1952, caused by industrial emissions and heightened consumer coal usage, led to 4,000 deaths in less than a week. However, air pollution has never before been so explicitly attributed as a direct cause of death by the state.
The court’s finding was only made possible by Ella’s mother, Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, who tirelessly advocates for more serious consideration of the threat of air pollution, which today most severely afflicts the marginalized neighborhoods in the city. In an op-ed for The Guardian, Anjali Raman-Middleton—one of Ella’s peers and a founder of the teen environmental advocacy group Choked Up—wrote:
“Clean air is the foundation of health but all too often, children in towns and cities across the U.K. are exposed to unhealthy levels of pollution every day. And it’s people of colour, like me and Ella, who are most likely to live in polluted areas and have our health harmed by toxic air. This ruling makes clear that air pollution is killing us—and leaves no room for politicians or the motor lobby to claim that the impacts of toxic air are unclear.”
Among major cities today, this environmental condition is not exceptional. A 2020 study from the American Lung Association found that 150 million Americans—over 45 percent of the population—“live in counties with unhealthy ozone or particle pollution.” In the same year, both Toyota and Daimler AG were slapped with large fines from the Department of Justice for violating the Clean Air Act by falsifying reporting of their NO2 emissions. Corporate negligence is rampant among the nation’s top automobile producers, as was pointedly illustrated by the notorious Volkswagen emissions cheating scandal. While air pollution is not exclusively an urban phenomenon, the deadliest concentrations of fine air particulates and ozone are found in the largest cities with the highest populations.
To make matters worse, in 2018 and 2020, record-breaking fires across the western United States blanketed already-polluted cities in a demonic orange haze, exacerbating the catastrophic toll of the coronavirus and pushing cities across the West into some of the worst AQI (Air Quality Index) measurements on the planet. A quarter of the nation’s homeless population lives along the West Coast. Churches, community centers, libraries, and an insufficient number of “fresh-air” shelters opened their doors to thousands of the urban poor, who had nowhere else to go to escape the suffocating atmosphere.
The fires and the haze they produced served as a spectacular demonstration of how devastating air pollution can be. At the same time, they made plain the effect of that other most concerning pollutant, carbon, and its central role in the climate crisis. Since ozone pollution is also known to warm the climate (alongside black carbon from fire and combustion and many other particulates), urban air pollution is a global crisis both distinct from and entangled with the onslaught of climate change. The most direct human cost is seen in cities, from diseases of the lungs and heart, but the indirect toll of urban air emissions is felt everywhere.
There needn’t be a burning forest for you to taste the toxins. Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah did so throughout her entire life. So too do the urban masses who reside in spaces where runoff accumulates from polluting transportation, energy, and land development companies. With the scale of air pollution in cities globally and the resulting injustices experienced by marginalized urban populations, the meaning of having a healthy home and the definition of what we can consider to be “habitable space” become increasingly fraught. To escape exposure to the often-invisible fumes of urban modernity and the anthropogenic atmospheres that are inextricable from city life, four walls and a roof are not enough.
Naturally, profiteers see opportunity, and have rolled out cutting-edge technological solutions to address air quality—in the form of luxury goods. You’d be surprised to know that the problem of urban air quality has, for some, been solved by the same innovative automobile, real estate, and energy companies that helped both build and poison our cough-inducing metropolitan areas.
Striding into the newly booming market, Volvo last year unveiled their car-interior Advanced Air Cleaner to protect drivers from harmful external particulates, which, of course, their cars are simultaneously producing. But at the forefront of the purified-air industry space is a corporation called Delos, which, to boost sales, has been attempting to draw greater attention to the impact of environmental factors on indoor living. Headed by Paul Scialla, a former partner at Goldman Sachs, Delos boasts a board of trustees that includes, among other luminaries, actor Leonardo DiCaprio, “mindfulness” leader Deepak Chopra, and former congressman and House majority leader Dick Gephardt. Delos, so named for the Greek island where Apollo is said to have been born, has been working to deify clean-air living via sustainability and “wellness” since 2009. Marketing their specialized “WELL” real estate certification program to corporate offices, hotel and resort operators, and other ventures, the corporation has certified over 5,000 projects in 66 different countries.
Thanks to clients like Microsoft, the New York Yankees, MGM, the Vatican, and countless developers, Delos, which was valued at $800 million in 2019, has effectively created a for-profit empire by commodifying healthy air and water—resources that some might say are a basic human right. But Delos’s vision eschews that archaic notion and gives us the facts: to live with polluted urban air and water is simply the unhealthy choice of those who are not willing to invest in the science of wellness. Aside from celebrity endorsements and high-level corporate contracts, what makes Delos so well-equipped to make clean air a luxury real estate asset is its use of data tracking and smart technologies. It promises to pump fresh air—tempered, filtered, and treated with ultraviolet light—into your penthouse, which will be secured with an airtight seal so that it won’t be infiltrated by what is otherwise some of the most polluted air in the United States. Delos’s app and smart home interface is named, seemingly without irony, “Darwin.” For thousands of dollars, Darwin gives homeowners a hyperlocalized real-time analysis of their air, water, light, and other environmental conditions in their homes.
Delos’s WELL certification is one of many entries into the popular sustainable certification grift, like the non-profit LEED Green Buildings label (on which the WELL certification was modeled) and the CDC-backed Fitwel. Such metrics are not meant to serve the poor—those most harmed by air pollution. Instead, they are designed to not only entice development projects with a vision of financial and resource efficiency, but also to outwardly create the impression that the unimpeded growth of immense, energy-intensive developments can in fact be sustainable. The perceived value of a building with such certifications, and the clean air within, increases relative to the toxicity of the air outside of it. Delos, and the many other home wellness systems that give consumers sophisticated, data-fueled insight into the air they breathe every day, are banking on the fact that your city is becoming increasingly polluted.
While they’re not as direct as other manifestations of disaster capitalism, such corporate endeavors apply the same moral calculus. Despite this, air quality data services and the champions of technological wellness insist that the work they’re doing for high-end real estate will benefit all. Though their improvements are confined to the hyper-controlled environment of luxury homes, hotels, and offices, we are expected to believe that somehow, clean air will seep out and trickle down to the poor as well. Delos wasted no time capitalizing on the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to reassert the importance of clean air. Other real estate wellness initiatives like Location Ventures and Troon Pacific have claimed their efforts are concerned with the growing impact of climate change, though it’s clear that they are pursuing no end but profit.
Building a new market on the promise of data-driven private profit has little to do with creating a true “solution” to the problem of declining air qualities in cities across the U.S. Delos, Fitwel, and clean, green-certified development projects are largely a result of the new opportunities made possible by smart technologies and the explosion of new value assets borne on the back of the data economy. With these developments in monitoring and tracking, any space with a Wi-Fi connection and a smart sensor can be assessed and evaluated for potential hazards, to be mitigated with a pricey solution. Ultimately, this life-extending wellness-hacking on offer to a growing number of homes and businesses makes evident the failure of governments in addressing urban air pollution.
It’s true that a growing number of cities looking to get “smart” are installing sensors to track ozone levels, pollen, particulate count, ambient temperature, wind velocity and direction, air pressure, precipitation levels, and many other environmental factors relevant to air quality. Yet cases wherein such devices are effectively used to inform and empower the majority against air pollution, though not unheard of, are rare. As Adam Greenfield writes in his book Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life, “This is a place where the instrumentation of the urban fabric, and of all the people moving through the city, is driven by the desire to achieve a more efficient use of space, energy, and other resources. If the ambition beneath the instrumentation of the body is a nominal self-mastery, and that of the home convenience, the ambition at the heart of the smart city is nothing other than control.”
Having a way to monitor and communicate AQI is necessary for anyone living in a large city today. It is imperative to your short- and long-term health to have an AQI app or some other form of some localized communication about pollution levels in your neighborhood. For the majority of urban dwellers, the idea of any expensive monitoring system for their home and workplace is a distant and possibly altogether unattainable fantasy—but nonetheless, city air remains toxic, and is likely to get worse. While real estate moguls in collaboration with both private and state-run health organizations work to set a higher standard for “healthy air,” accessible largely to the wealthy, little to nothing is done to stem the avalanche of factors contributing to the crisis in the first place. Carbon output, the growth of fossil fuel infrastructures, caustic smoke from worsening fire seasons, private vehicle exhaust, unplugged methane leaks, warming temperatures, and a staggering lack of accountability for emissions violations—all are immaterial to the primary market players that promise to provide clean air with smart technology and design.
Air, water, food, shelter, and the right to life are fundamentally interdependent—and such rights are becoming increasingly precarious as the artificiality of our living spaces widens the chasm of well-being between the rich and the rest. You may be lucky enough to have your own smart system in your Delos WELL-approved home, complete with an integrated Google or Amazon network surveilling your environment at all times, but that feeling of control over your space comes at a price the vast majority of humankind could never afford. Under capitalism, health is a function of wealth. In your own private sphere, air can be carefully attended to, calibrated and optimized. Outside, in the city around you, the poor breathe an atmosphere that grows thicker with carbon, ozone, NO2, and endless plumes of particulates—a miasma emitted from the same architecture of private profit that has made possible your hermetic climate of wellness and control.♦
John Kazior is an American design critic and illustrator based in Malmö, where he writes about the many creatures entangled in the city’s infrastructure. He serves as art editor for The Drift magazine and he has written on ecology and design in the climate crisis for MOLD Magazine, The American Institute For Graphic Arts, The Baffler and more.