IoT Tech for Quality Air
How Smart Cities Can Improve Air Quality
by Jane Marsh
Cities get a bad rap when it comes to air quality. But smart cities — which leverage the power of the Internet of Things (IoT) — are taking steps to change that. There are two main ways smart cities improve air quality — by setting up connected monitors and by reducing the number of gas-powered vehicles on the road. Gradually, this combined approach is letting urbanites breathe easier.
What Is a Smart City?
Smart cities use IoT sensors placed in strategic locations to monitor things like air quality, noise levels, garbage levels, and energy use. These hyperconnected sensors relay information back to a central location where city managers can monitor and analyze the data, then use it to make informed decisions.
For example, if the dumpsters in a particular area consistently fill up before trash pickup day, waste management companies can rearrange their route to accommodate extra stops at them. Or, if a smart camera detects a fire, it can call emergency services to the scene before people even notice the blaze.
Analyzing Air Quality
Cities are infamous for their air pollution. Pollen, natural gas, chemical production fumes, manufacturing byproducts, and vehicle emissions all contribute to the problem.
These pollutants have severe effects on human health. In fact, one study found vehicle emissions may cause up to four million new cases of pediatric asthma every year. Air pollution disproportionately affects racial minorities, who often live in dense urban areas closer to factories and highways.
Because air pollution is such a pressing issue, smart cities have adopted the use of air quality monitors. In the Netherlands, people can install sensors in their homes and businesses to collect air quality data, then use inhalers outfitted with GPS trackers to determine which parts of the city have the best air quality.
In California, Google teamed up with the Environmental Defense Fund to drive cars equipped with air quality sensors around Oakland. They found air quality varied dramatically even within single neighborhoods. The project also discovered people living near industrial or high-traffic areas inhaled up to eight times the amount of toxins as people living just one block away.
Another cause of poor air quality is pests, which commonly occupy city buildings. Many Americans are allergic to cockroaches and rodents, which often infest inner-city housing developments.
Armed with air quality data, cities can take strategic steps to reduce pollution, such as the following:
Cities can plant trees or rooftop gardens to absorb excess carbon dioxide in particularly polluted areas. They should plant trees few people are allergic to or plant female trees — that is, if the species is dioecious, meaning it has separate sexes — because female plants don’t make pollen. This ensures planting trees won’t contribute to worse air quality.
Smart cities can impose tighter regulations on factories and other buildings responsible for poor air quality. Companies that continue to pollute face heavy fines or legal action.
After locating areas suffering from a pest problem, city officials can implement pest control solutions to improve the air quality inside buildings.
If cameras indicate a problematic traffic intersection, city officials can install smart traffic lights at busy intersections to regulate the flow of cars. This reduces stop-and-go traffic, which emits more pollution than continuous driving.
Crucially, smart cities also implement green transportation options. Electric buses, trains, and subways substantially reduce fossil fuel emissions — some cities even use electric garbage trucks to pick up waste. Additionally, smart cities can facilitate the use of electric cars by installing EV charging stations.
Protecting Pedestrians and Bikers
Wide bike lanes, crosswalks, and footbridges promote biking and walking. Some smart cities also offer bike sharing — a system where people can simply rent a bike, ride it as much as they need, and return it to the nearest rack. A GPS tracker determines how far the user travels and what they owe.
Switching to Renewable Energy
Another way smart cities improve air quality is by using renewable energy sources. Solar panels and wind turbines can power streetlights, homes, and businesses, cutting down on fossil fuel emissions that would otherwise pollute the air.
Reducing Energy Waste
By using smart meters, city planners can track electricity use during different times of day, weather conditions, and seasons. For example, if a meter determines a streetlight is using more energy than necessary, city planners can put it on a timer so it only turns on when people or cars pass by.
Smart heating and cooling systems also collect data and send it to a cloud-based platform, allowing energy suppliers to monitor energy usage and implement solutions for overuse. Smart monitors can detect drops in efficiency or signs of a physical problem so technicians can rapidly address it before it wastes excess energy. By using less energy, smart cities produce fewer emissions and improve their air quality.
Cities are a significant source of pollution, so they must take steps to improve air quality for themselves and the people living in adjacent areas. By implementing IoT technologies, smart cities can monitor air quality and find unique ways to address their pollution problem.
Article by Jane Marsh
Jane works as an environmental and energy writer. She is also the founder and editor-in-chief of