Krakow, Poland – On an early March afternoon, people in masks filled Krakow.
A grey haze shrouded the city and a pungent smell of smoke hung heavily in the air – typical scenery of the city’s late winter gloom.
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Krakow, Poland’s main tourist destination with a scenic old town and atmospheric cafes, has long been losing the battle against air pollution.
But in the middle of the city’s Jordan Park, one can take a deep breath.
A newly erected seven-metre-high Smog Free Tower, designed by the Dutch artist, innovator and the founder of Studio Roosegaarde social design lab, Daan Roosegaarde, is visible from afar, gleaming in the faint rays of the sun.
Made of oblong pieces of aluminium, the tower works as a vast air-purifying hoover, giving local residents a place of respite.
In February, the Smog Free Tower began the Polish stage of its world tour.
Poland is home to 33 of Europe’s 50 most polluted cities, according to the World Health Organization.
Close to 50,000 people a year nationwide die prematurely of pollution-related diseases.
The dream of a clean world
Making public places human-friendly again has been at the core of Daan Roosegaarde’s mission.
The idea to start a project that would use design and technology to fight air pollution came to his mind in Beijing.
“I was in my room, looking outside my window at the city covered by pollution. I thought to myself that we should not accept this. The city has become a machine that is killing us,” Roosegaarde told Al Jazeera.
Soon after, with the help of a team of designers and engineers, Studio Roosegaarde developed the idea of the Smog Free Tower, the world’s first air hoover. Using positive ionization technology, the tower clears 30,000 cubic metres of air an hour, using no more energy than a water boiler.
We should design and engineer our way out of it and improve the world we live in. We have created the mess we are in.
In the process, the tower collects smog particles, which are then turned into jewellery – smog-free rings and cufflinks, sold by the studio. Each of them provides the city with 1,000 cubic metres of clean air.
Smog Free Towers previously appeared in the Netherlands and China, where the project began its world tour.
According to professor Bert Blocken, civic engineer from Eindhoven University of Technology and KU Leuven, the project has proved successful.
“Both the technology and the Smog Free Tower itself have been successfully evaluated with both field measurements and numerical simulations with Computational Fluid Dynamics,” Blocken said. “The results confirm that the tower captures and removes up to 70 percent of the ingested PM10 and up to 50 percent of the ingested PM2.5.”
As Roosegaarde believes, bad design has been one of the reasons for the world’s pollution problem.
“We should design and engineer our way out of it and improve the world we live in. We have created the mess we are in,” he said.
Poland’s dirty reality
In February, the European Court of Justice ruled that between 2007 and 2015, Poland regularly failed to comply with EU air quality standards. If the country does not address the problem, it will pay a fine ranging from 5,066 euros ($6,224) to 373,460 euros for each day of infringement, ClientEarth environmental group’s estimates reveal.
The main sources of pollution are exhaust gas of automotive industries, power stations and households. In Krakow, air quality is further compromised by the city’s unfortunate landform. Located in a hollow, with little air circulation and infrequent winds, in winter time, the city often reminds of an apocalyptic industrial zone.
Nikoletta Tyka moved to Krakow several years ago from nearby Tarnow. Ever since, she has been experiencing the effects of pollution.
“In Krakow, the air smells. In winter time, I am constantly ill, I cough and have problems with sinuses,” she told Al Jazeera.
“When I go home, the problems disappear. I consulted several doctors and they all said my problems are most likely related to air pollution.”
Ewa Lutomska from Krakow’s Smog Alert citizen initiative explains that heating-related pollution is the biggest problem in the city. “Until recently, there were around 30,000 stoves and coal furnaces, often very old, which did not meet emission standards,” Lutomska told Al Jazeera.
“The coal used is often low quality, therefore, during winter time, we see an increase in pollution levels, including atmospheric particulates and carcinogenic benzo(a)pyrene.”
Into a clean future
In January 2017, the Polish government launched the Clean Air programme, which, if implemented, may contribute to tackling air pollution. As part of the package, the government proposed introducing emission standards for furnaces, coal quality norms and thermo-modernisation programmes for the poorest households.
In addition, in February this year, the government launched Stop Smog initiative, which aims to support the exchange of stoves and thermo-modernisation of households in 23 out of 33 most polluted Polish cities from the WHO list. It remains to be seen if the government’s efforts make a difference.
Many local governments have also taken on the task to fight pollution.
“For the last several years, Krakow has committed to eliminating coal furnaces and replacing them with ecological ones,” Lutomska says. “Such exchange is encouraged with subsidies, but also direct financial support for the poorest residents to pay for their heating bills.”
Sometimes, I look at the world and I don't understand it any more. The traffic jams, air pollution - it's a brutal place. I want to design things to make the world more understandable. And a bit more human.
The Smog Free Project may give inspiration to countries such as Poland to look into local solutions bypassing top-down government initiatives.
After successfully completing its China tour, the Smog Free Tower project will be implemented on a large scale by a local partner. Next, it will tour Mexico and Colombia.
In the coming months, Studio Roosegarde, in cooperation with ofo – one of the largest Chinese bike-sharing initiatives, and TEZGIN design platform, will bring to life Smog Free Bicycles. Based on 2017 technology, the bicycles absorb polluted air, clean it and release to the atmosphere.
“Sometimes, I look at the world and I don’t understand it anymore. The traffic jams, air pollution – it’s a brutal place,” Roosegaarde says. “I want to design things to make the world more understandable. And a bit more human.”