Britain’s toxic playgrounds: In a scandal that should shame the nation, 2.6 million children are at schools that have dangerous levels of air pollution. But there is a way to fight back – by helping them plant the trees that really do transform
An estimated 40,000 lives are cut short in the UK every year by air pollution, costing the economy £20 billion in healthcare and sick days
Looking out of her office window, head teacher Claire Fletcher was confronted by the most depressing of views — a featureless Tarmac playground framed by a concrete flyover.
‘I always felt really sad for the pupils,’ said Ms Fletcher, who has been at the helm of St Paul’s primary school in Hammersmith, West London, for the past 13 years.
‘Like many inner-city children they live in the middle of a concrete jungle and that was their outlook, not only at home but at their school as well.’
Not any more. Because today the grey of the St Paul’s playground has been replaced with green.
‘We have now got 17 semi-mature trees, we have got ivy cladding, and we have got lots of shrubs and bushes and herbs and flowers,’ she says.
‘We have even had the odd tomato plant where children have thrown a seed in a bed from their packed lunch and it has taken root.
‘It has become a really beautiful green space that the children enjoy. While the work was going on to transform it, one of the pupils said to me, ‘I just can’t wait to get in there and read a book under a tree.’ It’s great for them to think that this is somewhere to do ordinary things in an extraordinary place.’
But what is all the more extraordinary is that this transformation is not just skin deep.
Because as well as looking greener, the woodland playground, which was only opened in the summer, is already playing a crucial role in safeguarding the pupils from potential harm.
In 2017, air quality measurements taken across London identified St Paul’s as being the second most polluted school in the capital.
It sits next to the Hammersmith Flyover, with pupils exposed to high levels of fumes from 100,000 passing vehicles every day. And, shockingly, it is far from the only school affected.
Across the country some 6,500 schools educating 2.6 million children are in areas with dangerous levels of air pollution, it has been estimated, all largely caused by cars.
As part of our campaign, the Daily Mail hopes to fund the planting of 1,000 orchards in 1,000 schools where they are needed most. Pupils at Hunters Bar in Sheffield are pictured above
This includes exposure to toxic nitrogen dioxide and tiny airborne particles that can be breathed deep into lungs — with a recent study finding that living close to a busy road can raise your risk of lung cancer by up to ten per cent.
Research released by the British Heart Foundation this week revealed that air pollution in parts of Britain is so bad that living there is like smoking more than 150 cigarettes a day. The worst areas are London, Slough in Berkshire, Dartford in Kent and Portsmouth.
Children are particularly vulnerable, with research showing that they are disproportionately exposed to pollution while they are on the school run.
This is because their airways are smaller and still developing. They also breathe more rapidly than adults and are nearer to the level of car exhausts.
One of the key solutions is planting trees and hedgerows to filter out the pollution as the air passes through them.
How effective these natural barriers prove will be revealed in the coming months as the results of before-and-after monitoring emerge fully.
But if the transformative effects on pupils and teachers at St Paul’s is anything to go by, the signs are promising.
One of the key solutions is planting trees and hedgerows to filter out the pollution as the air passes through them. Pupils are pictured above at St Paul’s School in London
‘The initial impact is that the air feels cleaner and we have data that shows the pollution levels have decreased since we started monitoring,’ says Ms Fletcher, adding that in some areas pollution levels have fallen by a quarter or more.
‘We had an enormous, grey playground and now we have a fantastic green space. In terms of children’s mental health and their enjoyment of the space, it is like being in the country when you go into our woodland.’
The need to plant more trees in towns and cities has never been greater, as highlighted by the Daily Mail Be A Tree Angel Christmas appeal, which aims to encourage the planting of tens of thousands of trees across the country.
Our campaign exclusively revealed that during the past three years there has been a ‘chainsaw massacre’ with councils chopping down more than 670 trees a week.
While many are diseased or may be unsafe and need to be cut down, local authorities also cite other grounds for removing them, such as ‘shading’, ‘soil erosion’, making way for off-street parking or to reduce maintenance costs.
Sheffield City Council sparked major protests from residents when it signed a controversial 25-year deal for highways maintenance with contractor Amey, including a target to remove 17,500 of the city’s 36,000 street trees and replace them with saplings.
But not only does the removal of mature trees damage efforts to combat climate change, it is also at odds with a growing awareness of the role they can play in combating pollution.
An estimated 40,000 lives are cut short in the UK every year by air pollution, costing the economy £20 billion in healthcare and sick days.
As part of our campaign, the Daily Mail hopes to fund the planting of 1,000 orchards in 1,000 schools where they are needed most.
At a time of climate crisis, every tree counts to help capture carbon, mitigate global warming and conserve vital wildlife habitats.
Fruit trees and fruiting hedgerows can provide so many other benefits too, including improving the environment and creating outdoor learning spaces.
Catherine Carr, the head of Hunters Bar Infant School in Sheffield, was so concerned about the impact of poor air quality, she approached Sheffield University to work on plans for a transformative planting programme.
Readings in the playground had revealed pollution levels had breached World Health Organisation guidelines a number of times.
Maria del Carmen Redondo Bermudez, a PhD student studying at the university’s department of landscape architecture, was in charge of the project.
Having grown up in Mexico City, one of the most polluted cities in the world, the 28-year-old had experience of playground pollution.
‘When I was kid growing up, if there was bad pollution as monitored by the government we weren’t allowed to go out in the playground,’ says Ms Bermudez.
‘We had to stay in the classroom all day and couldn’t go outside. It was horrible not being able to play but it also affects your grades and your ability to focus. You need to be able to detach for a while and go outside for your mental health. I don’t want any children to experience what I did.’
The solution suggested for Hunters Bar was to install 60 metres of green barriers around the playground to shield the pupils from the pollution coming from a busy road and roundabout.
The specially-designed barriers are made up of three main layers, the first being an ivy screen. Ivy leaves have a waxy surface that is good at trapping particulates as the air passes over them.
The particles then get washed away when it rains, allowing the plants to capture further pollution.
The second layer comprises conifers and bamboo — fast-growing and providing another physical barrier to pollution.
The final, inner layer consists of shrubs and other herbaceous plants to make the barrier look good and also to attract bees and insects,
With the £20,000 cost of the work covered by fundraising, and with additional help from local businesses, planting was undertaken earlier this month. Ms Bermudez, whose studies are sponsored by the Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures, is monitoring the playground to see the impact it has had on pollution levels.
‘I don’t know what percentage reduction I am going to see but I do know there will be a change,’ she says.
It would be wrong to suggest that planting schemes such as this can solve the pollution problem on their own — something that Niall McEvoy, who helped to install green screening at Invicta Primary School in Greenwich, South-East London, acknowledges.
‘Unless there is a radical change to the way we live it is going to be impossible to stop pollution altogether,’ he says.
‘So all I can do is create a barrier to try to improve things. I am under no illusions. We are not going to reduce it to zero. But we can improve things.’
The school was recently found to be among the top 20 most polluted schools in London, being located 30 metres away from the approach road to the Blackwall Tunnel.
‘If you can taste petrol and diesel in your mouth, you know that it isn’t good,’ says Mr McEvoy, whose five-year-old daughter Ellaina attends the school.
‘I remember one morning in particular after dropping Ellaina off at nursery on a nice sunny day stopping by the road and seeing this haze a couple of inches above the cars. I thought, ‘Am I seeing that properly?.’ Because that haze was particulates, a mix of gases and dust from brake discs and from car tyres.’
The landscape gardener works for Scotscape, which specialises in green infrastructure. He encouraged the school to apply for £22,000 in grants from the Mayor of London’s office to combat the problem.
At the end of March, 360 ivy plants were planted around a perimeter mesh fence. These have since been supplemented by dozens of pine and beech trees.
Pupils, teachers and parents have all noticed the added benefits.
Back at St Paul’s, where the work was overseen by charity Trees For Cities, Ms Fletcher has also noticed a change in the way the children interact with one another in the playground.
‘It is a really cosy, beautiful place to sit and chat,’ she says. ‘And I have seen more children sitting around and relaxing with their friends. They tell me about beetles that they have found, and use leaves they find to make artwork.
‘This generation is crucial for changing the mistakes that have already been made and we need them to think there are things, however small, that they can do to fight against them. They have learned so much already but this isn’t the end of the story. We’re only really at the beginning.’
Hole lot of elm disease: Mighty tree planted in 1613 is felled by fungus from log store
By Colin Fernandez and Jaya Narain for the Daily Mail
It has stood proudly since the reign of James I. But hit by a deadly disease, one of the oldest elm trees in Europe is now facing the axe.
The tree was one of a pair planted in Brighton around 1613. More than 100ft tall and with a 23ft girth, the ‘Preston Park Twins’ are widely believed to be among the largest and oldest English elms in the world.
But tragically one of the pair contracted Dutch elm disease earlier this year and must be felled to save its ‘twin’. Already the 400-year-old tree looks a shadow of its former self after tree surgeons had to lop off dead branches and take down the leafy canopy.
One of Britain’s oldest elms is to be felled to save its neighbour after it contracted Dutch elm disease. The ancient specimen was planted in Brighton in 1613 (pictured today)
The fungus has reduced its once proud crown of leaves to a hulk of dead wood. It is pictured above in Preston Park, Brighton
Now it is awaiting a date for felling, with conservationists claiming Britain has lost part of its natural heritage. Council officers believe the disease originated in contaminated elm logs stored in the city, which contained the elm bark beetle (Scolytae) – a small insect that carries a strain of the sac fungi that is lethal to elm trees.
Experts believe the logs were brought in to feed the growing demand for fuel for wood-burning stoves.
Once in an area, it is relatively easy for the fungus-carrying beetles to move between different logs before finding an elm. It then bores into the trunk to lay its eggs.
Dutch elm disease – which came to the UK in the 1970s – virtually wiped out stocks of old English elms.
However, Brighton has a unique geographical position between the South Downs and the sea, which formed natural defences and helped keep the city free from disease.
There are more than 17,000 elm trees in Brighton and Hove – the largest concentration in Britain – and the city council is internationally renowned for its work to manage the disease.
The ‘Preston Park Twins’ pictured together before one of them contracted Dutch elm disease
English elm trees – Ulmus minor ‘Atinia’ – were popular with the Victorians and were planted in huge numbers in Brighton and Hove because they can tolerate the thin, chalky soil and salty winds.
Over the years the city has steadily lost trees to Dutch elm disease, but in recent years, measures have been brought in to identify and isolate contaminated logs. When the trees were planted in 1613, Shakespeare had just begun his final play and London’s Globe Theatre was destroyed by fire.
The Preston Park Twins got their name after they were measured in the late 1980s and found to be almost exactly the same age. Landscape paintings and other historical records were also checked.
However, there is a ray of light in the gloom because a cutting taken from the stricken ‘twin’ in 2008 is now growing into a strong and healthy English elm in Amsterdam.
Sharing cars would cut the need for parking spaces in cities and free space for millions more trees, a study claims.
It could almost halve the number of cars parked in London alone, enabling parking spots to be used for almost a million trees, said the Green Alliance think-tank.
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