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Malaga fails the pollution test: the city needs more green spaces but Costa towns fare better

The university is working on a study of nearly 1,000 cities in Europe which links pollution to 600 avoidable deaths a year in Malaga city

IGNACIO LILLO MALAGA.

For the first time, a Europe-wide study of cities has linked a lack of green spaces and atmospheric contamination with the number of avoidable deaths. And Malaga does not exactly come out of it well. The capital of the Costa del Sol appears among the places in which a higher number of deaths could have been prevented if there had been more greenery and less pollution.

In the specific case of Malaga city, the report calculates that some 600 deaths a year are related to air quality, taking into account the amount of vegetation and the contamination by particles (PM 2.5) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2), according to the extensive study, which was led by researchers at the Global Health Institute of Barcelona (ISGlobal), which the Faculty of Sciences at Malaga university (UMA) is working on to draw local conclusions.

These include the fact that two out of every three residents live in districts with less vegetation than is recommended for them to be healthy, and with major differences between the eastern and western areas of the city.

After looking at the cities which form part of a single metropolitan area, the final ranking includes 858 population centres. The data reads inversely, in other words the top place is the city with the worst mortality figures, and the 858th position has the best results.

When analysed by the contamination layer, two Italian cities (Brescia and Bergamo) are in the top positions, while Umea in Sweden and Oulu in Finland are the healthiest. In terms of green spaces, two other Italian cities - Trieste and Turin - hold the unfortunate honour of being in worst place, while Santa Lucía de Tirajana (Gran Canaria) and Paredes, in Portugal, are rated the best.

Situation in the province

In the case of Malaga, when it comes to the vegetation index the city is in the lower half of the table, in 506th position, which is positive. However, it is in the higher part of the ranking in Spain (number 35, negative) and is number 10 of 22 Andalusian towns and cities.

In this case, the worst aspect is the difference between districts: 62 per cent of people in Malaga, which is practically two out of every three, live in streets with a Normalised Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) below the recommended level, basically the most densely populated districts in the west of the city. Only 38 per cent have enough vegetation near their home, especially in the eastern districts.

This is the cause of 75 deaths a year which could have been avoided. Another 204 deaths can be attributed to contamination from nitrogen dioxide (NO2); and 304 others from high concentrations of suspended particlulate matter (PM 2.5), the report says. In fact, the city comes out particularly badly when the NO2 is measured, as it is in 196th place, in the upper part of the table, above the EU average; and the same occurs with the concentration of particles (328th place).

Torremolinos, one of the best

The document takes five municipalities on the Costa del Sol into account, as it considers them part of the Malaga metropolitan area.

Fuengirola is worst-placed, in 304th position, followed by Malaga. Marbella does somewhat better (620) and stands out for the fact that half of its population has sufficient vegetation. It is followed by Benalmádena (678), and the town which is among the best in the EU on the vegetation index: Torremolinos, at 757. Even so, there are still notable differences between districts, as seven out of every ten people live below the optimum level in terms of green spaces.

In Andalucía, the city of Cadiz is considered the worst in all of Europe when only the variable of green spaces is taken into account; and several municipalities in the same province are in the leading group. Seville also ranks poorly: it is 92nd in the EU, with 87 avoidable deaths each year from this cause. At the other extreme, the best European towns and cities in which to live - according to this variable - is Marbella.

The air pollution classification is based on a mortality burden score for each place. The scores have been calculated with an algorithm which takes into account the death rates, the percentage of deaths which could have been avoided and the years of life lost by each air contaminant and the lack of vegetation. The list is available on the website for anybody who is interested in knowing more: isglobalranking.org/es/inicio.

The team at the Global Health Institute of Barcelona (ISGlobal) has estimated for the first time the impacts of the lack of exposure to green spaces upon health in Europe at an urban level and its consequences on citizens' health. The researchers have estimated the annual mortality from a lack of green spaces, taking the World Health Organisation (WHO) reference of 10 square metres per inhabitant as a reference.

There are two results from the lists: one for the Normalised Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) and the other for the percentage of green area (% GA).

Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) is the most serious pollutant in Malaga city, which is dangerously high on the European table (number 1 is the worst) because of the number of private vehicles on the roads.

Enrique Salvo: "Malaga is divided into two when it comes to vegetation"

"When it comes to vegetation, we're in no position to celebrate with fireworks here in Malaga city," says Enrique Salvo Tierra, a botanist, lecturer in Environmental Sciences at the university and director of the chairs for Nature Conservation at the International University of Andalucía (UNIA) and FyM of Climate Change. "The city is divided into two from the point of view of vegetation," he explains.

On one hand the eastern side, from the river towards the east, has a high density of green spaces, but the western side is completely the opposite, with a significant deficit and therefore "a low ability to filter the contaminants because of the lack of vegetation, and everything related with the amount of traffic".

This is why, for this researcher, it is imperative to favour the so-called 15-minute city concept, which refers to the time needed to go about daily life on foot or by non-polluting means, and also to invest more in sustainable transport systems "and, of course, plant trees in the streets".

The report by the Global Health Institute of Barcelona, on which Salvo is working to draw conclusions at a local level, takes particular account of the lack of exposure to green spaces on the health of citizens with two variables: the existing vegetation (not necessarily green spaces) on riverbanks, in urban woodland and tree-lined streets, and the percentage of green spaces per inhabitant. It is in this way that a ranking has been drawn up which estimates the impact of air pollution on the health of Europeans.