Knowledge Co-production on Air Quality – The Role of Planning Research in Participatory, Healthy, and People-Centered Cities

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Air quality is a growing topic in urban planning as it becomes increasingly apparent that sustainable urban planning is not feasible without considerations regarding air quality. In Europe, pollution levels that exceed the WHO's guidelines expose up to 90% of the people living in cities to poor air quality, cause thousands of premature deaths every year and generally reduce urban liveability. However, in urban planning and public policy, air quality is mainly discussed only when excessive warning conditions occur. There is a shared opinion among citizens and policymakers in the Nordic countries that air quality is generally reasonable. Research on air quality is developing in discussions on innovative city technologies, which are increasingly becoming part of
knowledge-based planning. In the last decade, citizens-science has developed as a strand of research in itself by exploring how citizens can be equipped with tools to understand – or measure - their local environments. In research on urban air quality, citizens' engagement through sensors has underlined a twofold purpose: on the
one hand, the high flexibility of the citizens' data collection across large areas; on the other hand, the active involvement of citizens in capacity building and raising public awareness on the importance of the air quality for the liveability and sustainability of the urban environment. Nevertheless, planning actions to improve urban air
quality locally remain critical on how data can be understood, monitored and interpreted differently. The question remains if improving air quality can become a strategic goal for planning (more) sustainable and healthier cities for the future.
This question has been a starting point in a research project called NordicPath, funded by NordForsks (2020-2023). Air quality sensors as a form of citizens' engagement are
significant to smart and sustainable urban planning in Nordic countries. The Nordic welfare state system is well known for its sensitive approach to public participation and a high level of digitalization. The NordicPATH project has built a partnership among universities and researchers in Nordic countries with empirical fieldwork research in four municipalities (Aalborg (DK), Kristiansand (NO), Gotenburg (SE) and Lapperranta (FI)). The Urban Living Labs (hereafter ULLs) method focuses on knowledge co-production with citizens engagement through low-cost
permanent and mobile sensors and Public Participatory Geographical Information System (PPGIS). Researchers are driving a process of facilitating knowledge co-production on urban air quality with citizens and communities, not just as passive 'users' but as active agents for the visualization and interpretation of data.
Furthermore, researchers facilitate dialogue among policy actors in the respective municipalities to engage in discussions on public participation, air quality, and urban futures of Nordic cities. Policy actors are encouraged to critically interpret air quality data as possible triggers of sustainable urban transitions. Reflections across the
local contexts aim to identify specific actions to improve urban air quality as a strategic driver for planning (more) sustainable and healthier Nordic cities.
Urban Living Labs (ULLs) presented a novel method to co-produce knowledge through citizens' and communities' engagement. In the NordicPATH project, the concept has served as an interdisciplinary focus among researchers from diverse fields of knowledge (e.g., air quality scientists, citizens-science scholars, environmental monitoring experts, and urban planners). ULLs have identified diverse geometries of ecosystem learning among diverse fields of knowledge at the crossroad of situated knowledge on air quality, public participation, and urban planning.
Intertwining these fields of knowledge has also created a new ecosystem learning that connects macro-scales societal problems as the air quality to micro contextual problems connected to diversified sources of pollutions as well as the institutional set of ambitions of urban planners in municipalities, or the opportunity of researchers
to deliver not just data on air quality but also to include actors and stakeholders than traditional processes. Understanding urban air quality as a driver to co-produce knowledge and expand the local scope of ULLs, the paper demonstrates how researchers and practitioners can engage citizens in a co-production of knowledge by
sensor-ing, measuring, and giving value to their perception of air quality qualifying their living environment. Both technical aspects of flows, movements, and causes of deteriorated air quality, and more qualitative concerns of local perceptions of certain areas (good and bad) are brought together on equal footing in discussing
the city's future. Conceptually, urban air quality is easy-to-grasp but hard to master as a topic: it concerns all of us and the quality of the cities we inhabit, but the sheer complexity can make it overwhelming. Air quality can potentially impact future planning strategies and urban political agendas at multiple levels and scales. The paper frames air quality as a driver of public problems and explores and generates potential solutions to produce policies, plans, and projects generate support for
decisions and their implementation; manage uncertainty; create and sustain adaptive capacity for ongoing problem solving and resilience. Participation and engagement are also two ways for planners and citizens. Planners come to acquire locally specific knowledge and learn about local processes and issues, and citizens become involved in knowing the stakes of decision-making and the surrounding processes. In addition,
collaborative planning can lead to new (citizen) networks emerging, allowing the public to significantly influence the planning process. In other words, the end goal of public participation and collaborative planning is to foster
conditions under which “(…) policy [can] be designed, not for citizens, but by citizens in their role as policy ‘users’.” [Brand & Gaffikin 2007, p. 290]. In the last two decades, the way to understand public participation has developed according to diverse practice models implemented in local contexts often termed as Urban Living Labs (ULLs). ULLs have become an umbrella term to define a way to develop urban innovation by mobilizing a local context of citizens and communities. ULLs models often aim to test or experiment in a situated local context with citizens, either a technology, a policy, or a new form of partnership, which could produce a new 'outcome' intended as a product, a process, or a service. ULLs are also specific fields of experimentation with research institutions testing a particular view of future deliberation for eventually triggering new policies to be received by existing governance structures to mobilize multiple actors and interests. In NordicPath, ULLs approaches have been a starting point to develop a Nordic Living Lab perspective that draws both on existing literature - analyzing and problematizing the contemporary challenge of existing participatory urban planning practice in Nordic cities. By exchanging cities' existing practice of public participation, through the voice of policy actors and sharing
knowledge on urban air quality in their local contexts, the Nordic Living Lab builds step-by-step strategies for integrated urban planning processes connecting policy actors and researchers and assembling knowledge about urban air quality as a driver for a sustainable urban transition. The Nordic Living Lab moves from a plain air
quality assessment as environmental impacts to a strategic and process-supporting urban transformation co-produced by citizens, researchers, and policy actors through permanent and mobile air quality sensor/ing and a PPGIS platform.
The Nordic Living Lab includes diverse phases of implementation across:
1. the engagement strategies and knowledge assemblages among citizens, policymakers, and researchers and
their existing challenges in the participatory endeavor,
2. the co-production of a new ecosystem learning intertwining existing fields of knowledge among participants,
air quality, and urban planning by connecting policymakers/researchers/citizens in the sense-making of the interplay among these fields,
3. the co-design of planning strategies and new urban policy that can integrate living participatory processes on urban air quality to shape more tangible goals for future healthy and liveable cities and smart communities.
Within the Nordic Living Lab perspective, the data collected through air quality sensors and PPGIS surveys and initiatives engage different urban actors (researchers, policy actors, citizens) in producing quantitative data (and awareness about data meanings) and qualitative data (opinions about air quality in diverse urban areas and by
diverse groups of citizens) that contribute to sensitizing, involving, and redesigning policy efforts in shaping future healthy, liveable, and sustainable smart cities.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationBook of Abstracts : Challenging Science and Innovation Policy
Number of pages3
Publication date1 Jun 2022
Article number225
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2022
EventEu-SPRI forum - European Forum for Studies of Policies for Research and Innovation: Challenging Science and Innovation Policy - The Netherlands, Utrecht, Netherlands
Duration: 1 Jun 20223 Jun 2022


ConferenceEu-SPRI forum - European Forum for Studies of Policies for Research and Innovation
LocationThe Netherlands
Internet address


  • Urban Planning
  • Public Participation
  • low-carbon transition
  • citizens-science
  • sensors
  • reflexive planning


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