World Heritage Cities Report Environmental Improvements Amidst the COVID-19 Pandemic

Although the COVID-19 pandemic has generated a downpour of international challenges, one silver lining is that it has spurred a variety of environmental improvements across the globe. In particular, many World Heritage Cities and sites have benefited from lower air pollution levels and cleaner waterways. 

Like many cities across the United States, Philadelphia is particularly enjoying these environmental benefits. For example, an April report from the Philadelphia Department of Public Health indicated that the city views its stay-at-home orders as a “natural experiment” for determining how reducing automobile emissions could impact local air pollution. Since social distancing policies were implemented in February, the report found that air pollutant levels had significantly fallen, with a 22% decrease in nitrogen dioxide and a 25% decrease in carbon monoxide. When social distancing guidelines are eventually lifted, Philadelphia hopes to preserve these benefits by promoting green alternatives to single-use vehicles, with Philadelphia Magazine reporting that the city plans to improve its bike lanes. 

Philadelphia is not the only World Heritage City to experience decreases in air pollution levels. The decrease in motor traffic has allowed for air pollution to drastically subside in India, which is home to World Heritage sites like the Taj Mahal and the Agra Fort. For the first time in decades, CNN reported that residents in the northern state of Punjab can see the Himalayan mountain range even though it stands 100 miles away. 

Further, India’s decrease in traffic and factory activity has helped to lower the amount of pollution in five of its major cities, many of which are home to World Heritage sites. Specifically, CNN reported that nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter (PM 2.5) levels had drastically fallen in Bangalore, Chennai, Delhi, Kolkata and Mumbai. CNN additionally reported that environmental advocates at nonprofit organizations like Care for Air hope that the Indian government views these improvements as a wake-up call to nationally promote sustainability. 

In addition to air quality improvements, many World Heritage Cities have also reported that they’ve experienced decreases in water pollution, with waterways clearing in Italian World Heritage Cities like Venice. For example, The Guardian reported that biodiversity in Venice’s canals has flourished ever since boats were forced to reduce their services, with fish and ducks returning to their habitats. 

As the world comes to terms with the widespread suffering brought on by the pandemic, raising awareness for positive outcomes like these environmental benefits will foster hope in a time when it’s needed most. In looking to the future, it’s important that World Heritage Cities and sites across the globe join hands in finding solutions to sustain these environmental benefits for generations to come. 

Article by Peak Johnson on behalf of the Global Philadelphia Association