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Big cities with good air quality

2022 Summer Vacation Hotspots with Clean Air

When planning a trip to a big city, most travelers consider safety. Unfortunately, not everyone thinks about a city’s air quality, despite pollution being an important health consideration.

Following are some of the big cities that ranked high for clean air in IQAir’s 2021 World Air Quality Report. All the cities listed are highly sought out by travelers and have been reported to be safe to visit. Note that all air quality reports are an annual average PM2.5 concentration measured in micrograms per cubic meter (µg/m3).

Cities where you can breathe easiest

There were two major metropolitan tourist favourites that met the annual average goal for PM2.5 concentrations of 5 µg/m3 or lower that was set by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2021 as part of their new, stronger air quality guidelines.

These guidelines were in response to the latest evidence-based data and a better understanding by air quality and health experts that any amount of air pollution poses dangers to an individual’s wellbeing.

IQAir’s AirVisual Platform directly adopted these new guidelines as its standard for measuring and ranking the air quality of cities, regions, and countries.

The World Health Organization, cognizant that their new air quality guidelines could not be met overnight, also instituted four interim targets (IT1 – IT4) to help motivate all countries and communities to continually strengthen their air pollution reduction efforts towards ultimately meeting the more stringent goal of 5 µg/m3 or lower.

The AirVisual Platform also relies on these interim targets to gauge where air quality is improving or deteriorating.

This list only includes metropolitan destinations that recorded an annual average PM2.5 concentration below 10 µg/m3, which was, up until 2021, the air quality index goal set by the WHO, and is now the lowest interim target (IT4), in theirs and IQAir’s updated air quality guidelines.

Read on to see which cities got on the list. The #1 city may surprise you.

Tied for 7th: Lisbon, Portugal; San Francisco, California; and Ottawa, Ontario

One of the reasons that Lisbon’s air is moderately clean is the introduction of a low emissions zone in the city.

Three cities, Lisbon, San Francisco, and Canada’s Ottawa all registered an annual PM2.5 concentration of 8.2 µg/m3. There are distinct reasons for these cities’ decent air quality.

Lisbon contains a low emissions zone that contributes to its moderately clean air. The city also supports cycling, including: (1)

  • increased cycle lanes
  • cycle sharing programs
  • financial help, up to 50%, on the purchase of a bike

California’s strong emission requirements, along with San Francisco’s coastal location, its natural topography, and general lack of industrial production plants in the city’s limits contribute to the low level of PM2.5 concentrations. Emissions from the transportation sector, including maritime shipping, are a main cause of air pollution in the City by the Bay. Wildfires have increasingly become another major problem for the area’s atmosphere.

Research in 2021 found several “hot spots” of air pollution in the Canadian capital.

Despite Ottawa’s relatively healthy air quality, due in part to the city’s recent focus on creating bicycle-friendly infrastructure, research in 2021 found several “hot spots” of air pollution in the Canadian capital. Depending on the specific area, the suspected sources were industrial emissions, diesel exhaust, crosstown traffic, freeway traffic and construction (2).

6. Dublin, Ireland

Dublin Ireland’s annual average PM2.5 concentration of 7.8 µg/m3 was down from 10.6 µg/m3 in 2019. The country must adhere to regulations from the European Union, which recently required Dublin to prepare an air quality action plan (3). In addition, Ireland’s Environmental Protection Agency enforces Industrial Emissions (IE) and Integrated Pollution Control (IPC) licensing to help limit emissions from the industrial and power generation sectors.

5. Oslo, Norway

The annual average PM2.5 concentration in Oslo, Norway was 7.5 µg/m3 in 2021. To reach this level, the metropolitan area of almost 1.6 million credits:

  • a tightening in the requirements of Norway’s Pollution Control Regulations
  • air quality criteria in Oslo that is even stricter than the national regulations
  • an increasingly cleaner vehicle fleet
  • measures to reduce wood burning
  • favourable weather conditions

4. Stockholm, Sweden

Stockholm, Sweden measured an annual average PM2.5 concentration of 6.0 µg/m3. The city generates 60% of its energy from cleaner hydroelectric sources and also makes use of Sweden’s wind power energy network that provides the country with more than 17% of its electricity (4).

The Swedish National Environmental Quality Objectives… require every municipality to meet environmental quality standards (EQS) or else establish a local air quality plan.

Tough emission standards for vehicles and industries were mandated by the European Union, but the Swedish National Environmental Quality Objectives encompass even more stringent goals. They require that every municipality meet environmental quality standards (EQS), or they have to establish a local air quality plan (5).

Tied for 3rd: Helsinki, Finland and Nassau, Bahamas

Helsinki, Finland and Nassau in The Bahamas registered 5.5 µg/m3 for annual average PM2.5 concentrations, just missing the WHO annual guidelines by 0.5 µg/m3. However, 5.5 µg/m3 for PM2.5 is still much better than most cities.
Accounting for Helsinki’s clean air are: (6), (7), (8)

  • strong environmental regulations
  • government investment in renewable energy
  • a robust public transportation system
  • its geographical location that helps limit transborder air pollution

Nassau’s clean air is credited to strong easterly trade winds most of the year, and wind from all directions the rest of the year. Also, the islands have little industrial activity (9). When air quality in the Bahamas becomes somewhat unsafe, it is largely due to emissions from: (10)

  • electricity generation
  • vehicles
  • waste burning

2. San Juan, Puerto Rico

Our runner up for cleanest big city air is San Juan.

Funding provided by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) replaced old school buses and short-haul trucks at the Port of San Juan.

The capital and largest city in Puerto Rico has many tourist-friendly areas and healthy air. Its annual average PM2.5 concentration in 2021 was 4.8 µg/m3. This was partly because U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) provided funding to replace old school buses and short-haul trucks at the Port of San Juan. This improved the area’s annual average PM2.5 concentration to fall under the WHO recommended guideline of 5.0 µg/m3 (11).

1. Honolulu, Hawaii

Honolulu recorded the safest annual average air quality, 3.9 µg/m3, of any major city in North America.

Though the Hawaiian Islands are known for their wealth of nature-filled experiences, plenty of urban attractions are also at hand. With a greater metro population of close to one million, Honolulu recorded the safest annual average air quality, 3.9 µg/m3, of any major city in North America and on this list.

Abundant wind and rain help maintain Honolulu’s clean air, as do the lack of heavy industry (12). The leading contributors of the air pollution the city does experience include: (13)

  • high vehicle density
  • volcanic activity on the nearby island of Hawaii
  • the creation of maritime aerosols by wind blowing over the surface of the Pacific Ocean

Honorable mentions

Other metro vacation hotspots with 2021 average PM2.5 concentrations (in parenthesis) under 10.0 µg/m3 include:
Tokyo, Japan (9.1)
Washington D.C. (9.1)
Madrid, Spain (9.4)
Copenhagen, Denmark (9.7)
London, England (9.8)
Bern, Switzerland (9.8)

Conclusion

No matter where you travel or when you go, factoring in your destination’s air quality will help protect the health of you and your companions. Monitoring an air quality index (AQI) will not only provide you with present conditions but also historical readings of air pollution and future air quality forecasts. This way you can be as informed as possible when finally answering that question we all asked ourselves at the end of the school year: “Where should I go for summer vacation?”

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