The Mums Battling Polluted School Runs

After having an idyllic summer blighted by smog, these mums decided something had to be done. Now they're waging war on the pollution affecting their children's lives

The area of Hampstead in north London is something of a visual anomaly. Out goes the crunching, nightmarish urbanity of the modern metropolitan town—people smoking and crying in betting shop doorways—in comes a quaint hilly village vibe, the capital’s very own Lark Rise (or maybe it’s more of a Candleford). Either way, for somewhere so close to smoggy wastelands like Euston and Kings Cross, Hampstead bucks the familiar London trend. It's a slice of posho utopia, Berlin Walled from the rest of the muck, and a post code of fresh air—outside of school run time, that is.

When I meet Alessandra Giuliani and Valeria Pensabene in a bright café on Hampstead’s Heath Street, there’s a commotion going on outside. A large white delivery van is parked on one side of the ancient, narrow road. People are angry and beeping. Valeria points to the commotion. “See what’s happening out there? … They’re blocking the road, the TFL bus cannot go through, god forbid if there’s an ambulance or a fire engine... It is bad up here at school run times. Even Donald Trump would be hard pressed to say that it’s not bad. If you stand in front of the traffic lights at 8:30 in the morning it’s just bad. You smell it.”

It’s why they launched Green School Runs, a group of local parents attempting to thwart the level of emissions around their schools and homes. Everything from walking buses to real buses with wheels on, to school pledges and stopping idling (leaving your car on while it farts noxious gases into the atmosphere), is on the GSR agenda. The goal, according to Alessandra, is to “reduce drastically the number of people who are going to school by car. The idea that driving kids to school becomes socially unacceptable and you do it only if, you know, your kid’s got their leg in a cast and you cannot do anything else. Like smoking in a restaurant, today it’s unacceptable.”

It is bad up here at school run times. Even Donald Trump would be hard pressed to say that it’s not bad

The effects of poor air quality in the UK capital are rife. Data reported in the Evening Standard from Public Health England showed that the estimated proportion deaths in the London region attributable to PM 2.5, or aerosol particles, rose from 6.5 per cent to 6.6 per cent from 2017 to 2018. Levels of pollution may be dropping in the big smoke, but scores of people are still exposed to dirty air. It certainly isn’t what you want for your children. Globally speaking, vehicle borne air pollution contributes to 4 million child asthma cases a year. In the UK, an inquest was granted into the death of nine-year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah, who passed away in 2013 after a series of seizures and asthma related illness, to determine if pollution was the root cause of her problems.

There is a daily issue: tiny streets clogged up with delivery vans for supermarkets, and Range Rovers ferrying children to their respective schools. Alessandra and Valeria started the Green School Run, a group of like-minded local parents, after a particularly nice summer was crushed by the fog of exhaust fumes when school resumed.

“I don’t know if you remember,” says Valeria, “but in 2018 we had a very beautiful summer, almost three months of straight sun, and Hampstead was at its best. But when the schools went back… the roads are not meant for that volume of cars and people. Estimates vary, but there are about 16,000 children going to school in Hampstead every day, and it’s estimated that half of those are driven there.”

“[The Facebook page] Hampstead Mums had a big thread with everybody complaining how terrible pollution and congestion was compared to 10 days before when it had been so beautiful, and I was one of the people who said, you know, ‘why don’t we do something about it and meet up instead of just whingeing online?’”

Valeria, who formerly worked as a head-hunter in the city, and Alessandra, whose background is in environmental science and sustainable development, wasted no time in trying to fix this problem. Meetings were set up with the head teachers of various schools in the area, as well as Camden councillor Adam Harrison and Hampstead MP Tulip Siddiq, to try and find a solution. In the first roundtable, they tell it, there was more than a little bit of schools passing the buck.

 “At our first round table we expressed the concept that everybody had a duty of care in general,” says Valeria, “towards everyone but certainly towards the children. The private schools were failing in their duty of care, because they were taking the view that they are businesses, local businesses, and that what happens outside of their walls doesn’t really matter to them. Well, actually, of course it does. You can’t just cause all this pollution and then say ‘what goes on behind closed doors’.”

Some schools had a few initiatives, Alessandra tells me, like Walk to School Week, one week a year in May where… you walk to school. It wasn’t enough. 

“It’s risible,” as Valeria puts it. 

They managed to get a multi-school bus to operate, though it only lasted for six weeks as it became unsustainable financially. There’s a difficulty in getting all parties to commit, perhaps against their own interests sometimes. This is in many ways the crux of a lot of problems with climate activism: changing attitudes is the easy part in many ways, but changing behaviour is where it starts to get tough. The school run as it is currently is so ingrained in many parents routines that to even conceptualise taking the time to walk or organise a car pool situation is foreign. Valeria believes this stubbornness is not only to the detriment of the children’s health, but their growing minds as well.

“You realise with a lot of these kids that are constantly ferried from one place to another, they don’t know how to navigate the streets. They don’t know how to cross a road, you can see that socially they’re behind in terms of talking to other children that they may not know. They go from the iPad at the breakfast table to the iPad in the car and off to school. It’s just not a healthy thing to do for their brain, for their muscles, for their lungs, for everything. It’s actually demonstrated that kids who walk to school arrive much more alert and ready to learn.” 

One thing that’s working is incentivising the children themselves to take action. Rewards are given out at the school when a pupil travels to school in a sustainable way, a clever carrot and stick method devised by Green School Runs. One school, using their ‘Co2ool’ initiative, giving children prizes like badges or the ability to wear their own clothes, has reduced car usage in school runs by a staggering 40 per cent in 18 months. Perhaps appealing to the kids themselves is the way forward.

Speaking to these two intelligent mothers and activists you get the sense that nothing can really stop the anti-emission juggernaut they’re riding with this project. New initiatives and pressures, to local MPs all the way up to mayoral candidates, pile up as they reel off their achievements. They’ve only been going for just shy of two years. Their determination gives you confidence that they’ll get back the bucolic summer of 2018, supermarket delivery vans be damned.