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Socio-environmental building of the urban air in Bogotá

According to data of the World Health Organization (WHO), the toxicity of the air is expressed in the increased incidence of the respiratory tract, heart, and cerebrovascular diseases, therefore air is one of the greatest current environmental threats, due to the enormous disease and death load it provides.

Also, WHO 2018 data reveal that 9 out of 10 people that live in cities breathe bad quality air and that 4 million deaths were related to atmospheric toxicity.

For this same year in Colombia, the mortality imputable to bad air quality was 15,681 people, equal to a rate of 619.78 deaths for every 100,000 inhabitants, according to data of the Colombian Health Observatory (ONS, 2018).

Public health has addressed the issue from the epidemiology perspective, suggesting public policies made from their conceptualization of the atmospheric issues and that does not account for the conditions that have caused the problem through time.

For this, it is necessary to acknowledge the importance of a variety of factors and actors that interact to build long-term “air”: a clear and odorless substance, but full of invisible pollutants. This problem is evident especially in cities, where the fossil fuel economic matrix model has formed environmental threats that constitute this health problem.

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Despite the decade-accumulated evident environmental damage, air pollution only appeared in modern rationale when it turned into a problem for economic production. Then in the 60s, they built the “reality” of air through monitoring network measurements, although they just show a part of the problem, it has been the only perspective for its comprehension.

Industry and mobility that use fossil-based fuels are the main sources of pollutant emissions that accumulate in the air. However, the social and geographic differences have made each territory build its particular atmosphere.

In the search to try to understand how we got to this environmental and healthcare threat in Bogotá, researchers used the environmental history as a methodological tool, to attempt to use facts to try to understand, from complex and inclusive perspectives ignored in the traditional story, making other actors (human and non-human) emerge and whose voices were silenced.

In this manner, and based on a profound review of historic archives, specialized journals, newspapers, and interviews, they summarized how the city got a differential and zoned air, that mirrors the unequal urban historic construction of the city, influenced by geographic, unique climate and meteorological characteristics and also due to social aspects such as populational, industrial and transportation distribution that made up the “atmospheric identity of Bogotá.”

From this perspective, the polluted air in Bogotá has been impacting the health and welfare of people since much before appearing on the board of academic and political speeches of the concept of “air quality” in force since the 70s.

Throughout the twenty-first century, the city has had multiple issues related to urban air: bad odors, garbage pestilence, smoke from small companies, and internal-combustion engine vehicle emissions–gasoline and diesel–. Without clear evidence backed by quantitative data, lacking for most of the twentieth century, the issues regarding the bad air quality represented social discontent, all pieces of evidence gathered in the research project for writing this article.

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Likewise, despite the mobility and the impossibility of containing it with physical barriers, the atmosphere in Bogotá built a distribution pattern related to its urban structure produced amid historic power relationships. The southern and western parts of the city have the highest threat, being the area of the greatest pollution in the country in a neighborhood known as Carvajal, close to the Sevillana, between the Kennedy and Tunjuelito.

On the other hand, persistent immigration phenomena from the fields to the city and between cities broke the territory management capability, giving way to informality and illegality in producing housing on the outskirts of the city. And it is there that there were more issues related to urban air quality, added to a series of persistent unsatisfied basic needs.

The contaminated, odorous, and disease-producing air has never disappeared from the city and now even transferred to the outskirts, where there is no running water, sewage, public transportation, or garbage collection, as well as hardly any trees or green spaces and where many people are exposed to this environmental and health threat.

To face this problem, the city needs to solve its historic debt of unsatisfied basic needs of an ample percentage of the vulnerable population to try to close the inequality gap that makes up social, sanitarian, and environmental risks. Furthermore, the city needs to invest in modern solutions to allow transforming its energy matrix and not depending so much on diesel, improving its public and cargo transportation systems.

The air quality systems are not solved only with technology, it requires inclusive and critical inter-disciplinary approaches to allow understanding the profoundness of its genesis and from there propose actions to mitigate the risk.



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