When The Shard catches the morning sun at 7am, the view from Stephanie McDonald’s sixth-floor Clapham apartment is breath-taking. The air outside is not. Below her £950,000 property, vehicles bustle down the A24 during rush hour, belching out nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and other pollutants. On clear days, she can see the smog hanging moodily over the City. Tiny particulates, according to official figures from Clean Air in London, an air-quality pressure group, claim up to 9,500 lives a year in the capital and as many as 79 per cent of Londoners say they want to be told when pollution is high, according to a major air consultation launched by the London Mayor, Sadiq Khan, in July. Still, it doesn’t worry McDonald.
‘We feel protected from all of that,’ says the 45-year-old, who lives with her banker husband, Lee, and their three-year-old son, Jake, in a hermetically sealed, two-bedroom, new-build tenement. Their south London apartment is kitted out with a state-of-the-art £3,500 ‘whole-house ventilation system’ that filters out pollution particulates and injects purified air into the building. ‘You can really feel the difference,’ she says. ‘Even though we live next to a main road, we know that none of it is coming through our windows. You can really breathe comfortably.’
McDonald isn’t alone in paying through the nose for a better lungful these days: as awareness of the effects that polluted city air can have on our health grows, fresh air is rapidly becoming a luxury commodity. Nick Pendlebury, managing director of Battersea-based property developer Ipsus Development Ltd, for which ‘whole-house ventilation’ is a feature of its new builds, says the capital is seeing a ‘boom’ in air-cleaning apparatus as homeowners try to ensure their own clean air. Business in ‘living walls’ — indoor vertical gardens that reduce NO2 levels by 15 per cent in enclosed environments — is also increasing. Biotecture, which specialises in purifying installations, has seen business grow fivefold since 2010.
It might sound extreme, but the new air puritans’ concerns are not unfounded. Just five days into the new year, according to data from King’s College London, the city exceeded its annual air pollution limits — set by the European Union — for the whole of 2017 (a site on Brixton Road in south London has surpassed hourly limits for NO2 concentrations at least 24 times so far this year).
‘I’m very paranoid about the air I breathe,’ says Amal Fashanu, a glamorous 28-year-old fashion designer and daughter of former Premier League footballer John Fashanu. Filters in the walls of her four-storey Notting Hill townhouse extract dust particles and pollen from the air as it’s circulated, while seven neutral-scented, high-end £250 purifying diffusers serve to ‘enrich and oxygenate’ the air. The house’s central staircase winds up to a 4m x 4m £80,000 ‘living wall’ — made of ferns, purple spiderwort, calocephalus and asparagus plumosus — designed to naturally leech pollutant particulates from the air as it extends from the open-plan hall. ‘Eating healthily, exercising healthily and breathing healthily — that’s what’s important to us these days,’ says Fashanu, simply.
Others are choosing the location of their home based on the air quality. ‘In central London, we’re increasingly seeing buyers more interested in emission levels,’ says Jonathan Hudson, founder of Fitzrovia-based estate agents, Hudsons Property, and a London representative for the National Association of Estate Agents. ‘I had one tenant tell me recently that he was happy to pay to move just 200 metres from the main road he’s living next to now,’ he adds.
He’s not the only one who’s noticed the trend. ‘I pretty much run a secondary business advising on the property market,’ jokes Dr Gary Fuller, senior lecturer in air-quality measurement at King’s College London. He oversees the London Air Quality Network, which provides up-to-date monitoring of air pollution in the capital, but ‘a large number’ of emails he fields, he says, ‘are from people wanting to know where in London they should move to. I wish they’d stop’.
‘Anyone would pay more for cleaner air surely — it just makes common sense,’ says Claire Cisotti, 50, a picture editor, who recently moved back to London after 14 years in the countryside, and says fresh air was her top priority when choosing her townhouse behind Wimbledon Common. Cisotti and her family — husband Max, 46, a celebrity photographer, and their children Zac, 16, and Mimi, 12 — left their Earl’s Court home for Sussex in 2002 after a doctor advised that ‘the city’s smog was too much’ for Zac’s ‘pneumonia and breathing difficulties’. Understandably, she was cautious about returning and says she’s only too happy to pay for ‘the best of both worlds’. ‘Can you imagine all those other children who have chest infections and other breathing difficulties? Can you put a price on your health? An extra £100 a month? An extra £1,000? You can feel that the air is cleaner out here — there’s so much green. And there are so many trees. You can literally walk into the middle of the common, shut your eyes, and feel like maybe you’d be in the country.’ Dr Fuller agrees: the London Air Quality Network’s annual pollution map sees Claire’s home fall under a healthier 31-34 NO2 microgrammes per metre as opposed to 43-46 in Earl’s Court.
It’s not just the property market that’s capitalising on the new interest in fresh air. Boost Oxygen, a company that offers 95 per cent and 98 per cent pure oxygen in portable cans, has seized on the air-quality crisis by pivoting on aiding athletes’ recovery times to supplying suffocating cities. The company launched in the UK last March, supplying cans with up to 50 inhalations from £10.50. Sound crazy? ‘Think of it like bottled water,’ says Deborah Hewitt, the managing director. ‘When you can’t trust what’s on tap, you have to turn to a more secure source.’ Oxygen cans, she says, supplement energy levels, alleviate stress, and improve the mood: the less oxygen in your blood, the more tired and stressed you are. ‘It’s draining on the body to have the oxygen levels go down.’ A large number of UK customers, she says, are commuters who use the cans when stuck in traffic to avoid inhaling fumes from the cars in front.
While the market in fresh air booms, the government is also taking action to improve the capital’s air quality. Sadiq Khan announced in December that £875m will be invested in cleaning up the capital’s air over the next five years, doubling the £425m previously committed. Projects include a green-energy courier service in Waltham Forest delivering shopping to people’s homes by cargo bike or electric van, to a pan-London anti-idling campaign to cut diesel engine emissions in traffic. Lawyers have urged the Mayor to make London the first ‘zero-emission city’ to fight toxicity levels, while TfL has pledged to phase out diesel buses by 2018. ‘If you really want clean air, my brain says move out of London,’ says McDonald. ‘It’s my heart that says stay.’ For now, fresh air is a luxury she won’t go without.