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Breathing Life Back Into Cities: Improving Air Quality & Equity Through Recovery Efforts

Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) this week released an analysis outlining four strategies for advancing both air quality and equity that cities can use to build back better from the pandemic, the economic downturn and a growing reckoning with racial injustice in the United States.

New Rocky Mountain Institute report examines opportunities for local governments to simultaneously address air quality and equity as they work to recover from the multiple challenges faced in 2020.

Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) this week released an analysis outlining four strategies for advancing both air quality and equity that cities can use to build back better from the pandemic, the economic downturn and a growing reckoning with racial injustice in the United States.

Various events this year have produced economic, social and public health strains on local governments throughout the country. As these governments work to help their communities recover, though, there is an opportunity to implement local changes that can deliver multiple community benefits while also helping to accelerate recoveries.

The strategies outlined in the report Breathing Life Back into Cities involve actions that cities can use to build back better by improving air quality, mitigating the impact of the recession and promoting an equitable recovery.

“At the start of the COVID-19 lockdown this year, an unexpected side effect emerged — dramatically cleaner air. A few months later, a convergence of events drove racial inequality into our national dialogue with renewed prominence,” said Ali Rotatori, senior associate at RMI and report co-author. “Air quality and equity are highly interconnected issues, and our new analysis shows there are solutions available that can enhance them both.”

Breathing Life Back into Cities outlines four strategies that can help address air quality and equity simultaneously:

  • Phase out the use of fossil fuels in residential and commercial buildings: All-electric buildings have substantially reduced indoor air pollution, providing significant health and economic benefits.
  • Improve access without relying on single-occupancy vehicles and accelerate vehicle electrification: Mobility solutions that prioritize people over cars enable equitable access to places of employment, healthcare, food and recreation, while vehicle electrification is a vital and necessary strategy to reduce air pollution.
  • Invest in urban greening: Urban forests and wetlands impact air quality, carbon sequestration and water management. They also positively affect quality of life, mental health, economic performance, property values and community resilience.
  • Engage utilities to clean up the grid: Municipalities are large energy customers that can wield influence on utilities to transform their energy mix toward clean sources. Clean electricity generation eliminates emissions from fossil fuel combustion and improves air quality within city borders and beyond.

The analysis explains each of these strategies in terms of the key actions cities can take to implement them and the multiple benefits that can be expected to result from them. These strategies can be a core component of local government efforts around the country to ensure their communities recover and build back better from the challenges they have faced in 2020.

“Despite the progress we’ve made, air pollution remains America’s biggest environmental killer — bigger than car crashes and homicides combined. COVID-19 has only made it worse, especially for our poorest and most historically disadvantaged communities,” said Rushad Nanavatty, RMI senior principal and report co-author. “By taking a whole-systems approach to improving air quality, cities can make real progress on addressing multiple human and environmental crises at the same time.”

This analysis was developed by RMI’s Urban Transformation program, which is working to help cities accelerate progress toward a resilient, equitable carbon-neutral future.

To download Breathing Life Back into Cities, please visit

About Rocky Mountain Institute: Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) — an independent nonprofit founded in 1982 — transforms global energy use to create a clean, prosperous, and secure low-carbon future. It engages businesses, communities, institutions, and entrepreneurs to accelerate the adoption of market-based solutions that cost-effectively shift from fossil fuels to efficiency and renewables. RMI has offices in Basalt and Boulder, Colorado; New York City; the San Francisco Bay Area; Washington, D.C.; and Beijing.

More information on RMI can be found at, or follow us on Twitter @RockyMtnInst.

Featured image by Cynthia Shahan, CleanTechnica, via Clearing The Air, A New NormalBicycles & Electric Cars = $10,000 In Social Benefits

Related story: 11,000 Air Pollution-Related Deaths Avoided In Europe As Coal & Oil Consumption Plummet

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Written By

Since 1982, RMI (previously Rocky Mountain Institute) has advanced market-based solutions that transform global energy use to create a clean, prosperous and secure future. An independent, nonprofit think-and-do tank, RMI engages with businesses, communities and institutions to accelerate and scale replicable solutions that drive the cost-effective shift from fossil fuels to efficiency and renewables. Please visit for more information.


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