Joris Lam / TreeWiFi

TreeWiFi rewards citizens for their efforts to combat pollution.

A 2015 European clean air ranking gave Amsterdam a “D+” for its sub-par policies to improve air quality. Not only was this a regression from 2012, but Amsterdam now ranks lower than larger European cities, including London and Paris. In fact, a 2015 report from an independent Dutch NGO found that 11 places in Amsterdam exceeded the air pollution limit set by the European Union.

Although many Amsterdam citizens are well aware of this pollution problem, they may be less aware of how it impacts them directly. “Here in the Netherlands, you hear a lot about our air quality being one of the poorest in Europe, but air pollution is just not visible,” says Joris Lam, a local resident and the founder of TreeWiFi, a new initiative that aims to reduce air pollution in the city.

By designing small birdhouses equipped with sensors to detect the level of pollution in the air, TreeWiFi serves as a visual marker of just how dirty or clean the environment is at a given time. Most importantly, it offers a concrete incentive for residents to remedy poor air quality. When the air quality improves, the birdhouse lights up in green and unlocks complementary wi-fi access. If the air stays polluted, the lights remain red, indicating that wi-fi is not available. 

Joris Lam / TreeWiFi

With this incentive system, TreeWiFi offers an alternate approach to clean air initiatives that may “feel sort of restricting to you as a citizen ... like finger-pointing,” Lam says. Instead, he aims “to break through that negative cycle” by rewarding citizens for their environmental efforts.

Although Amsterdam already measures air quality in select locations, TreeWiFi’s relatively cheap sensors can be placed throughout the city in areas that remain untouched by official measuring stations. Currently, Lam estimates the cost of a single unit to be around 500 euro, although the project is exploring an even more cost-effective version for consumers. 

While the local government can use TreeWiFi’s data to better understand pollution in Amsterdam, citizens can use the corresponding app to do the same. By connecting to the app, locals gain access to tips and tricks for improving air quality in their neighborhood, from organizing car-free Sundays to lowering the average speed limit. According to Lam, the most effective strategy is making the switch to electric vehicles—something that’s already being subsidized by the city.

Because TreeWiFi is still in the developmental stages, Lam and his colleagues have only installed one birdhouse near their office, which they test during the day and take down at night. Come September, their team will roll out a definitive model. Their goal is to distribute five units to the neighborhoods with the worst air pollution in Amsterdam, with hopes of one day outfitting every street in the city. 

“Of course, our grand goal is to go global,” Lam says. “[But] this is something we’re doing for the citizens. ... I really want to let the people decide where this should go next.”

About the Author

Aria Bendix
Aria Bendix

Aria Bendix is a frequent contributor to The Atlantic, and a former editorial fellow at CityLab. Her work has appeared on Bustle and The Harvard Crimson.

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