How air pollution could ruin our most beloved views

Updated on April 15, 2024
Written by
G. John Cole
Graeme has been a Senior Writer for our parent company (NeoMam Studios) since 2013. At HouseFresh, he writes in-depth articles to accompany the original studies and data visualizations produced in partnership with the NeoMam team.

For a moment, every neighborhood radiated the glamor of a picture postcard landmark.

When the first 2020 lockdown struck, a temporary bonus was the drop in air pollution. The view through our windows seemed freshly polished. Tourist attractions shone with an intensity unseen for decades. Environmentalists keenly told us that this was a wake-up call, not a turning point. Despite decades of campaigning and policy change, air pollution is still worsening for more than half the world’s population.

You might not notice the worsening effect in your daily, hometown life. But when you travel, the sight of industrial smog has a sobering effect. As part of our mission to draw attention to the quality of the air you breathe, HouseFresh wanted to show you how 10 famous views could look if local human-made air pollution levels increase.

We found iconic photos of the views and, on each one, emulated the visual effect that air pollution has on the skyline of Ghaziabad, India, frequently ranked as the “most polluted city worldwide.” At the time of writing, the PM2.5 level in Ghaziabad is 18.2 times the WHO annual air quality guideline value, with an Air Quality Index (AQI) of 169. A ‘Good’ rating is 0-50 AQI.

Use the sliders below to reveal ten of the world’s loveliest views now and how they could eventually look if air pollution levels rise unchecked to Ghaziabad levels.

Rockefeller Center (New York, USA)

In the 20th century, New York City was the poster child for the modern city. And the 1939 Rockefeller Center was an art deco emblem of American sophistication. But, as early as the 1960s, the eroding effect of air pollution on its buildings was cause for concern. Today, the Department of Environmental Protection suggests that 6% of NYC deaths are connected with air pollution.

The Shard (London, UK)

The “imposing and majestic” Tower Bridge, seen here from up in the Shard, was built to facilitate urban commerce in the late 19th century – just a few years before a London doctor, Harold Des Veaux, invented the word ‘smog’ (smoke + fog). But the pollution of London air by the burning of coal predates the Victorian bridge by at least six centuries. In 2021, the city’s mayor unveiled a 10-point plan to reduce air pollution, pointing out that “there is a significant peak in concentrations during the morning school run.”

Christ the Redeemer (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil)

It took nine years to build the 130-foot concrete Christ into Rio de Janeiro’s skyline. But that skyline has since been tainted by the fumes of Brazil’s main steel complex as well as numerous other industrial sites. And the city failed to reduce air pollution “within the limits recommended by the World Health Organization” as promised ahead of the 2016 Olympics. 

“A lot of attention has been paid to Rio’s water pollution, but far more people die because of air pollution than the water,” declared Paulo Saldiva, a University of Sao Paulo pathologist and WHO committee member. “You are not obligated to drink water from Guanabara Bay but you must breathe Rio’s air.”

Victoria Peak (Hong Kong)

Victoria Peak is a must-visit when in Hong Kong, offering contrasting views from the hills to the cyberpunk cityscape – and a rare breath of fresh air. Unfortunately, the air down in the city is1n’t as fresh. The annual hours of reduced visibility in the city near-quadrupled from 295 to 1,100 in the two decades leading up to 2008, seriously reducing your chances of an Instagram moment. By 2016, the city’s largest coal and gas power stations were churning out 8,020 tons of sulphur dioxide and 310 tons of PM2.5 pollution.

Centre Island (Toronto, Canada)

Centre Island is one of the world’s largest car-free (or at least car-resistant) urban areas. As a veritable Ontario oasis, the Toronto Islands are the site of hearty, outdoor pastimes and sunset selfies. Unfortunately, the air from nearby forest fires drives the region up as high as second place in the ‘world’s worst air’ challenge – with the altered skyline almost grotesquely beautiful.

Mrs. Macquarie’s Point (Australia)

Elizabeth, wife of Governor Macquarie, had a seat chiseled into the peninsula that has borne her name since 1810. The chair remains today, but the view has changed, first with the iconic expressionist ‘shells’ of the Sydney Opera House, and later with the onset of headline-grabbing smog levels. In addition to motor vehicle exhausts, bushfire smoke has been known to drive the Sydney air 11 times over the ‘hazardous’ limit, obscuring the Opera House and Harbour Bridge from view. Power station fumes and occasional dust storms also contribute to Sydney’s smog problem.

Montparnasse Tower (Paris, France)

In addition to the beauty and romance of the Eiffel Tower, the industrial revolution introduced serious air pollution to Paris, which is now the second most polluted city in France. A 2019 court case found that the state was taking insufficient measures to protect Parisians from poor air quality, with a contemporaneous study suggesting it will take 20 years for the measures to bring Parisian air quality under the European Limit Value. Local efforts to hasten improvements include the pedestrianization of city center roads, adding protected bike lanes, and banning cars made before 1997.

St. Peter’s Basilica (Rome/Vatican City, Italy)

This 400-year-old Renaissance-style church is a beacon for pilgrims of Catholicism, history, and architecture alike. But, until a recent renovation, a closer look at the walls of St. Peter’s Basilica would reveal black crusts, white erosion patches, and other discoloration due to air pollution. Rome is not an industrial city, but packed roads and a high proportion of diesel vehicles have blighted its historic views. Pope Francis has attributed the effects of pollution to our “predatory attitude, which makes us feel that we are masters of the planet and its resources, and authorizes us to make irresponsible use of the goods God has given us.”

Kerry Park (Seattle, USA)

Kerry Park is a popular spot for photographers seeking a shot of Elliot Bay, the Space Needle, and even Mount Rainier when the sky is particularly clear. But pollution from motor vehicles, outdoor burning, and wood smoke is now a common blight on Seattle’s views and breathability. While outdoor fires are discouraged – lately with regard to aggravating Covid-linked respiratory conditions – wildfires remain a serious issue. Air conditioning is rare in the city but becoming more common as homeowners try to alleviate the effects of wildfires and heatwaves. 

Tokyo Skytree (Japan)

The world’s tallest tower is used for television broadcasts and observation – including monitoring local air quality. You will also find a sky restaurant, “the world’s highest skywalk,” and observation decks with dizzying views of one of our most iconic cityscapes. Tokyo has monitored air quality since 1927 and regulated towards the offset of industrial and vehicular pollution since World War II through urban planning, traffic control, and even canceling of a planned petrochemical complex. However, today Tokyo’s PM2.5 levels remain two points above the WHO’s guideline figure.

Ultimately, the effects of air pollution on our beloved views may be a gift in disguise. Poor air quality tends to go unnoticed day-to-day, and it takes events such as Beijing’s orange skies – or the unusually blue skies of lockdown life – to draw attention to the air we breathe.

But seven million people still die each year from air pollution-related causes. The World Health Organization recently warned that bad air is more dangerous than previously thought, reducing its maximum safe levels and suggesting that “almost 80% of deaths related to PM2.5 could be avoided in the world if the current air pollution levels were reduced to those proposed in the updated guideline.”

Even in areas where air quality is improving, there is a long and smoggy road ahead to reaching safe levels of PM2.5. On a personal level, you probably can’t do much to redeem these beloved and tragically obscured views, but you can regulate the air quality in your immediate environment. While house plants may have some limited effect (and are lovely all the same), the most effective way to do so is with a home air purifier.


We curated a list of the most beautiful city views around the world, pulling examples from articles from Insider, RTE, and The Times

The air pollution levels for each city with regards to PM2.5 concentration were sourced from IQAir.

The sliders show how the views in each city might look if pollution levels reached that of Ghaziabad, India, the second-most polluted city in the world, according to IQAir. The most polluted city in the world is Hotan, China, which reports air pollution predominantly as a result of desert dust storms rather than man-made pollution, which is why we chose the second-most polluted city.

To replicate the visibility levels, we sourced images that convey the smog levels experienced in Ghaziabad.

The data was collected in February 2022.

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About the author

G. John Cole

Graeme has been a Senior Writer for our parent company (NeoMam Studios) since 2013. At HouseFresh, he writes in-depth articles to accompany the original studies and data visualizations produced in partnership with the NeoMam team.

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