Internet users have a feeling that St. Petersburg is pretty polluted – and they’re right

Publish date: November 12, 2018

The people have spoken, and St Petersburg, Russia has found a place among Europe’s most polluted cities – at least according to Numbeo, the world’s largest database of crowd-sourced quality of life statistics.

The people have spoken, and St Petersburg, Russia has found a place among Europe’s most polluted cities – at least according to Numbeo, the world’s largest database of crowd-sourced quality of life statistics.

St Petersburg’s unenviable showing among the dirtier cities on the survey isn’t backed by the generally hard science that informs other international pollution indexes. Russia’s northern capital, for instance, doesn’t show up on the dreaded Pure Earth list – an annual ranking of the world’s ten most toxic cites in terms of death and illness caused by environmental factors.

And the World Health Organization doesn’t even place St Petersburg – or any Russian city – on its tally of the 500 most polluted places on earth based on concentrations of particulate matter in the air, a category overwhelmingly dominated by China.

Still, the Numbeo list reflects a feeling – one that can’t be checked by third party data or measured against any empirical certainties, and one that critics of the site caution can’t really be considered accurate. Or can it?

Since its founding in 2009 by former Google engineer from Serbia, Numbeo’s feelings on a range of quality of living standards – like housing costs, perceived air quality, incidence of crime and traffic jams – have been cited so often by international media that they have started to alchemize into facts.

Such was the case last week when St Petersburg found itself ranked the 17th most polluted city in Europe on Numbeo’s 2018 mid year Pollution Index, which listed 72 cities overall.

Sankt_Petersburg St. Petersburg's Winter Palace as seen from the Neva River. Credit: Wikipedia

At the top of the list were Helsinki and Reykjavik, which held their positions from last year’s ratings as the least polluted cities in Europe. Moscow faired slightly better than St Petersburg, showing up in the ratings as only the 19th dirtiest city on the continent.

The Numbeo pollution ratings – as the site explains in often awkward English – take into account a number of perceived factors among those who take it upon themselves to send reports to the site – factors like satisfaction with local air quality, cleanliness of the city and frequency of trash removal, availability of parks and other green spaces, whether the water is clean or dirty and if the city is generally noisy.

Obviously those can be some fairly subjective criteria, and not all of Numbeo’s contributors focus on the same elements of pollution. Further complicating matters is that Numbeo doesn’t clearly indicate just how many people have written in to report that their city deserves to be called polluted – though does offer a detailed overview of how it weighs its data.

But more the people contribute to Numbeo, the more their opinions and biases begin to form a shared perception of reality – and these perceptions have been reinforced by media as diverse as The New York Times, the BBC, the China Daily and Forbes Magazine, which have zealously taken to citing Numbeo’s data as a kind of rough sociological mood ring.

As it turns out, the feelings people are reporting to Numbeo aren’t that far off the mark when compared to recent data from the World Health Organization on worldwide ambient pollution.

Telovo, Macedonia and Sarajevo – which were cited by Numbeo as Europe’s first and seventh most polluted cities ­– were singled out by the World Health Organization for similar honors in its own report.

But they’re not the only places that are so afflicted. The more sweeping argument made by that particular World Health Organization study, which was released in June, was that some 90 percent of the earth’s inhabitants are breathing polluted air.

But dire as those figures are, the World Health Organization offered some encouraging remarks. The first is that more than 4000 cities worldwide are now participation in the organization’s ambient air quality monitoring – something that could soon make Numbeo’s more flimsy methodology unnecessary.

The second is that more and more cities worldwide have resolved to fight pollution. Mexico City, for instance, has started mandating cleaner vehicle standards since it started participating in the organization’s monitoring. Similarly, tens of millions of impoverished women in India are now using liquefied petroleum gas to make their household emissions cleaner.

So where does that leave St Petersburg, besides more polluted that Marseille but less polluted than Milan, as Numbeo says?

To be fair, St. Petersburg has colossal pollution problems and Numbeo isn’t doing a disservice by saying so. The air quality, driven by an uptick of cars on the road and a general national negligence toward emissions control, is dismal. And now that winter has arrived, antiquated coal boilers throughout the city will be fouling the air even more.

The city’s landfills are mismanaged and overflowing and waste collection in many St Petersburg neighborhoods is only sporadic.

Water quality is worse, and failing to boil what comes out of St Petersburg taps is an invitation to all manner of parasitic intestinal infections.

To solve these problems, however, will take more than a feeling.