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Air quality in our communities

6 October 2009

By Margaret Cooney – Deputy Director Policy & Partnerships

I spent an enjoyable afternoon at Newcastle University’s Moorbank Botanic Garden recently, open to the public through the National Gardens Scheme, and also through the BIG-funded Open Air Laboratories Project (OPAL).

OPAL is an innovative project, designed to create a new generation of nature lovers. It has developed a wide range of local and national programmes, encouraging people from all backgrounds to get in touch with nature. The project will also generate valuable scientific data about the state of our environment.

Through its activities, OPAL brings together scientists, amateur enthusiasts, local interest groups or members of the public (who, like me, can’t name the plants in their own garden), providing opportunities to work alongside experts who want to share their enthusiasm and knowledge, and develop understanding in others too.

It’s led by Imperial College, London and has15 other partners across England. I saw OPAL’s north-east partner, Newcastle University, open their gates to the public for a family fun day and a chance to learn more about the latest OPAL survey on air quality.

That’s the other side of OPAL; not only does it provide access to scientists, but you get the chance to help them by participating in surveys to learn more about our environment. And they want everyone to get involved, people of all ages and abilities. They provide easy-to-follow survey instructions and support, and your contribution can help scientists build up a picture of England’s natural environment.

The Newcastle event showed me first-hand exactly what OPAL does. I went to their learning event – on lichen. An obscure topic you might think, but I promise you it was fascinating, and I was one of many who came away feeling enlightened and enthused.

Did you know that lichen can tell you more about the state of air quality than just about anything else? No, nor did I, but armed with my OPAL pack, complete with magnifying glass and tree identifier, I’m going to do the survey and identify some lichens.

The national air survey launch takes place on Sunday 11th October at Imperial College’s Silwood Park Complex , so if you live near, or want to find out more, all are welcome.

There are four other surveys; the one on soil was the first to launch (but you can still contribute), a water survey, which launches soon, and biodiversity and climate change surveys will launch later in the year.

Wherever you are and whatever your ability or age, you can get involved in this unique project, and I know OPAL co-ordinators across England will be delighted to hear from you.

Log on at and look at the activities page to find out what’s happening near you.

Finally, if you don’t believe me about how fascinating lichen is, here’s what a science correspondent from the BBC had to say.

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