Joint initiative on outskirts of City of London takes ‘ZEN’ approach to improving air quality

Islington Council’s Laura Parry provides a unique insight into the Zero Emissions Network scheme, a unique collaboration between three London councils to improve air quality on the fringes of the City of London.  



 Spanning across Clerkenwell, Shoreditch and Spitalfields, the city fringe is unique. This small piece of land is a space where three London boroughs meet, a tech revolution thrives and air quality is among the worst in the UK. 

The Zero Emissions Network (ZEN) is drawing together these strands; capitalising on opportunities for inter-council collaboration and working with the local business community to combat the challenge of poor air quality. 

Air quality has been high on the agenda for Islington, Hackney and Tower Hamlets councils for over 20 years, with the London Borough of Islington having an Air Quality Management Area in place across their patch since 2003.  

Over the past 15 years, roadside NOx levels have been consistently above objective levels throughout Islington, with one of the worst-affected areas around the Old Street roundabout on the fringe of the City of London. 

The Zero Emissions Network (ZEN) began as a Hackney Council project in 2013 and grew to include Islington and Tower Hamlets a year later. It receives support from the Mayor of London, TfL and the three borough councils. Today, the network boasts more than 1,000 members and has delivered over 500 emission-reducing measures. 

The project works by recruiting businesses to join a free network of their peers where they are provided with access to free resources including: cycle training, electric vehicle trials and workplace travel grants. 

Sustainable travel is at the forefront of the project’s approach. Major roads, including the A10, A11 and Old Street roundabout intersect the ZEN Zone, making transport the main source of air pollution in the area. Falling inside both the Congestion Charge Zone and Ultra Low Emission Zone, transport is also a considerable financial factor for businesses in the area as polluting vehicles become subject to additional tariffs. 

By providing access to free car club membership, cargobikes and electric vehicle trials, ZEN is making sure reducing emissions helps organisations save money. 

Success stories so far include pop-up coffee business Black Box Coffee and Secret Smokehouse, a rapidly growing fish smoking business based in Hackney. Both businesses were heavily reliant on diesel vehicles for deliveries and travelling to events. 

Through ZEN, Black Box were able to trial a cargobike from London Green Cycles, to see how it would fit into their business model. A cargobike is simply a pedal bike fitted with a storage unit so you can transport goods and other materials. 

And following a successful trial, Black Box used the ZEN grants scheme to help cover the cost of a new custom-made, branded cargobike. This has meant that Black Box Coffee was able to stop using their car, which contributed to emissions, to now using their cargobikes to transport goods to shops, events and markets, as well as acting as a form of advertising and an eye-catching pop-up coffee bar. 

Ben Murtaugh, Owner of Black Box, said: “The Zero Emissions Network has been great for us, we managed to secure a grant for our cargo bike which has been great, it looks really good, it’s free to get around, it can fit everything inside it we need for an event or to make coffee and it’s zero pollution, a bonus!” 

zen cargobike 


Secret Smokehouse also made use of ZEN’s partner trials by testing out an electric van made by Nissan. The trial allowed Secret Smokehouse to test out the van and see if going electric was feasible. Staff were initially concerned about the distance the van could travel on a single charge and had no experience of using electric vehicles or charging points, so being able to test the vehicle first was extremely important.

Max Bergius, owner of Secret Smokehouse, said: “It has been amazing working with Patrick and his team at ZEN to understand clearly the huge benefits of switching to an all-electric business vehicle. I initially had some anxiety with the range and how to charge it up but all became clear and a no brainier after a four day trial of the Nissan e-NV200. Not only was it an amazing vehicle but I felt so relaxed after a day of driving electric compared to my diesel car! I’m now in the final stages of buying my very own - the cost saving alone we calculated at £4.5k per year versus the diesel equivalent.” 

At the end of the trial, Secret Smokehouse successfully purchased an electric van, with help from a £2,000 grant from ZEN. 

Zen nissan

While the focus has been on businesses so far, the next two years will see ZEN expanding their offer to residents in the area, as well as launching a new Scooter Switch scheme, helping delivery businesses and riders switch to electric scooters, bikes and cargobikes.

ZEN illustrates perfectly the importance of developing projects that address the very individual opportunities and challenges of an area. By working with businesses, we’ve made the best of the city fringe’s greatest resource, its pool of enthusiastic and innovative people from across industries, to tackle an issue that affects them every day. 


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