There are many ways to size up a city; crime statistics, population and quality of life are standard parameters. But when I travel around Asia, one of the first things I notice is the air: how clean it is and what it will be like to breathe it in daily.
That's because even before I step off the plane or train I'm already thinking about how to squeeze in a run. It's not only that I want to shed the stiffness of a long trip or break up a schedule heavy on meetings and meals. It's also my chance to see at street level how a place ticks, what residents eat and how they live.
The first whiff can be a fairly accurate indicator of a municipality's priorities. In many cities around the Asia-Pacific an ominous brownish film blots out the sun or blights the sky. Running outdoors in these places can be a health hazard. I haven't done myself any favours by trotting around New Delhi, Jakarta and Bangkok. You only have to glance at those cities' levels of PM 2.5 – the tiny particles that experts consider bad for your lungs – and inhale to see why municipal officials there are eager to find a solution. Even Seoul – a city that's refashioning itself with pedestrian-only districts and improved public transport – and Hong Kong, a dense and walkable city if ever there was one, have their share of bad-air days.
Seven million people globally died of causes related to air pollution in 2012, making it the planet's worst environmental health risk according to the WHO. The majority of deaths were from heart attacks and strokes and, to a lesser extent, lung cancer.
I come at this as a runner, not a scientist. I think about air quality in terms of the risk I'm taking with exposure. In Asia's big cities it's a daily consideration for residents. Whether they bike to work, let their children play outside or spend an afternoon seated outside on the terrace might come down to a pollution number.
This is why Tokyo, Melbourne and Singapore deserve such high marks. To be fair, they aren't struggling with a surging population or an expanding middle class that's eager to drive everywhere. But they have figured out how to achieve a delicate balance of bustle and breathability through tough emissions laws and smart investments in parks and public transportation. In Tokyo, my regular morning runs take me around the Imperial Palace, where the scent is of azaleas and jasmine, not exhaust pipe fumes.
On a recent trip to Melbourne I decided to run along the Yarra river. I spotted couples on shaded benches and dodged cyclists and rollerbladers. I passed office towers, museums, a botanical garden and a community pool that resembled a sandy beach. It was a refreshing display of a city that has made its main waterway a haven for residents. I ran harder and farther than usual and enjoyed every laboured breath.
Kenji Hall is Monocle’s Asia editor at large.