Mounting concerns about public health are pushing cities to scrub their air clean. But just how easy is breathing fresh air again?

Italy’s economic powerhouse hadn’t felt so clean in years. As the novel coronavirus put the country and the hard-hit region of Lombardia under lockdown, muting the human and economic buzz, it also unlocked an unlikely reality: cities with better quality.

Above the Earth, satellites confirmed the slash in air pollutants, as they took snapshots of the region’s clearer skies, including Milan’s, infamous for its dangerous air pollution levels, just as many other places in the world.

This March, nitrous oxide was down 38%, particulate matter 14%, and benzene 33% lower, compared to the same month between 2016-2019, data from Lombardia’s environment agency showed.

Madrid, Lisbon, and other cities in Europe also breathed fresher air through their lockdowns. But this silver lining to the global health emergency turns to be short-lived as air pollution is bouncing back once urban economies restart.