Declining resources, climate change and growing urban populations will transform the cities of the future. But what will these urban centres actually look like? Building successful cities of the future or regenerating urban centres will require a harmonisation with natural surroundings and biodiversity. There has never been a more compelling time to consider how to bring these future cities to life.
In China, where many new cities are under construction, it will be important to develop with a much lower reliance on fossil fuels. Questions arise over whether high-density megacities are the right solution, given the significant emissions that result from moving people, goods, food and water across such large settlements. Instead, the development of a network of decentralised mixed-use settlements, or “clusters” connected by high speed public transport and broadband communications, may be a more sustainable solution. Connected by areas of intensive agriculture and natural systems, this decentralised model allows for the recycling of nutrients and water, as well as greater use of local materials. Certain clusters may eventually evolve into centres which offer particular commercial and social facilities, such as high-tech healthcare and education. Information and communication technologies would minimise the need to travel, thus reducing carbon emissions.
This model could also free up capital to enhance social well-being. The infrastructure needed to support the modern day industrialised nation absorbs so much capital that it can limit the resources available to invest in such projects as human development, health and education.
A new economy
The new paradigm of development and urbanisation requires a new economic model that puts resilience and the efficient use of resources at its heart. It will be driven by three changes in economic thinking. The first is placing a greater value on the protection of the ecosystem by, for instance, establishing a high carbon price to reward green living and penalise waste. Second is the fair distribution of resources, to ensure renewables are priced so they are not just for the wealthy. And the third is promoting the efficient use of renewables via legislation: incentivising people to think more carefully about the amount and type of energy they consume, and promoting the provision of renewable energy.
With 50-70% of existing buildings still expected to be in use in 2050, in rich countries the focus needs to be on retrofitting existing cities for a low carbon future.
In low density suburbs, like those common in the US, retrofitting could start with putting very high density mixed-used interventions into new public transport node points, thereby creating a new vibrancy and services without dramatically changing the landscape of the suburb itself. The streetscan be refashioned by introducing walking and cycle routes, renewable energy capture, and car clubs to reduce car use.
This may mean that some suburbs become increasingly populated, and others are abandoned and returned to greenfield sites, often used for agriculture. Urban planners are already incorporating intensive food production in cities. For example, in Wanzhang eco-city, in an area of China with huge water shortages, urban designers propose an integrated urban agriculture and food system which replaces extensive wheat and corn cropping with labour intensive vegetable and fruit cropping. In doing so, the strategy delivers 100% food security for the new community and significantly reduces water consumption, as well as doubling farming income and increasing agriculture jobs by 50%.
Green spaces and flexible design
The preservation of green spaces also has a vital role to play in improving drainage and air quality, helping combat the urban heat island effect and improving health. Inner-city areas will also see increased public transport provision. With a greater focus on walking and cycle routes, cities of the future will be much quieter.
Flexible building design for multiple uses will maximise efficiency and value – apartments that become offices and vice versa, with roofs used for intensive food production. Achieving this will require planning structures to be revised. A flexible and integrated approach to waste, water, energy and mixed land use must be employed.
Climate policies and a stable and high global carbon price will play a crucial role. They will clear the way for greater investment in energy efficiency, renewables and green transport.
Planning a smart, successful city of the future is fundamental to the city’s survival.