Cities are Complex Places: Why a Global Approach to Sustainable Urban Design Is Essential
Cities are complex places and even though they have been around for at least 6,000 years we are still working hard to get them just right. Cities and how they function, or do not function, how we make them affordable and productive places, fair places for every resident are points that get lots of attention these days.
Traffic problems, air-quality, security and affordability are just some of the topics we hear about almost every day. We also see governments across the globe pouring billions if not trillions into infrastructure to help make cities work, make them better places to live in and the pressures are mounting daily. Cities are a great topic and the urgency to address problems needs to be weighed against the great potential they offer.
The quest for progress in how best to plan, develop and manage cities has been going on for a very long time. The first cities are thought to have for arisen in what is today Iraq, and that was about 6000 years ago.
In Cities of The World, an atlas of city maps published in six-volumes between 1572 and 1617 the city of Palmanova, in northeast Italy and founded in 1593 was depicted. Palmanova was built in a form of a start fort with studded thick walls and various bastions to improve the city’s defences. Density and the need for collective security have always been a key driver of city development.
Fast forward to 1925 when Le Corbusier, the champion of modernism proposed to raze mush of the Right Bank in Paris. He suggested that the existing maze of homes, shops and work-places be replaced by 18 new identical glass towers.
Each tower being 650 feet tall and spread a mile apart with open space in between with pedestrian paths and cars confined to elevated highways. That plan did not come into reality although today many big cities across the world do contain elements of Le Corbusier’s vision.
Tokyo for example is the world’s most populated metropolitan area. Tokyo is home to more than 37 million people and yet it is one of the safest, cleanest, most dynamic and most innovative of cities on the globe. Tokyo has been re-built twice in the past century, first after the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923 and after the city was boomed during the second World War, today it’s not a surprise that that the city is a much-studied city of efficiency and organisation.
However, Tokyo does face a modern-day challenge because deaths now outnumber berths creating an aging population and by 2035 more than a quarter of Tokyo’s population will be over 65 years.
Future Disorder or Not
Tokyo’s Prefecture Governor describes the city as technologically and financially capable, but lacking diversity and suggests that cities tend toward disorder and chaos. That may depend upon personal circumstances be the attraction and appeal of a city however, more than ever the future of cities is a big issue, the figures speak for themselves.
Buy 2050 the world’s population is estimated to reach 9.8 billion people and some 6.7 billion or almost 70%, are estimated will live in urban areas, that’s more people in cities than any other time in history.
This explosive growth will create highly concentrated pressure on resources including the ecology of cities, water and energy resources and waste management.
Faced with this amount of growth can cities become more liveable, with food resources and mobility for the population, with culture and heritage maintained and enriched against the demands of infrastructure and economic development.
With Tokyo act as a possible model, what are some of the innovations that we might see to help cities grow and deliver quality of live for everyone?
In a recent series of articles published in National Geographic, there were some key innovations for future cities outlined. These were focused around large scale urban hubs, self-contained neighbourhoods, smart buildings and social interiors.
While some of these themes will be familiar the article explored each in more detail and they all struck me personally as a mix of both logic and welcome innovation.
Urban hubs were described as providing sustainable land use both within and outside its borders and so helping people thrive while delivering housing, water, food and recreation and all helped along by high-capacity transport that reduces emissions and reduced commute times.
Some specific ideas that we already use included: green roofs and solar panels, backyard and school gardens, rainwater cleansing, urban farms alongside compact neighbourhoods and social transport. It was also interesting to note the intention to have mixed density development across a broad range of demographics that delivered advantages for the workforce and family life.
Self-contained neighbourhoods was another key theme explored in considering future cities. By definition these are neighbourhoods designed to meet almost all daily needs within a 10-minute walk with communities based around mixed-incomes and varied housing types.
Other key aspects included: drone commuting, clean energy, vertical (high-rise) farming, zero water loss, transit hubs and flexible buildings. The latter are buildings with modular interiors that could be swapped for varied economic, social and community uses.
Smart buildings are an idea we are all familiar with and the themes are built around faster production, less waste so that buildings can easily and frequently adopt between residential, industrial and commercial needs. Future smart buildings could also include sky gardens, solar walls and wind turbines along with captured sunlight to enhance natural lighting.
One other idea is directly related to residential development with social interiors. Here the idea is shared spaces with more amenities that allow greater social interaction that also allows for smaller micro-sized homes with greater social equality.
With better transport these zones would have less cars and so deliver more outdoor pace. Intergenerational housing would be encouraged as more common with an entire range of ages in one building. There would also be provisions for on-demand delivery with smart refrigeration and pantries to order food from home. Recycling and re-use would almost universal and all of these features would boost liveability via streamlined access to nature and a big dose of automated technology.
Today as cities become home to many more people, in fact billions of people and as cities drive economic development we need to aim for effective environmental outcomes and social outcomes. Every level of planning and development and governments need to shape entire communities and cities and while individual buildings can deliver great results a global approach to urban design and living is clearly essential.