Cityscape: the future of urbanisation

30 January 2012 (Last Updated January 30th, 2012 18:30)

As population numbers continue to skyrocket, architects will have to rethink their idea of urban space. Elisabeth Fischer explores the concepts aimed at tackling the uncontrolled growth and critical size of tomorrow's future cities.

Striking visions of glass and steel buildings in soaring heights, multilayered compartmentalisation of space, mechanised mobility and an absolute density of urbanisation – that’s how science fiction movies like to fantasise about our cities of tomorrow.

"The creation of space for the growing population will be one of the main challenges to be faced in decades to come."

But what Hollywood fails to depict are the problems that future generations could face if megacities grow.

With the population widely predicted to mount to nine billion by 2050 and some 70 million people migrating from the country to cities every year, cities will soon reach capacity. Also, current systems of waste disposal, water and electricity supply could lapse, creating patches of inequality throughout megacities.

Modern architects and city planners have started addressing these problems, playing a crucial role in transforming urban spaces for future generations.

Rapidly growing cities have embraced vertical development and created entire neighbourhoods, parks and business premises in mega-skyscrapers. Others, faced with the lack of land, have resorted to building their own man-made islands off their coasts.

However, if the current trend continues, these concepts alone may not be enough and some designers are turning their sights on even more forward-looking concepts, trying to tackle the issues urbanisation will confront in the future.

Sustainability is key

Pioneering American computer scientist Alan Kay once said: "The best way to predict the future is to invent it."

While he was talking about new information and communication technologies, this sentence could also apply to urban architecture. The best way to fight the uncontrolled growth and the critical size of future cities is to implement forward-looking concepts that tackle the problems of tomorrow.

Some architects and city planners have realised the need and started working on concepts for future cities. In 2007 for instance, New York City’s mayor Michael Bloomberg launched PlaNYC, a campaign to make America’s most populous city greener and better by overhauling its approach to land, water, transportation, energy, air and climate change issues.

Elsewhere, the 2010 Shanghai Expo in China explored the trend which future city concepts will head for, following the slogan ‘better city, better life’. Also, the organisers of the London 2012 Olympic Games aim to create a long-lasting legacy with their new-built sporting venues and the Olympic village, changing the face of a socially deprived area in the British capital.

According to urban planning and architecture agency SBA International Shanghai office representative Philip Grell, the main trend for future cities will be the sustainable city.

"In contrast to a rigid structure and a completed concept we pursue the goal to take processes of change in urban development into account in preparing the future city for expected functions and uses," he said.

Even though there is no prototype available, all materials used in different construction phases should have a low impact on the environment and be sustainable in terms of creating environmental, economical and social-ethical benefits. "The choice for future materials should be made from a life-cycle perspective," he added.

"Each planning area requires a precise investigation, on the local conditions and potentials. Our focus lies on the urban planning aspects of urban structure, energy, mobility and urbanity."

Low-carbon city

In 2011, SBA International won the first prize in an international design competition for a sustainable city of the future in Yinggehai on the South Chinese island of Hainan. "The expectations for the city of the future were set high," explained Grell.

"The best way to fight uncontrolled growth and the critical size of future cities is to implement forward-looking concepts."

"A better life that takes into account the sustainability factors of an economic, ecological and socially acceptable interaction with the countryside, the inhabitants and tourist of the new city."

Covering a focus area of 42.8km², the architects developed a rural-urban interaction, ‘glo-cal DNA city’ and a city of responsibility. According to the architects, each inhabitant will contribute its share to the city. Ecological awareness is technically supported and will characterise and continuously develop the metropolis. The basis for this is provided by the urban design concept of the ‘smallest ecological unit’, a decentralised concept with independent decentralised cells.

These units are held together by an infrastructural, multifunctional system. In addition to the common mixed uses such as living, working, shopping and leisure, the master plan includes, for each district of the city, a centre with nine units, each defining a district function and a low-rise, high-density urban structure. Special functions of the units will include environmentally friendly industries and integrated modern waste treatment plans.

According to Philip Grell, the next step now is to stipulate the overall conditions for the city as well as of the regulatory plan. "This plan will be the basis for the building regulation of the different parts and districts of a city," he said. How far the plan will however turn into reality lies with the local government.

Enhancing consciousness

A project on a smaller scale, following the trend for sustainability of future cities, are the Solar Lily Pads by Scottish ZM Architects, proposed for the Clyde River in Glasgow.

The concept involves placing large solar discs on the surface of dead waterbeds that aesthetically blend into the river and produce clean power for the city. Equipped with an integrated motor and sensor which allows the discs to rotate towards the sun, the lilies would achieve maximum exposure.

ZM Architects director Peter Richardson explained the concept: "The solar lilies show how clean power can be made by adapting dead waterways in cities and using the energy to improve the public realm or adjacent waterside buildings."

Even though the design won the International Design Awards Land and Sea competition in 2008, the project is unlikely to go ahead in Glasgow. Richardson says that political support is missing and the access to funding has been difficult.

In general, he believes there is still not enough being done to cater to the needs for future cities even though smart materials and better technology is developing at a fast rate, opening up opportunities to modernise old systems and set-up infrastructure to cope with future demand.

Philip Grell, who agrees with this notion, says that consciousness in politics, economy and populations needs to be further strengthened in the direction of ecology and demands of future generations – only then sustainable cities have the potential to become reality.

Seastaeding cities

"Consciousness in politics, economy and populations needs to be strengthened in the direction of ecology and demands of future generations."

One concept that has recently gained more attention in the public sphere is the one of floating cities on bodies of water. The idea has been around for some time but has only recently gained popularity due to the work of the Californian Seastaeding Institute. Its vision of creating autonomous cities, free of any political, social and energy-providing systems, seems in light of the continuing rise of urbanisation a welcome alternative.

In December 2011, The Economist picked up on the idea, admitting that such projects would be feasible. Even though seasteads would have to be wary of how exactly they float, wind and wave resources could be used to power the cities, making them completely independent.

From an architectural and structural point of view the visionaries believe the technology is already available. The cities could be either built on ship-shaped structures, barge-like structures or be based on floating pontoons and platforms mounted on semi-submersible columns just like offshore oil installations.

Critics however are concerned about the sturdiness of such structures and believe that harsh weather conditions offshore could make them vulnerable. In 2010, a group of marine engineers produced a design study for a floating resort city off the Californian coast, including detailed work on wind and wave resistance and the construction methods of such cities.

Even though much could be borrowed from ship and bridge designs, its authors admit that more needs to be done before their implementation.

Future targets

Whichever concept of future cities architects and city planners are looking at today, they all have the one common characteristic of creating a city that is completely independent and can live and breathe on its own.

The creation of space for the growing population will be one of the main challenges to face in the decades to come.

The target, as Philip Grell put it, is to save energy and reduce the consumption of fossil fuel through the use of ecological and sustainable structures, materials and systems. "As architects and urban planners we can support the process in city planning with our ideas in future architecture and urban design," he said.

"There are already a lot of ongoing processes to improve the standard of living and environmental conditions. So many modern comforts, such as solar energy, zero-emission houses, and so on, affect our society already today," Grell concluded. But it also remains clear that much more needs to be done.