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The future of Cities

The future of Cities

Professor Nick Dunn outlines the need for a greater understanding of how Cities evolve and how they may develop in the future to accommodate changing societal needs.

Our future is urban. Cities are the confluence of human activity par excellence with more and more of us moving to and living in urbanised areas around the world. Thinking about the future is complex. There are also many voices and much speculation about how cities will be in the future. To understand the future of cities is to understand how we will live, work, travel and connect with each other.  As part of the UK Government’s Office for Science: Foresight Future of Cities, I was asked to undertake research that sought to understand what lifestyles, mobilities and communities may shape the urban landscapes of the 21st century.

In our research we examined nearly one thousand different future cities and tried to understand how they could be classified and related to one another. In the end, for the purpose of the report we chose ninety future cities that were prominent types to give as large an overview as possible. One of the principal tenets going forward would be the relationship of people and their built environment. The recurrence and growth of more socially engaged future city visions in the early twenty-first century is notable and perhaps reflective of greater societal and global ambitions of ecological and social sustainability, alongside economic and political aspects of urban life.

The resilience of our future on the planet will be informed by how and why our cities evolve. This requires us to think long and hard about ensuring the planet and our cities are a shared resource for all to sustain our wellbeing and emergent lifestyles. Far from being science fiction, future cities are already here – it will be how we reboot them that really matters next. The sci-fi writer William Gibson has suggested, “The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.”

This echoes through our research wherein an example such as Masdar City, Abu Dhabi by Foster + Partners (2007 onwards) seeks to combine state-of-the-art technologies with the planning principles of traditional Arab settlements to create a desert community that aims to be carbon neutral with zero waste. The city is intended to be the first modern community in the world to operate without fossil-fuelled vehicles at street level. As such, a number of its design principles are based on street-level urbanism, ensuring that the city encourages walking via shaded streets and courtyards along with a maximum distance of 200 metres to the nearest rapid transport links and amenities.

Similar schemes, such as Arup’s Dongtan Eco-City, Chongming Island, Shanghai (2005 onwards), also reflect the combined approach of a walking based, sustainable living strategy, with ambitions to harness renewable energies and have zero waste.

The major and complex issues we face with regard the environment and zero carbon living are well established and relatively well understood. However, perhaps an equally significant challenge will be how future cities respond to the shifts in societies where our lifestyles are increasingly one of individual collectivism. In this situation people have dispersed both spatially and socially, forming new nodes and networks, which is reflected in the resurgence of cities. This appears to be borne of the economic and environmental realities of the 21st century and a reaction to the conspicuous consumption of the 20th century.

The current young generations and subsequent ones are likely to live and stay in cities for greater periods of their lives since more are delaying or even declining family formation and cannot afford to enter the property market as buyers. This in turn requires cities to enable more nomadic lifestyles with flexible work/live spaces, shared dwelling, later-running transport etc.

In this regard, a foreseeable shift toward more open frameworks that enable decision makers, people and communities to inform adaptable, resilient and sociable urban development seems likely. What we need is to accept risk and enable experimentation of different housing collectives, densities and types at a time when both present an oxymoron in times of austerity.

21st Century Stats


Originally launched: 1999.

Relaunched: January 1st, 2016.

Contributors: 70 contributors including futurists, engineers, teachers, writers, 23 doctors and 7 professors.

Created by: Clifford White.

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