Urban Design for Future

In 1950, less than a third of the global population lived in cities. Today more than half do. By 2050, two-thirds of humans are expected to reside in urban areas. To deal with growing population demands in urban areas, cities are increasingly required to develop innovative plans for the future.

Overcoming obstacles in creative ways

Future urban infrastructure designs will be required to be anticipatory and proactive from a sustainability viewpoint. Similar to an ecosystem, these will contain many small-scale, networked elements that provide numerous uses, rather than one single guiding purpose for their existence. For example, urban community garden plots not only provide food for urban dwellers, but act as stormwater management systems, allowing water and waste recycling at small scales with real-time sensors monitoring how much less will have to be processed downstream. One of the best known examples of this type of innovative monitoring is in Songdo, South Korea where everything from traffic flow to household waste is highly networked.

Future urban design will also need to anticipate short-term, local conditions, as well as long-term, global phenomena. Following Hurricane Sandy and Katrina, for example, ideas were centred on future sea level rise driven by climate change and the infrastructures necessary to provide protection to these cities from future flooding. Conventional infrastructure repairs typically use robust engineering approaches to respond to such flood risks, elevating floodwalls to predicted future sea levels and strengthening levees to protect against more frequent and intense storm surges. However, future urban design is likely to demand natural wetland and “green” environmental solutions. These can protect and adapt to environmental changes through time, letting ecological processes respond and adjust to each intervention rather than dealing with the problems from an entirely engineering perspective.

Another important element of future urban design is a move from single-function to multifunctional infrastructure. Current designs tend to manage one particular problem for an isolated part of a larger system – e.g. water, waste or transportation. However, the networked nature of future cities will allow infrastructures to serve many interests. For example, current practices in urban waste typically transfer water and solid waste away from human settlements. Future designs could instead see these waste flows as resource flows, and reconnect other essential city services together. This is already occurring in southern California, where wastewater has been converted into drinking water, which is potentially cleaner than snowmelt. Another example is recreation. Wetlands created to protect against hurricanes or flood risks benefits societies as well. Many innovative stormwater practices – like rain gardens or green roofs – also serve aesthetic purposes. Combining functions creates more connections in future cities (BBC, 2013).

An increasing number of cities globally are keen to become cities of bicycles, as part of an overall strategy focusing on sustainable development and living, and the desire to become green cities. Cycle path networks can supplement public transport systems and also make a significant contribution to reducing CO2 emissions, in addition to provide knock-on benefits. For example, in Copenhagen cyclists are reducing the city's CO2 footprint by 90,000 tons annually. However, there are numerous benefits to focusing on bicycles other than for solely environmental reasons. First, cycle-friendly cities are often people-friendly cities, and city planning that considers pedestrians and cyclists provides significant benefits in terms of liveability, health and social relations in these cities. In Copenhagen, most cyclists prefer this means of transport because it allows them to get quickly to their destination, and this is one of the primary motivating factors as to why they use a bicycle instead of a car. Second, in addition to being an efficient means of transport in terms of time, a bicycle is also affordable. In contrast to cars, even poor segments of the population can generally afford one. Planning a bicycle-friendly city thus helps to create a more socially inclusive and fairer city where large groups of people are not prevented from moving around the city because of their financial circumstances. And third, a well-developed cycle path network can also enhance social inclusion across age groups. Even in very wealthy cities, large cohorts of people such as children, young people and the elderly are severely restricted in their mobility because the city is designed for cars – a means of transport that they cannot use. Cities that are designed for cars are also subject to urban sprawl and many obstacles which hamper movement on foot and by bicycle.

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