3 most promising models for urban development
The number of people living in urban environments is increasing rapidly, but that doesn’t mean that cities have to grow in an uncontrolled manner. By giving thought now to what kinds of urban spaces work best, we can build comfortable, sustainable cities that improve life for ourselves – and for future generations.
The typical inhabitant of planet Earth lives in a city. Since 2007, more human beings have lived in urban areas than in rural environments, with the proportion of city dwellers rapidly increasing. Attracted by the promise of jobs, services and education, some 60 percent of people are expected to live in cities by 2030, rising to more than two-thirds by 2050.
This rapid transition to urban living creates both challenges and opportunities. On the one hand, without adequate planning, our cities have the potential to become overcrowded, dirty and unmanageable. On the other, we have the ability right now to plan and build cities that are safe, sustainable and significantly improve life for countless billions. So, what kinds of cities should we be aiming for? And what specific city features have the potential to enhance life for inhabitants? Three of the most promising models for future cities are the smart city, the biophilic city, and the 15-minute city.
1. The smart city
The term ‘smart city’ is generally thought to have been coined by technology company IBM by 2009. While the precise definition varies a little, a smart city is one where digital technology is used extensively to improve life for inhabitants. Key to the concept is making use of sensors to gather data, which can then be analyzed to optimize service delivery. In such a city, sensors on garbage bins might alert authorities when the bins are full and a waste truck is needed to empty them. Sensors connected to street lights might monitor when darkness falls and choose the optimal time to switch on, thus conserving energy. Smart technology in buildings similarly informs lighting and heating systems to optimize energy use around how people use the building. Infrastructure such as charging points might encourage electric car use, reducing emission, while communication networks allow inhabitants to remain connected and interact with the infrastructure. A range of urban areas around the world are already embracing smart city features, including New York City which boasts hundreds of sensors across its footprint. By analyzing sensor data, police in New York have been able to reduce crime in hotspots improving life for locals and tourists alike.
2. The biophilic city
The biophilic city movement, meanwhile, prioritizes building connections between cities and nature. The term biophilic means loving for life and living things, and in general terms the concept involves making cities less sterile by incorporating elements of the natural world across the cityscape. As well as making urban areas more attractive, natural features, like trees and animal life, have a scientifically proven ability to improve the wellbeing and mental state of human beings. A key part of the concept is for these natural features to provide habitats for insects, birds, fish and small animals, thus enhancing the biodiversity of both the city and wider planet. This approach also improves the natural environment in the cities with plant life improving air quality and providing a natural cooling system during hot summers. Singapore has long referred to itself as a ‘garden city’ since at least the 1960s and is now considered a world-leading example of a biophilic city. The city boasts buildings with planted facades, green rooftops and indoor hanging gardens, as well as numerous paths that bring inhabitants close to nature. Singapore is now planning to take things to the next level with a Green Plan that aims to make it even more sustainable. Measures under the plan include planting more than one million trees by 2030.
3. The 15-minute city
A third widely discussed concept is the 15-minute city. Automobile culture and the massive size of many modern cities have created a situation where inhabitants often have to drive long distances to shop, access essential services and undertake leisure activities, such as visiting a park. Often attributed to Sorbonne academic Professor Carlos Moreno, the concept of the 15-minute city is for an urban area where almost everything inhabitants need is within walking or cycling distance – in other words, no more than 15 minutes away. As well as making life more convenient for the people living in the city, such an arrangement is thought to encourage social cohesion and emotional wellbeing. There are also benefits for the natural environmental sustainability. Fewer powered-vehicle journeys are needed, reducing the need for the consumption of fossil fuels and other energy sources. Creating 15-minute cities involves careful planning and a willingness by authorities to relocate essential services and communal spaces. Such amenities need to be more evenly spaced throughout the city’s footprint. At the same time, buildings need to be designed for mix use and flexibility. Cities currently striving to achieve a 15-minute or similar model include Copenhagen in Denmark, Melbourne in Australia, Glasgow in Scotland and Portland in the USA.
While the three visions for cities above are distinct models, there is no reason they cannot be combined, with their features complementing each other. With the right commitment from governments, city authorities and builders, we can strive to develop cities that not only bring in nature but that incorporate sensors and infrastructure to enhance connectivity. We can have urban areas where inhabitants live and work close to the services they need, as well as having cityscapes that are well organized and beautiful.