Architecture defines cities of the future


As an increasing percentage of humanity is moving to live in urban areas, the challenge of this global metamorphosis creates an intricate puzzle which must be solved for this transition to be merely painless, but also beneficial for both the current and the future urban population.

Allowing cities to grow and develop organically is a recipe for disaster, and the only way in which the cities of the future can remain or become healthy and pleasant places to live and work in is if there’s a significant effort to plan ahead.

One of the key pieces of the puzzle is good design. Architects, engineers and urban planners of today are already dreaming up the cities of tomorrow. Their ideas and goals are varied, but most appear to coalesce around a single idea – future cities must be designed primarily for the people living in them, and not for vehicles, businesses and buildings. The primary goal must be to create vibrant and healthy communities and connections.

According to Martha Thorne, Dean of the IE School of Architecture and Design, the great challenge for architecture in the coming four decades will be how to create denser metropolises which nevertheless have high urban quality, and offer their residents a better quality of life.

“Generally speaking, cities with larger populations are more efficient and better equipped to provide urban services, mobility, energy, education, and healthcare,” Thorne said in an interview with Urbannext. “I believe that architecture can contribute very directly to a city’s objectives as a centre of innovation, culture, and well-being. We must change the view that architecture is an addition or a luxury to be enjoyed in boom times, and instead understand it as a reflection of our society and our values. Good architecture makes cities comfortable, accessible, etc.”

For the global architecture firm Gensler, the city of the future is a place that values walkability and a mix of uses. “It’s a place that is scaled to people, providing safe pedestrian environments and open space for public life. Most importantly, it’s a place that is grounded in the unique culture and values of its people while embracing modern technology and the global community.”

Walkability and mixed-use are key concepts when designing the neighbourhoods of the future. “People want to be able to walk to great restaurants, entertainment and shopping”, said Dave Williams, head of architecture at real estate developers Caruso. The idea is to create communities which are authentic, highly curated, easily accessible and green.

The walkability is paramount to the 15-minute city concept, as championed by Mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo and a number of other cities around the world. Creating a 15-minute city becomes much easier when planned for in advance. The mixed-use concept is the second half of the formula – dispensing with residential, commercial and industrial zoning, and allowing a mix of purposes to every neighbourhood, allowing residents to live near their jobs, entertainment venues, communal spaces, parks and retail businesses.

This mixed-use concept removes the burden from mass transit in the city, and returns most of the streets and sidewalks in neighbourhoods to the people. Parking and service delivery facilities can be situated below ground in new urban districts, hiding them from sight. Mixed-use neighbourhoods offer greater housing variety and density, resulting in more compact development and synergy of uses.

But the architectural needs and possibilities vary greatly between global regions. In Europe, a key aim is to ensure large cities are engines of sustainable economic growth, where young people can find education and work. In developing countries, such as Brazil, Colombia and India, the goal is to provide housing and basic services for all social classes.

Other areas, where countries have lots of unused real estate for development and significant financial backing, such as in China or in the Middle East, are open to top-down construction of whole cities and communities, where architects and city planners can experiment with futuristic concepts.

Existing proposals include Chengdu Sky Valley in China, where MVRDV proposes integrating “a liveable city into the Linpan Landscape”, fusing “technology with nature, urban with rural, and modernity with tradition.”

Another concept is “The Line” in Saudi Arabia, a human-centric city concept designed for nine million residents. Its core concept is making all core facilities accessible for all residents within a five-minute walk, with a high-speed rail system connecting any two parts of the city within 20 minutes.

In Europe, where space for urban development is scarce, cities will face greater challenges in maintaining their cultural and architectural heritage, with architects forced to incorporate existing legacy architecture in their futuristic city planning. Fortunately, the challenge is not as great as it might appear at first glance.

London and Paris are both venerable metropolises which have demonstrated how classical and contemporary architecture can work together – from the busy financial centre of the London City, to the futuristic glass-and-steel vista of the Louvre Pyramid melding visually with the renaissance-era museum building.

Other European cities have shown similar melds between the old and the new, like the Port Authority building in Antwerp which contrasts a spaceship-like superstructure with a once-derelict fire station, or the Prague’s Dancing House which nests a dynamic modernist structure designed by Frank Gehry between the city’s many Baroque, Gothic and Art Nouveau buildings.

New developments of urban centres in Europe will mostly aim to introduce smart city concepts by repurposing disused industrial complexes, abandoned facilities and infrastructure.

The City of Berlin, for instance, recently launched an EUR 8-billion plan to convert its closed Tegel Airport into a bustling e-city. Vilnius, on the other hand, plans to build a multifunctional mixed-use complex on the site of a defunct factory in the Vilkpėdė district.

The future of cities is intricately linked to the future of architecture, which will be the primary driver in turning the old and specialised urban areas in Europe, as well as unused land on the outskirts of growing metropolises of Asia and Africa, into smart, green and sustainable living spaces which foster communities, connections and healthy living.

(Photo credit: MVRDV)