Improving the future: what we need from our cities of tomorrow

The world’s cities are burgeoning. They are home to half of all people, with this projected to rise to 68% by 2050. But then Covid-19 hit and much of the working world turned their home into their office. Powered by remote tech, many came to the realisation that maybe they did not need to be in the city to do their job successfully. Or even live within the commuter belt. So much so that one in seven Londoners said they wanted to leave the city due to Covid-19.

While it’s far too early to say that the pandemic has turned the tide on urbanisation, it has afforded us time to pause and consider if the cities we’re in are doing a good enough job. So, to find out what we should be focusing on to improve our urban homes, I spoke to a few leading names in architecture and urban planning and decided on four needs for our future cities.

We need more quality green spaces
With us being under lockdown for so much of the past year, it feels like there is a collective appreciation for the outdoors and green space which hasn’t been so apparent before. The age-old adage of ‘you want what you can’t have’ has felt particularly apt. And there’s scientific evidence to show why we’ve missed the outdoors so much. A World Health Organisation study found that urban green spaces can promote both mental and physical health, and reduce morbidity and mortality in urban residents. And, unsurprisingly, green spaces are good for the environment as well – helping to cool temperatures and regulate environmental processes such as air, water and noise pollution.

Creating more green spaces is a must, but it must also be done with equity in mind. Christopher Martin co-founder and director of Urban Movement put it frankly,

“the pandemic has shown us the inequalities that exist in cities, especially in terms of access to greenspace as well as access to opportunity…we need to see more of a focus on urban social justice and shaping regenerative places, habitats and cities.” 

At the same time, we must also sustain the new trends formed during the pandemic too. Which complements Jörn Rabach of Hutchinson and Partners’ point that

“the boom in inner-city cycling that we’ve seen during the pandemic must be supported by the improvement of cycle-related infrastructure by our local councils.”

We need to increase our use of data
Understanding the power of data isn’t a novel concept. Over the past few years it has become clear what we’re capable of doing, when we harness it. What the pandemic has showed us is the role data capture and analysis can play in helping authorities manage their crisis responses. As Edward Williams of Edward Williams Architects put it,

“smart cities will be at the centre of a more resilient and safer national and international infrastructure” highlighting that “data capture is essential to understanding the progress of an emergency, shaping our response to it and containing it.”

If we look to India, we can see an example of how this was specifically done in response to Covid-19. Three cities in the country – Bengaluru, Surat and Pimpri Chinchwad – used data collected through various sensors and smart solutions to analyse the virus spread and plan their responses effectively. However, smart infrastructure can also help mitigate more day-to-day risks such as flooding.

We need to repurpose first, build smarter second
To turn the tide on climate change, driving more sustainable practices is essential. The built environment, being responsible for over one-third of global energy consumption, needs to be leading this charge.

A lot can be said for the importance of using sustainable materials and solutions when building new structures. But when speaking to Jörn, he added,

“repurposing existing structures over new built solutions must be an initial consideration.”

A process called adaptive reuse. If you go to New York, you can see a great example by visiting the High Line, a disused train line which is now populated with green walks, sundecks and art. Replicating this want to reuse rather than build could save a lot of carbon from being emitted into our atmosphere. For example, building a two bed house can emit as much as 80 tons of carbon dioxide; repurposing a disused church hall for the same purpose would emit a lot less.

But while repurposing is ideal, it is not always realistic. Which is why Jörn put forward that “we must ensure that any new residential buildings are designed with flexibility in mind allowing them to function simultaneously as home offices, home schools and family homes.”

We need to continue accelerating digital transformation to shape our cities
A silver lining of the pandemic is that it rapidly sped up much needed innovation in the industry – such as embracing cloud-based tools that support a smarter way of working. With the future of our cities in the hands of the architecture, engineering, and construction communities, it’s really positive to see this development and this will benefit citizens directly. 

As Christopher summed it up,

“As a profession we have long-known and emphasised that how we plan, build, and manage our cities now, will determine the outcome of our efforts to achieve a regenerative and harmonious development tomorrow. The power that built environment professionals have to shape safe and thriving communities is more relevant every day, so we will be doubling down, sharpening our resolve, and continuing to protect cities as places of prosperity, happiness, and humanity.”

While the pandemic has impacted our world in so many ways its long-term impact on urbanisation remains to be seen. What it certainly has done, is given us the chance to examine what we want our cities to look like in the future. We have an opportunity to begin making the changes now which will result in better cities for us tomorrow.

Tim Whiteley, co-founder of Inevitech