Trends Shaping 21st Century Cities: Whole Cities, Living Buildings



Last week, I covered a list of 20 items from The Futurist magazine’s Outlook 2010 (Nov-Dec 09 issue that will shape 21st c cities.×84 Now I am adding other trends, ideas, and forecasts beyond their list. I addressed megacities, water, and robotics in the first three. This article considers the city as a whole system.

The Whole City

We see the modern, industrial city in parts. One segment is for houses, another for industrial, and entirely other areas for shops and offices. Consequently, we drive or take public transit from place to place. In the mid 21st century city, we will use and create whole cities and buildings differently than we did industrial cities.

Several forces are causing cities to change shape. First of all, commutes in cars are expensive, dangerous, and time consuming. No one likes to sit in congestion for hours every week but they do because their jobs and their families are separated by miles. In the past twenty years, new ideas such as New Urbanism and walkability emerged to change that, which will become evident in the next few decades (see Living Cities below). Second, women in the workplace increased reasons to have home and work closer. In addition, higher energy costs, aging population, and environmental problems influence new urban patterns, as will virtual and augmented reality. 

Perhaps most significantly, cities are now seen not just as machines for moving people and produce but as places for living. The Project for Public Spaces looks at how to create engaging public spaces that focuses on distinct places (see diagram). People seek higher quality, diverse urban experiences and engaged communities.  

I consider how looking at whole cities shapes 21st century built environments: the Living Building Challenge and Living Cities.

1.      The Living Building

The Living Building Challenge by Jason McLennan pushes the idea of sustainable building beyond energy efficiency; instead, structures or districts generate more energy than they use. They return energy to the grid to be used by others and are measured on six performance areas: Site, Energy, Materials, Water, Indoor Quality, and Beauty and Inspiration.

An earlier model called the triple bottom line also accounts for the quality of life in terms of: people, planet, and prosperity; or sometimes referred to as: social equity, ecology, and economics.  I worked on a 3,000 acre adaptive reuse of a former naval base in North Charleston SC called Noisette with BNIM and Burt Hill architects that used the triple bottom line approach. The developer, John Knott, went to great effort to incorporate a whole system approach to build a community, not simply bricks and mortar, and subsequently was recognized by ULI and ASLA for urban design excellence. Ecology, heritage, and arts as well as economics drove decisions.

Clearly, the push to consider social equity, wellness, experience, education, social justice, etc in measuring the impact of building choices will reshape future cities. We are beginning to frame questions about cities not in single terms such as congestion or real estate values. Instead, the city is seen as a place of distinct experiences for building communities.

2.      Living Cities, New Urbanism, Smart Growth

Larger questions concern the shape of the city. How will peak oil affect cities? How do we attract growth, jobs, and new residents? Do we continue to invest in new infrastructure and abandoning existing districts? Boulder and Portland have zoning regulations to control growth at the perimeter. Brookings Institute is one of the major proponents of contained development, called Smart Growth.

A number of models and theories support various cures for industrialized, car-based cities, and clearly I shouldn’t even try to summarize it too briefly. My point is simple (and hopefully not overly simplified): these ideas have certain commonalities and compatibilities, although not always creating precisely the same impact on cities.

The New Urbanist movement promoted the first major concept for post-industrial cities in terms of public spaces, pedestrian-oriented, and mixed uses so that major services were within walking distances.  Related patterns emerged as walkability, density, green cities, compact cities, traffic calming, and even slow cities, which are based on the idea of slow food and a less frenetic pace. All of them address anti-dotes for industrial cities, and have by and large compatible intentions.

Each concept relates to the idea of the quality of life, the experience of the city, and reconnecting life and cities.

Furthermore, the idea of the agile, resilient city, the adaptable city is emerging. In other words, while modern cities traditionally are planned, infrastructure built, and development begins, new cities may emerge in a more flexible way. Any city that relies chiefly on cars as transportation will continue to be dominated by transportation systems, an extremely costly, rigid form. Similarly, fixed rail system creates a very obdurate infrastructure.

In reverse, if some elements become more transient or mobile, others may become increasingly durable. For instance memorials and cultural institutions may represent the citys heritage, thus making gps devices even more necessary for wayfinding. Every change creates a counter movement. In this case, some buildings may be assembled, and easily moved, while others may be built to last. (see posts on augmented reality


Looking Ahead

To create completely new urban shapes, many elements come into play: technology, demographics, sustainability, economics, and attitudes. Furthermore, while these trends address positive actions, cities are also places of decline and sometimes complete societal collapse. 

While I previously said I would write about geo-engineering and infrastructure in this post, I saw that to think of those topics comprehensively, whole cities came first. Technology including geo-engineering will be next.

How Water Will Shape 21st Century Cities: Floating Cities, Wave Power, Coastal Protection


Last week, I covered a list of 20 items from The Futurist magazine’s Outlook 2010 (Nov-Dec 09 issue that will shape 21st c cities. I am adding other trends, ideas, and forecasts beyond their list. The first segment included The Great Urban Divide, Megacities, and Poly-Centric Regions. This article covers three ideas involving water and cities.

Dry Mouths, Wet Feet
Water makes a claim on people and cities that is both undeniable and paradoxical. Both people and the planet are largely composed of water, and while we need it to survive, we tend to either be dehydrated or flooded, sometimes simultaneously. In fact, 900 million people are without clean drinking water today with estimates that 1.8 billion will suffer by 2025 and 2/3rds of us will be under severe water stress. Water scarcity threatens not only the developing world but also parts of the United States in California and in the Colorado and Rio Grande river basins. Last year, Atlanta was on the brink of disaster. Furthermore, in the US, residential water costs have doubled in the past ten years, even as streets are flooding. It defies common sense.

A brilliant civil engineer told me that if you took the peak waterfall in an area, say 6-12 inches in a day which is an extraordinary amount of rain, and managed to hold it in place for a 24 hour period, you could solve the problems of urban flooding. Imagine a holding place on your property that could handle that run-off, use it for landscape or gray water, and you’ll save your city tremendous problems and lower your water bills as well.

For buildings, we are concerned with conservation and net zero water buildings (from the excellent Living Building Challenge). For cities the problem is more complex. Water is part of the infrastructure for both water in (to drink, irrigate, etc), and water out in the form of sanitary sewers and storm water systems, including many cities which unfortunately combine the two. Where ground water is depleted, subsidence affects many cities dramatically with sink holes increasingly common. Flooding and drought represent two other forms of disaster, witness the devastation of New Orleans and last month found Sydney in a red dust storm.

In short, we have over-engineered and misunderstood the magnitude and significance of water. With dryer, hotter climates and more people, sustainable water management needs to be built into our lives. To nourish 9 billion people, we will be modifying cities and learning new habits. Three exciting ideas may come into play: floating buildings, wave energy, and barriers to rising oceans.

1. Floating Structures
While floating houses have been common for decades if not longer, the thought of floating cities has intrigued designers with few successful installations. The Citadel floats on a polder which is part of the natural tidal plain of the Netherlands. New Orleans Arcology Habitat (NOAH), a mega-structure city, houses a population of 30,000 people on a pyramid-like form. The Lilypad by Vincent Callebaut is specifically planned for climate change disasters and would shelter 50,000 refugees. Smaller scale temporary architecture offers immediate inspiration with this elegant wooden hotel in Helsinki. Far-thinking visions of mid-century architects such as Bucky Fuller and Paolo Soleri are revived in these floating designs.

2. Wave Power
Wave farms could hug the coasts of major cities and supply energy for the massive populations. Numerous proposals consider how to harness tidal waves into electrical power; some are visually elegant. Last year, Portugal opened the first wave farm but it has already been closed. The Sea Snake is an invention of Scottish company Pelamis Wave Power. Biowave power is under consideration for the bay of San Francisco.

3. Protecting Coastal Cities
In coming decades, cities will grapple with rising oceans, threats of flooding, and increased storm events. Beyond emergency planning for storm events, cities must prepare for chronic high water. Change should occur gradually (not like those crazy disaster films) unless the city sits truly below sea level as is the case of New Orleans, which places a city at risk of levee failure. Options include raising the ground elevation, allowing submergence by waterproofing such as a pool or submarine, abandoning facilities, floating as in item 1, or barricading between sea and city. Most would prefer the last option because it represents maintaining normal life except at the perimeter. Consequently, an era of expensive, elaborate sea walls, dykes, levees, seagates, and so on is coming. The Rising Tide competition to save San Francisco from higher oceans illustrates the need for adaptation, invention, and resiliency. For Chicago, UrbanLab invented the eco-boulevard to grow water resources in a closed loop system.

Looking Ahead
Water represents so many possibilities and problems as we aim to use it, but not drowned in it, and leave it for next generations. We have seen water problems emerging since the Great Depression and they continue to spread and multiply. Amazing inventions have accomplished huge steps forward yet we have not solved anything entirely. Sustainable water management and net zero water exist today; therefore I placed them in my descriptions of the present conditions, not in the future. Yet most places have not adopted these practices and we remain at the mercy of poor, aging infrastructure.

As it’s said: the future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed. (William Gibson)

Next I focus on two high tech areas that will shape 21st century cities: robotics and geo-engineering.