Design & Technology to Improve the Future of our Cities


Below is the script for my Pecha Kucha, the amalgamation of various areas of research under the one theme.  I have really enjoyed undergoing an individual research project and I’ve learnt so much about the environments that we live in.  I am definitely now more informed about the direction that humanity is heading in and I will consider this in my future designs in order to take appropriate responsibility for the products that I put out into the world.

By 2050, 70% of the world’s population will live in an urban environment, an increase of 2.5 billion people.  This on top of high rates of poverty, a lack of affordable housing and the 4.6 million people dying annually from air pollution show that improving cities could determine our ability to thrive.  Tokyo has lower emissions per person than Shanghai and Beijing showing that well designed and well governed cities can combine higher living standards with lower greenhouse gas emissions.  So what does a well designed city look like and what technologies can be implemented to make them better?

The introduction of affordable motoring in the 50s brought huge economic and social benefits, but the impact of cars has left us with pollution, congestion and a decline in physical activity. Luckily, the automotive industry is going through huge upheaval and within a decade or two our cars will be electrified, autonomous, shared and connected.  These changes will drastically reduce air pollution  and the need for fewer vehicles will allow us to reclaim space from roads and parking as well as make cities safer for pedestrians and cyclists.

Commercial vehicles disproportionally contribute to pollution and congestion and the number of vehicles is likely to rise as e-commerce continues to grow.  When designing solutions to this problem it is important to consider the characteristics of the location.  For example, autonomous ground vehicles, such as the amazon scout, will be great for high density cities like London whereas drone deliveries, such as Google wing, would work much better in sprawling cities like LA where there’s more space to land.  In the shorter term, simple changes like more night-time deliveries and the adoption of parcel lockers could start to streamline delivery services.

In Seoul,  a huge elevated motorway that used to plough through the city has been reclaimed for public space and is now a long river park. This has dramatically improved local biodiversity and encouraged economic development in the area.  Green space in cities has clear environmental advantages including improving air quality and reducing urban temperatures but public parks can also be linked to improvements in stress, anxiety and health inequalities.  1000 trees in Shanghai is a Heatherwick studio project that cleverly incorporates green space by covering the building itself in vegetation. The mountain like form of the structure also breaks up an otherwise monotonous, blocky skyline.

How space is used is really important and a classic urban design principle is to create areas where residential, commercial and institutional spaces are intertwined creating community and identity.  Mixed land use can even reduce economic inequality since long commute times have been shown to be the number one barrier to escaping poverty.

Food deserts are areas where it is difficult to buy affordable fresh food and tend to be located in areas of low income.  Bringing agricultural land use into areas of cities that need it most could therefore hugely improve local health and well-being.  Aquaponics combines growing veg with fish farming and can be dated back to the Aztecs. An ecosystem cycle is created where waste produced by the fish is converted into fertiliser for the plants by microbes in the water. This uses 1/10th of the water of traditional farming and eliminates the need for harmful chemicals.  It’s very scalable so indoor farms could be set up anywhere making food miles basically non-existent, and the new industry would provide a whole new opportunity for employment.

Bringing even more industries into cities obviously requires more real estate and one radical method is to build floating land.  The function of this land can vary hugely from high density housing to solar panel fields. The city blocks can be moved around and rearranged making the city adaptable to changing needs.  For example, what if instead of each city to host the Olympics building new stadiums, they could be towed in and reused year upon year.

City Apps puts this idea into practice on a much smaller scale, aiming to improve the prosperity of slums.  Floating social housing, sanitation facilities and schools can be towed in to areas where the slums.  Floating structures are also not affected by flooding which is important considering slums are often located in areas prone to natural disaster.

This is one way to give us more space, but how can we improve the structures themselves?  Most city buildings today are built from concrete and steel.  Aside from their terrible environmental impact, it also means that every city looks the same and we’ve lost the architectural identity that can be found in many of our older cities.  Using local building materials could be one way to redevelop this charm.  Here in the UK, trees are a plentiful resource, leading to a new trend in timber buildings.  Instead of traditional wood, they use a new material called Cross Laminated Timber.  Huge sheets of wood are layered at 90 degrees to each other using a flame-retardant glue resulting in a material that is much lighter but of comparable strength to reinforced concrete.  This allows panels of buildings to be prefabricated and then quickly assembled on site, cutting construction times by about a half.

The urgency of urban development has never been greater as rapid urbanisation threatens to worsen climate change and the quality of life of residents.  Implementing certain technologies and design practices can hugely improve our urban environments but we must remember to make these changes incrementally and be specific to each place in order to create healthy, vibrant and unique cities.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s