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High, green and compact

What will the city of tomorrow look like? Will it be a concrete jungle or heaven on earth? How will the city accommodate, entertain and feed its residents, so they will not want to move anywhere else?

In the year 2013, more than half of the world’s population will live in cities. According to the United Nations, that part will increase to no less than 70% in 2050. Cities will accommodate 90% of the world’s population growth, account for 50% of global CO2 emissions and consume 70% of energy resources. That confronts us with a fair number of problems. How will new residents be accommodated? Where and how will they live? How will they move around, and where to? What energy will they use? And what about their food? And above all, how should a city in 2050 be organized if it wants to be a place where it is good to live?

Thinking about the future of cities is as old the city itself. From the times of the Sumerians, one of the earliest civilizations, people have been searching for creative answers to problems that arise from urban living. Architects and city planners rather reverse that thinking process. According to architect Daniel Libeskind, an architect is “a born optimist”, someone who looks ahead, a constructive thinker par excellence. The city is not the problem, it is the solution, says the planner. For example, studies show that a good urban plan reduces the ecological footprint per capita. Also, American sociologist Richard Florida is a passionate defender of the idea that population density and productivity are directly proportionally related.

A good or a bad dream?
The city as the cradle for a heavenly future has inspired utopians, science fiction writers, and futurists. As early as 1924 the French Swiss Architect Le Corbusier dreamt of an ideal city as a foundation for social reforms. ‘La Ville Radieuse’ was the successor of a first ideal city, ‘La Ville Contemporaine’ and  ‘Le Plan Voisin’. Le Corbusier had just converted himself to syndicalism and envisaged a city for a shining, perfect society of labourers.  Neatly squared buildings in abundant green spaces. The concept was never executed, but was often showed and served as an inspiration to many.

Have you ever heard of Victory City? The concept is the life time’s work of the American entrepreneur Orville Simpson II, now 89 years of age. Since the age of13, he has been sculpting his dream to build a city near Dayton, Ohio that should near urban perfection. He drew plans and wrote instructions for residents. Victory City is a mega structure of 102 floors in which over 300,000 people can work and live. Food would be grown in farms outside the city. The residents would eat in central restaurants that could serve 30,000 people within 3 hours. The goal? By centralizing all amenities and by living to certain rules, Simpson expects to be able to make a substantial difference for the environment. He is still looking for the final 100 million dollar before he can start building, but the investors are still to come. Is he a lunatic in a tailored polyester suit or a utopic radical? Le Corbusier’s ideas are also close by in the Brazilian capital Brasilia that appeared out of nowhere. The city plans were drawn up by the urbanist Lucio Costa. He applied the urban planning ideals of the fifties in which residential, commercial and industrial areas were separated from each other, connected by transport grids. Seen from the sky, the shape of the city looks like an airplane. De main buildings were designed by the recently deceased architect Oscar Niemeyer. He too owes something to Le Corbusier. About his work, Niemeyer said that it is “a way to express my ideals. Simplicity, a world that is equal to all, with an optimistic view on mankind and it´s talents. I only want to create happiness”. The goal of the then President  Suscelino Kubitchek was to cultivate the interior of Brazil with this new capital and to create living space for the Brazilians. Visually it became an amazing, but also an uninhabitable place where no one wants to live unless it is absolutely necessary.

Four hundred new cities
Nevertheless ‘the architect’, the optimistic being, diligently builds on. Today the Far East is a dream of a laboratory, growing the seeds for the tomorrow´s cities. Asia has the largest urban influx ever. Just in the next fifteen years, 300 to 400 million Chinese will leave the country and move to cities. To facilitate this enormous migration, the Chinese government will need to build 400 new cities by 2025. Also the building yards in Singapore, Malaysia and South Korea will need to become living and working space for millions. That is the perfect context for architects and planners to create their fantasies, but also to create new answers to the questions of what the ideal city looks like.

It is one thing to draw architectural monuments. It is a totally different thing to convince people to want to live and stay to live in a place. Is it a coincidence that in a city like Brasilia, with all its amenities in different areas, is faced with people who only want to move away from the place? In his book Cities for People, the Danish architect Jan Gehl states it is absurd to start with buildings and then wait for people to come. He believes it works the other way around: “First the living, then the spaces and after that the buildings”. Another quote from Gehl: “A good city is like a good party. People stay much longer than expected, because they enjoy themselves”.

In tomorrow’s city people are the centre point, according to Gehl. He is not alone with his vision. According to Kent Larson, architect and professor at the famous Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston, today’s city models – in which you have to move around  to work, shop and live – no longer work.  “To go to the office” is outdated he says. He believes the house once again becomes the centre from which we work, shop and care.

A city is a place for people to live in and no longer for traffic to move through, says Larson. He looked at cities that existed before we had cars and compared those with new cities or cities under construction after the car came. Before the car, the city was an organic collection of neighbouring areas where everything you needed was within a distance of a twenty minute walk. The city after the car came, is a sprawl of suburbs and shopping areas, which is a source of pollution and time loss, according to the expert.

He thinks that new cities should be like the old ones, but then equipped with 21st century technology for the needs of today. Larson is clear about what such a city cell needs: micro networks, public transportation, folding city cars, shared by the community, public office spaces and meeting places in the Starbuck style, where working people meet and log in. Proximity, internet and cycling paths, that is all we need to be happy, he thinks.

This could all be about the Danish capital Copenhagen, the city that has been elected a few times to be the most pleasant city in the world. Copenhagen, that will be the Green Capital of Europe in 2014, makes sustainability its top priority. Not just to constrain CO2 emissions, but above all to be as pleasant as possible for its residents and to return the streets to the weakest road users.

Wind, sun and water
Clean energy, an emission-less city and zero carbon footprint are not meaningless words when they come from an urbanist. Sustainability is in the top five of conditions of tomorrow’s city. Even in the newest edition of the computer simulation game SimCity, that will be released next year, the player needs to take into account issues like air pollution, traffic congestion and power usage. Between 35 and 40% of Copenhagen’s residents move around in the city on a bicycle. They do so because the city accommodates that, and because cycling is safe, cheap and by far the quickest way to get wherever in the city.

So, at ground level, it is possible to live sustainably. But is it also possible in the sky? Gensler is an international design firm, which is very active in Asia. “Three hundred million Chinese will move to cities in the next two decades, which is the entire population of the United States” stresses Daniel Winey in his worldwide lectures. De director of Gensler’s Asia operations creates an image from abstract numbers. “By 2025 we need to have built skyscrapers for ten times the surface area of Manhattan. The question is not if we will need to build into the sky, but how we can do so in a way which is still liveable and sustainable.

Winey pictures the dynamic vertical city: a high rise that comprises everything of a city neighbourhood. In 2014 the firm will need to complete the Shanghai Tower in Shanghai. The second tallest building in the world will have 125 floors and accommodate 35,000 people each day, to live work, shop, eat, enjoy all sorts of cultural facilities and to take walks in the sky gardens. The building is split into nine vertical zones that serve as neighbourhoods like Kent Larson mentions, in which people find everything they need. The building will be sustainable with the use of wind turbines, rain water collection and water recycling, solar panels and geothermic water pumps for heating and cooling, wherever that is required. But perhaps what is most amazing, is that 33% of the building’s floor area will be green areas: indoor parks and gardens where people can take walks and relax.

Green lungs
What makes a city into a city? The vision of Eduardo Paes, Mayor of Rio de Janiero and a contemporary utopist, whosê city, with six million residents, is faced with a massive challenge: “A city is a collection of people”. According to Paes, tomorrow’s city is a city that cares for its residents and gives them the opportunity for social integration. How? Simply by containing the growth of concrete jungles. A city flourishes with open spaces and green zones, believes Paes. Or with blue zones, like Copenhagen created in its sea port. The area was converted into a recreational zone, which has now become a hot spot on sunny days. People go there to walk or to swim in the purified sea water.

In New York there is the High Line, an elevated rail track that has now been converted into a green park zone for pedestrians. Also Paris has a promenade above the city. De Promenade Panteé is a discarded metro line, where you can now walk and cycle, viewing the roofs of the city. In Melbourne you find the laneways and the arcades, a web of streets without cars that stretches out all through the city. In old cities that may be a common thing, for new ones, it’s better to think of this ahead so not another car city like Los Angeles will be created. And by the way, a side effect is that dwelling prices increase quicker in urban pedestrian areas. That is the proof that urban residents feel more comfortable in a neighbourhood with open and green spaces.

It can also been done on a larger scale and more spectacular. The city of Seoul demolished a motorway overpass over the city centre, to uncover the river Cheonggyecheon. That created a strip for a green, six kilometer long walking area. In Singapore, the German architects firm Atelier Dreisitl converted the Bishan park into a dynamic ecosystem. Here too a river, the Kallang, was again uncovered. It gave the population a new 62 hectares green area with wild flowers, animals and insects and at the same time it reduced flood threats to the city. Singapore also invested in another good example of urban landscaping, the horticultural attraction Gradens by the Bay, a unique and futuristic mix of nature and technology. The park features eighteen man-built super trees, covered with solar cells. Two super conservatories accommodate tens of thousands plants from all over the globe. Spectacular and yet green.

But do open spaces and high rise building combine together? Jason Pomeroy, an architect of mega projects, like the Trump Tower in Manilla, also a vertical city, and the park city Valley in Kuala Lumpur, is convinced that green areas and an urban environment go very well together. Pomeroy’s specialties are sky gardens and buildings with very low CO2 emission. He plays with roof gardens as with lego blocks. The aesthetics and ethics of green do really lead to something, says the green wonder boy. Ecosystems as roof gardens insulate buildings and absorb polluted air. Roof gardens also promote social cohesion, it is where people get together and bring a community to life.

The idea of a park as a floor in a sky scraper is in full swing. London’s new landmark, by star architect Renzo Piano’s, houses 15% public green areas. Another example is the conceptual city Earth City, conceived by the Italian eco-design firm J.M. Schivo & Associati. The plan has 40%  of green spaces around residential blocks, with green roofs and facades, electric cars, and thanks to a peak hour technology, a power supply which is 100% green. Today Earth City only exists in plans. But because China is building new cities so rapidly and is also thinking about ecological cities, this plan may become reality sooner than we may expect.

Bee routes and fish containers
And then it is 2050 and 70% of mankind lives in environmentally conscious cities. And that raises the next question: what will we eat tomorrow?  More even than with transport, the CO2 emissions by food production is a threat to the planet. Also there is not much agricultural space available to feed an extra three billion mouths. A solution could be city farming. Grow your own vegetables, get the eggs from your own chicken and eat the honey from bees that live on the roofs of buildings.

City farming is now only appealing to trendy, alternative communities and to early adapters. But there is a real chance that this will become a bigger and permanent trend, in any case more than the odd little vegetable garden here and there. For example, in early June this year, the largest urban roof farm of Europe was opened in Amsterdam. The roof is 3,000 sq m and is on the roof of a large business park. The idea is that the workers of the businesses will each cultivate their own small piece of roof land.

Another option could be urban indoor agriculture. In a city, there are always buildings ready for a second life. For example, should the car move to the background, then derelict car parks could get a new purpose. Not such a bad idea thinking of what options innovative technology has to offer. In Zurich for instance, one Roman Gaus developed the so called Aquaponics, a closed system in which vegetables and fish can be farmed. The theory behind this invention is the use of fish excrements as nutrition for plants grown on the water. Gaus calculated that in this way 90% less water is being used than in a regular vegetable garden or vegetable field. He developed mini-farms, containers in fact, from which a family of three could easily live. At the moment, a test project is run for one hundred persons called, Urban Farmers Box. The containers stand on the top of a residential building.

In line with the vertical city, there is also a movement that promotes vertical agriculture. On you not only find the advantages of indoor agriculture, such as production all year round, biological growing, and more return on less space. You also will see there the designs of vertical farms that wouldn’t look bad besides the skyscraper of the tomorrow.

But until such things become reality, we have to improvise with what we have. Take for example the Eatable City in The Hague by the British artist Nils Norman and the promotional vegetable gardens of the British town Todmorden. There every square inch in town is used for, what is called in the streets, guerrilla farming. The only condition is that the police allow you to grow your corn on your doorstep.

That may sound funny, but the seriousness of the matter is that we may soon run short of food and that one could better learn to grow one’s own beans. Looking from a different angle at the resources available is a first and useful step. And while we are at it, we might as well create a blossom route to get bees once again back into the city. Pesticides threaten bees, but as Einstein said: “The moment the bee disappears from this planet, then men has only four years to go before he follows the bee”. And that would be a waste of all those new buildings.


The author of this article is Cathérine Ongenae. It was first published on 22nd December 2012 In de Morgen Magazine, the weekend supplement of the Belgium newspaper De Morgen. The translation is by IFHP and this translation is published with permission of the original publisher De Morgen.

© De Morgen magazine,