The future of the cities

Connected, efficient, and smart: That is how urban planners envisage the city of the future. How are they seeking to set our—cities on the right track? We take a journey into tomorrow’s world

By Stefan Schmortte

Kuala Lumpur

Moving up: Life is heading skywards—like here in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur. In the background, you can see the twin skyscrapers of the Petronas Towers, which at a height of 1,483 feet were the world’s tallest buildings from 1998 to 2004.

It’s a property offer that’s set to make a splash. A fully glassed 180-square-meter apartment in the best location with unobstructed views over Tokyo and the snow-covered Fujiyama 200 kilometers away. This is an apartment of superlatives, one of a kind in the world. But whoever lives here needs to like heights—this dream home is a long way up! The penthouse in the Sky Mile Tower will be 5,250 feet above ground, soaring above the ocean waves. At its feet, aperfect infrastructure of shopping malls, restaurants, and beaches for leisure.

This new high-flyer has been given an all-round ecological design—a high-rise building that is green to its core. Instead of pumping water up to the top floors, the building’s facade will harvest the surrounding clouds and store treated rainwater at different levels in the tower. Of course, all this doesn’t come cheap. And it certainly won’t be if the design proposed by American architectural firms Kohn Pedersen Fox and Leslie E. Robertson actually becomes a reality: A new skyscraper in Tokyo Bay that will be twice as high as the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. At a height of 2,723 feet, the building in Dubai is currently the world’s tallest building, but it will be dwarfed by the proposed new Sky Mile Tower.

At the beginning of a new stage

We still don’t know whether this filigree colossus of steel and concrete will ever be built, but the plan is more than just a pipe dream. As part of its Next Tokyo 2045 initiative, the Japanese government has called on architects worldwide to come up with ideas for developing the city. The Sky Mile Tower is one of these proposals. The Japanese megacity on the shores of the Pacific is struggling with the same problems as other cities around the world: housing shortages, congested streets, smog, noise, and a mass influx of people.

Next Tokyo could be called Next ­Everywhere—an urban planning challenge for the rapidly growing cities of India, Africa, and South America, but also for Western Europe, where cities like Paris, London, and Munich have long been bursting at the seams. “We’re on the brink of a new stage of urbanization,” says Christian Rauch, Director of the Future Institute’s Frankfurt office. “Contrary to the previous expectations of many demographers, the rural exodus is continuing unabated, even in industrialized nations. Cities are our future habitat.”

And what a habitat. It will be huge—bigger than ever before. Especially in China, which is currently building the world’s most enormous city. Jing-jin-ji is the name of the project, which will have the 22-million-strong region of Beijing as its downtown and be framed by the port city of Tianjin in the south and Hebei province in the north. An area twice the size of Bavaria is now set to merge into a modern metropolis—with room for 130 million inhabitants.

We are on the cusp of a new era. For thousands of years, the majority of people lived in rural areas, but now more than half of the world’s population lives in cities. It represents the greatest movement of people ever seen—and it is by no means over. According to United Nations forecasts, almost 70 percent of the world’s population will live in urban areas by 2050—a total of 6.5 billion people.

“In future, houses will have to function like power plants, so they will have to generate more energy than they consume.”

Philip Leistner, Professor at the University of Stuttgart

But how will cities cope with this onslaught in terms of infrastructure, logistics, and the environment? Will the new satellite settlements provide the hoped-for relief for the existing centers? Or is the infrastructure in danger of collapsing at some point? And most importantly, will these enormous new cities be worth living in? Will they be attractive for residents or, in a best-case scenario, even more attractive places to live than today’s cities?

“We definitely have the creative potential to do this. At our events, exhibitors from Germany and abroad present a huge range of potential solutions for making our cities better places to live in,” says Reinhard Pfeiffer, Deputy CEO of the Management Board at Messe München. He is responsible for BAU, the world’s leading trade fair for architecture, materials, and systems. This show brings together international experts in the industry and, with the majority takeover of Fenestration Bau China two years ago, it now has a solid presence in China, the world’s number one construction market.

Gondola La Paz

Above it all: The gondolas transport 3,000 passengers per hour. They reduce the travel time from La Paz to neighboring El Alto from one hour to ten minutes.

Not every city in China is a good example of modern urban planning and development, as billions of square feet have been developed in a very short time. But it is more important to move on from the architectural blunders of the past and focus on designing the livable cities of tomorrow. “We have to completely rethink the city system,” says Philip Leistner, a professor at the University of Stuttgart and head of the Fraunhofer Institute of Building Physics. “For example, in future, buildings will have to function like power plants, so they will have to generate more energy than they consume. This may not be possible for every single building, but it can certainly work for a building complex.”

Like a “what-you-want”-concert of urbanisation

“Morgenstadt” is the name of an initiative launched by the Fraunhofer Society in which institutes from various disciplines have joined forces to work with partners from industry and city authorities to come up with concrete proposals for the livable city of tomorrow. Some of it reads like an urbanization wish list: Electric cars roll silently through the streets and multifunctional facades filter noise and pollutants out of the air. Radishes grow on the roofs, and in the cellars, there’s a powerful battery to provide electricity for the following day.

But before we get to this point, of which scientists are only too well aware, there are one or two other problems to solve in Germany and around the world. A study conducted by Allianz predicts that the Munich region alone will need another 160,000 homes by 2030.

“In terms of living and transportation, the -carbon footprint of a city dweller is just half that of someone who lives in a rural area.”

Thomas Auer, Professor at the Technical University of Munich

The figure is similar in the Rhine-Main region. And in Berlin, experts believe the housing shortage will be even more acute. Other studies produce slightly different figures, but their message is the same: There’s not enough space—nowhere near enough.

“Finding an answer to this problem requires a certain amount of redensification,” says Thomas Auer, Professor and Chair of Building Technology and Climate-Responsive Design at the Technical University of Munich (TUM). “We need to make our cities much more polycentric. We don’t need new dormitory towns, but real, thriving subcenters.”

Redensification is the keyword when it comes to resolving the current housing shortage. “People still have a much too negative perception of it because they think of the architectural blunders of the 1960s,” says Auer. “But it is vibrancy, the mixture of living, working, shopping, and entertainment, that makes a city worth living in. Redensification also makes more sense from an environmental point of view than having people drive their cars into the city from their dormitory towns every morning. In terms of living and transportation, the carbon footprint of a city dweller is just half that of someone who lives in a rural area.”

Copenhagen

A quiet life: Half of Copenhagen’s residents commute to work by bike on 250 miles of bike paths, some of which are as wide as rural roads.

A host of positive examples proves that redensification doesn’t have to have a negative impact. One of Hanover’s flagship projects is called Wohnkrone, a complex designed by architects Cityförster. Twelve modern penthouse apartments have been built on top of a parking garage from the 1960s—with generous green spaces and roof terraces. It is right in the heart of the city yet as quiet as living in a village. “If we were to use all the previously unused areas of our cities more effectively, a kind of ‘urban area 2.0,’ so to speak, the housing shortage could be drastically reduced,” says Nils Nolting, Managing Partner at Cityförster in Hanover.

There are plenty of dormant reserves, such as on top of low-rise supermarkets. Some retail chains have already responded to this and, in addition to bread and butter, they are now offering a product that is rather unusual for their industry: apartments. Aldi Nord is planning to build around 2,000 new apartments in Berlin. The supermarket will be on the ground floor with its neighbors’ living rooms and bedrooms above. Competitor Lidl has just moved into nearly 14,000 square feet of retail space in Hamburg’s Holstenstrasse. The building is also a hotel, with 300 rooms on five floors above the discounter’s store.

56 Leonard Street in New York

The roof of the new world: 56 Leonard Street is the name of the iconic new skyscraper in New York that was completed by Herzog & de Meuron in 2016. It soars 820 feet into the air.

Such hybrid uses of real estate have long been commonplace in extremely densely populated centers like Tokyo. In a city with just under 38,850 inhabitants per square mile (by comparison, Munich has just under 12,100), architects in Japan’s capital have no other choice. They use “tiny houses” to exploit the smallest of gaps between buildings to create maximum space for residents on a minimum of floor space.

It’s much easier for countries that can still execute a large-scale master plan and where vast residential areas can be created out of nothing—like in the SimCity computer game. “Of course, it’s easier to build a city from scratch because it doesn’t have a fixed structure,” says Anil Menon, Global President for Smart Connected Communities at US technology group Cisco. He believes smart connections could reduce the energy consumption of a city with such connections by 30 to 40 percent. That’s a substantial amount, so it also provides suitable leverage for achieving climate goals, as the world’s cities cover only two percent of the earth’s surface but are responsible for 80 percent of all greenhouse gases. Menon: “When you start from scratch, you can get it right from the get-go.” And give your imagination free rein, like Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. He calls his planned city “Neom,” derived from the Greek neo for “new” and the Arabic word mustaqbal, meaning “future”. His futuristic city (with an investment volume of US$500 billion by 2030) is to be built in the northwest of Saudi Arabia on an area of around 10,200 square miles. There will be no supermarkets, as all groceries will be delivered to the residents’ homes. Neom will also be pretty smart in other ways. It will be a center of artificial intelligence that generates 100 percent of its energy from the wind and the sun and where most services and industrial processes are automated.

“It’s better to have a mishmash of young and old in the neighborhood than be tidied away in a retirement home.”

Thomas Jocher, Professor at the University of Stuttgart

The project was spearheaded by a German, Klaus Kleinfeld, the former head of Siemens and the US aluminum group Alcoa. He recently submitted his detailed, 1,000-page plan for constructing Neom to the Crown Prince. The construction phase is now due to begin, though Kleinfeld is no longer the project’s director. He will serve as a board member and act as personal advisor to the Saudi royal family, who will be monitoring the construction's progress.

Precise details of Kleinfeld’s plan remain unknown, but it is likely to contain many elements that have been realized elsewhere. An example is Songdo in South Korea, about 30 miles from the seat of government in Seoul. Planned by US general contractors Gale International with the involvement of technology partner Cisco, this prototype of a smart city came to life in 2005.

Today, Songdo is home to some 100,000 people and its population is expected to grow to 600,000. Doors open using fingerprint recognition and parents can keep an eye on their children in the playground via a monitor in their home. There are cameras and sensors everywhere to ensure resources are being used efficiently. Where is electricity needed at the moment, and how much? Where is the traffic running smoothly? And where should the lights be switched to green to keep the traffic moving?

Control as for Formula 1 car

All this data comes together in the city’s control center, a kind of command bridge that Captain James T. Kirk would have been proud to have in his starship. It allows the city to glide through space and time as perfectly as Star Trek’s Enterprise. The city doesn’t even need any garbage collectors, because waste is all removed directly from people’s homes using a pneumatic waste disposal system.

“Ten or 15 years ago, you only needed a good driver and a good car to win a Formula One race,” says Carlo Ratti, an Italian architect and engineer who is currently teaching at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA. “Today, a victory also requires a telemetric system that measures thousands of parameters via sensors on the car and wirelessly transmits them to the computers that evaluate them.” Ratti says it’s exactly the same with our cities. “We have to drive them a little like a Formula One car.”

It’s a bold vision, but most places in the world don’t yet function as smartly as the experts at the MIT Senseable City Lab envisage. Nearly three-quarters of Germany’s building stock was built prior to 1979 – before the first thermal insulation law was passed. These old buildings account for 95 percent of energy consumption in buildings. And that’s why this problem must first be solved, before, in the second step, the question about how to make cities smarter is raised and can be discussed.

Harbin in the northwest of the country is a new cultural center with a lavish opera house

Art and culture: Chinese bureaucrats are setting priorities for certain cities. Harbin in the northwest of the country is a new cultural center with a lavish opera house.

“Load management” is a way of smoothing out energy demand on the consumer side and could be one way of moving a little closer to this goal. “At the moment, we shut down our wind turbines if they are generating too much power. But why shouldn’t we use these surpluses to heat pumps within a smart grid so that we can manage our buildings more effectively?” asks TUM Professor Thomas Auer.

He has studied this issue as part of a research project and explains: “To put it simply, we find that we have enormous potential to actually achieve our climate goals by connecting our building stock to the power grid and using our buildings as thermal storage facilities.”

This is just one example of how the trend could be reversed. Scientists have also spent many years considering what is probably the most serious problem of inner-city life: traffic congestion. In Los Angeles, drivers currently spend an average of 102 hours a year in traffic jams. A study by US company Inrix reveals that this compares to 91 hours in Moscow and 51 hours in Munich, Germany’s most congested city. It’s time for a rethink, as has already happened in some cities:

  • In Copenhagen, over the past ten years, the city council has invested 150 million euros in bike paths to make the city quieter and cleaner. Today, half of city’s residents cycle to work using almost 250 miles of bike paths, some as wide as rural roads. The Danish model is popular with urban planners, who are urging other cities to “Copenhagenize,” meaning “Be like Copenhagen. Get on your bike.”
  • Madrid is already busy Copenhagenizing. On Gran Via, the six-lane boulevard that runs through the center, there will be only one lane for cars in each direction, with the second and third lanes reserved for buses, taxis, and bicycles. It’s hoped that this will go at least some way to dissipating what the locals call the boina, the unpleasant “beret” of smog that hangs over the city.
  • In Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, an app has recently been launched to conveniently bring together buses, city bikes, and car-sharing services. Trafi is a service that provides users with all the information they need about what transport opportunities are available in their immediate vicinity via their phone. Tap once and you’ve paid for your bus ticket. Tap again and you’ve unlocked the car that’s parked just a few steps from the bus stop.

Fernando Guerra FG+SG

A smart solution: In the Huangshan Mountain Village, architects attempted to integrate state-of-the-art residential complexes seamlessly into the natural landscape.

You no longer need your own car to travel around Vilnius. Now, the car-sharing services, city bike rental companies, and public transportation providers simply have to share their data. Povilas Poderskis, head of the city council, sees no problem with this. On the contrary: “The large amount of data provided by such apps helps us with traffic planning,” he says. The Trafi map shows him which of his buses are currently in a jam or which bus stop might be better relocated.

In Vilnius, big data is showing how to adapt transport to the needs of its citizens, which opens up more space for the city itself. Fewer cars and less traffic mean all the more space for new residential buildings or parks on the land that becomes vacant.

But why only parks? Why not vegetable gardens? Why should city dwellers get their food only from the surrounding countryside? Couldn’t they grow their own tomatoes and potatoes and avoid the CO2 emissions churned out by the convoys of trucks that roll into the city every day?

In Berlin, Christian Echternacht and Nicolas Leschke are pursuing such a concept with their start-up ECF (Eco Friendly Farming). They are combining fish farming with vegetable growing—a method known as aquaponics. Perch and basil grow in close proximity because the plants can be fertilized with the nutrient-rich water produced by fish farming. “It’s a smart circulation system that reduces water consumption by up to 90 percent compared to traditional farming methods,” says Leschke.

The experts call it “urban farming” and refer to “zero-carbon food.” It’s an idea that goes back to US scientist Dickson Despommier, who conjured up the vision of a city that feeds itself with high-rise greenhouses in his 2010 book The Vertical Farm. But in practice, it’s not that simple. In Berlin alone, adequately feeding its residents would require an area the size of the whole city. So urban farming is somewhat unrealistic as a sole supply channel, but it is very interesting as a kind of symbiotic partial solution.

Symbiosis in biology refers to the coexistence of organisms of different species—to the advantage and benefit of all those involved. And this is exactly what urban living space is all about. “Forward-looking urban planners have to come up with concepts that make it possible to practically integrate totally different areas of our lives,” says futurologist Christian Rauch. “Living and working, consumption, children, leisure, and, of course, caring for the elderly.”

The aging society is a megatopic

Older people are a key element of our future societies, not only in Germany, but also in countries like China that have aging populations. Today, one in four Germans are over the age of 60. In 30 years, this generation will make up 38 percent of the population, a fact that poses new challenges for urban planning and housing construction.

“We’re still building the wrong kinds of homes. The old model of two children, three rooms, and four wheels has had its day,” says Professor of Architecture Thomas Jocher, Director of the Institute for Housing and Design at the University of Stuttgart. “In future, we will need new buildings that are ready. With a kind of airbag for getting older. For example, doors wide enough for a wheelchair.”

This approach is also symbiotic. “Ready to go” or “ready for slow go.” In the city of the future, greater accessibility will not only benefit the elderly, but also parents who have to carry their kids’ strollers up to the top floor of the building.

It’s not yet clear how the architects plan to have young and old living together under one roof at the Sky Mile Tower in Tokyo. But they have thought about one way of making life there more convenient: the elevator. Their plans state it will be made by ThyssenKrupp Elevator using technology that makes it possible for several cabins to travel back and forth in one shaft, not just vertically but horizontally. And, most importantly, it will be much faster than previous elevator systems.

This may not be the answer to the biggest problem in today’s cities, but it does solve a serious one. According to Andreas Schierenbeck, CEO of ThyssenKrupp Elevator, “All the office workers in New York City alone spend 16.6 years waiting for an elevator. And they spend another 5.9 years in the cabin.”

In the city of the future, perhaps this annoyance will soon be a thing of the past.