Metacities, Cities of the Future

The majority of the world’s population today lives in cities, some 54% of close to 7.3 billion people inhabiting this bluish ball traveling through space. UN’s projections show that urban areas will host additional 2.5 billion by 2050, reaching mind-boggling 6 billion. It inevitably raises questions: where will all those people live, and in what conditions? Those inclined to pessimism will be prone to characterize such situation as apocalyptic. But, the future might be ‘green’ as well.

Modern urban planning encounters new challenges every day. Cities are now home to half of the population on the planet, consuming 60 percent of water and two-thirds of total energy produced, emitting 70 percent of harmful gases into the atmosphere. Urbanization, climate and demographic changes are forcing cities to make their infrastructure more efficient. What are the potential solutions which could make life in cities of the future tolerable, even pleasant? To begin with, everything needs to become ‘green’.

With the help of innovative technologies, cities can raise the quality of life of its residents, reduce operating costs and environmental pollution – all at the same time. There are many good examples around the globe of how this problem should be tackled, but these seven basic parts of the jigsaw puzzle need to be fitted as precisely as possible in one holistic approach to city design: traffic network, economically sustainable buildings, energetic efficiency, water management, public safety, health care and finances.

Buildings are trademarks of every city. In the future they will need to become ‘smart’. Chinese pavilion that was built for the exhibition “EXPO 2010” in Shanghai is a perfect example of a “green building”. Compared to conventional buildings, it saves 25 percent of energy and 50 percent of operating costs. This is a good place to start, but in the future buildings should also be equipped with some advanced interactive control systems, use materials which can repair and clean themselves, and regulate their own environment. 3D printed buildings and floating cities are the promising concepts of future construction works.

Optimal traffic flow is achieved by connecting the personal and public transport in a holistic concept. The German town of Halle is a good example of how this can be carried out. Traffic participants are continuously fed with fresh information about traffic flow, including data from parking lots, as well as, times of departure and arrival of public transportation vehicles. But the future of urban transportation probably lies in the concept of driverless vehicles, equipped with GPS and cruise controls. Such vehicles will be able to safely operate in close proximity to each other, thus, occupying less space, and creating less traffic congestion.

In an era when a shortage of drinking water is stressed daily, it proves crucial that systems of drinking, technical and waste water should be integrated. Water management systems such as NEWater used in Singapore or MEMCOR in Southern California offer sustainable solutions for the future water treatment.

So far everybody is aware that fossil fuels have limited lifetime, and that the future generation will have to rely on alternative, hopefully renewable sources of energy such as: hydrogen, bio-fuels, solar, wind and geothermal energy. Some concepts, such as the one proposed by NASA, look like they have been taken from Sci-Fi movies. Their airborne turbines should harvesters wind energy at high altitudes and transfer the power to the ground level using nano-cables. Power transmission networks are as much important, and they will need to be modernized, automated and computerized.

South Korean city Songdo is one of the best examples in which direction design of future cities should go. This hi-tech business center, designed around large green spaces, operates on a network of sensors planted throughout the city which monitor all important aspects of the urban environment. It has a meticulously timed transportation system, and waste disposal network with a central processing plant which tuns the waste into compost. Buildings are designed in a way to save as much energy and water as possible, with built in Cisco’s Telepresence units in homes and schools.

So, all in all, we don’t need to worry, cities such as Songdo promise brighter future for urban population.