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3 big ways sustainable design will shape future cities

When it comes to the evolution of urban areas, think up and think fewer cars.

There’s always been something fantastical about imagining the cities of the future. As a society, we’ve curiously studied utopias and dystopias, drawing similarities between our own world and theirs. We watch science-fiction films that conceptualize flying cars, teleportation machines and floating green parks. Some of us even fantasize about cities above the clouds.

While dialogue about futuristic cities once was reserved for fiction and imagination, the global trend toward urbanization is poised to make some aspects of these visions become reality in our lifetimes.

By 2050, 70 percent of the world’s population will live in urban areas, so our cities need to adapt to sustain this population influx. While digital transformation and the Internet of Things (IoT) certainly will define the cities of the future, so will radical infrastructure and architecture.

Here are three big ways design will change our urban areas.

1. Cars will disappear

Urban space is valuable. And cars take up too much of it. Between roads, bridges, parking spaces and physical vehicles, most downtown areas actually give away 50-60 percent of space to cars — a trend that, frankly, makes for uglier cities. Congestion also highly contributes to greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to 5.5 million deaths a year.

A few, more progressive cities already have started to sketch out their battle plans against cars. Almost two decades ago, Ghent banned cars from 86.5 acres of the city center and plans to broaden the car-free area by 37 more acres starting last month. A full 72 percent of citizens support the plan.

Barcelona, too, is making strides to significantly reduce cars. The Spanish city plans to use its superblocks — closed off, tiny neighborhoods that cars can drive around, but not enter — to relieve 60 percent of streets from cars and reduce traffic by 21 percent. But while Barcelona is getting a lot of press for its use of superblocks, they’re actually not new. Catalan engineer Ildefons Cerdá came up with the historical urban system for Barcelona in the 19th century, a model structure before the city became overrun by cars two centuries later.

Perhaps even more visionary, there are also proposals to create car-free cities from the bottom up.

The "Great City" (PDF) planned for the outskirts of Chengdu, China, for example, is expected to house 80,000 residents. The environmentally sensitive satellite city is the master plan of Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture. It’s just 1.3 square kilometers, meaning everything is only a 15-minute walk from downtown. So while cars technically are allowed, most residents simply won’t need them.

2. Higher density

While residing in the countryside may seem green, it actually increases a person’s carbon footprint. It’s the argument David Owen makes in "Green Metropolis," where the New Yorker writer makes a serious case for high-density cities.

Owen argues that those living in rural areas are likely to drive long distances to work and heat larger houses, while city-dwellers live in smaller spaces, use less electricity and, most important, walk or use public transport. Consider that a trip on New York City Transit produces one-tenth of the carbon dioxide emitted from the average car journey, and you’ll see the point: High-density construction is the key to sustainable cities of the future.

Cities will be designed and built on smaller areas of land, making it easier for us to walk to shops, schools and restaurants. The land that we do use will work harder, so the areas under bridges and on rooftops will make for creative use of space.

But cities won’t be complete concrete jungles, either. Within China’s Great City, 15 percent of the land will be put aside for green space, for example. We may even get to see some floating parks. A $130 million park is already getting built over the Hudson River in New York City, and it’s expected to be completed by 2019.

3. Buildings will get taller

Draftsman and architect Hugh Ferriss’s 1929 book "The Metropolis of Tomorrow" offers an eerily accurate depiction of what cities could look like in the future, even though it was written almost a century ago. The book features 49 drawings of rooftop parks, wide roads and, most impressively, towering buildings. Ferriss narrates from a bird’s eye view of the city, imagining how the mist would disperse from the metropolis to uncover wide towers.

What he envisioned closely resembles the buildings of today. In the coming years, however, our cities literally will reach new heights.

While super tall buildings are perceived as novelty now, they’ll be required building for high-density cities. And as it seems, so will super skinny buildings. A few new residential projects in New York City, for example, are some of the skinniest skyscrapers in the world.

One building, 432 Park, was designed by Rafael Vinoly and tops out at 1,396 ft. On day with lots of fog, one can’t see the building’s tip. Another New York building 303–305 E. 44th Street, designed by Eran Chen at ODA Architecture, is just 47 feet wide and 600 feet tall. One more, 111 W. 57th Street, is 1,428 ft tall. Designed by SHoP Architects, it has a slim ratio of 1:24.

According to the Council on Tall Building and Urban Habitats (CTBUH), we’re actually entering a "megatall" era, as buildings taller than 1,969 feet are set to double by 2020. While only three megatall structures exist at present, in Dubai, Mecca and Shanghai, three more will be completed in the coming years in Wuhan, Kuala Lumpur and Jeddah. In fact, the Jeddah Tower will be the tallest in the world, standing at an incredible .62 mile tall.

While it’s easy to argue vertical cities will be the silver bullet to our population influx woes, there is a limit.

Cities are breeding grounds for innovation and close exchange. So while we focus on building high, we also need to think about the street life below.

In an era when flying cars actually are starting to be developed in joint effort by Uber and NASA to take back our street space from vehicles, much of our urban development also will be focused on ground-level, pedestrian-zone urban interactions.

All in all, we want to make sure these high-tech cities are actually places we want to live, not isolating cells in the sky.

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