If we are to address some of the major crises of our time: climate change, the ageing population, economic disruption, then we need more of us to be living in cities, not fewer.
This may sound counter-intuitive but you are likely to have a much lower carbon footprint living in Central London than you would living in the middle of the countryside.
Why? For a start, your home is likely to be newer and better insulated – not least because there are likely to be other homes above and below it. The infrastructure and the tarmac around you stores heat, keeping temperatures in cities 1-3° warmer than the countryside, further reducing your investment in heating.
Cities are also the cheapest place to serve citizens with utilities. The closer together people are, the more cost effective it is to provide water, waste services, electricity and connectivity. This is why many rural parts of the country still run on oil deliveries and septic tanks and have crap broadband.
Future city logistics
When you travel in a city, the amenities are much closer by and you have a much greater chance of being able to travel by public transport. Getting to work, the shops, the pub, or a museum, you will expend a lot less energy.
There has been much talk about how self-driving and electric cars might reshape our cities, removing the need for parking, for example — at least in prime areas. They can drop off their passengers and then drive themselves to an out of town garage, or return home, or continue to serve other passengers across the city until they need charging.
But there is also a very reasonable challenge that asks whether we should let cars shape our cities again. After all, the last time we allowed a single form of personal transport to shape our cities, it wasn’t all positive. Self-driving, electric cars propose to reduce congestion and pollution, but we already have other ways to do those things.
A city shaped by cycling, walking and mass transit is potentially very different to one shaped by smart cars. Even the smartest of cars will present barriers to pedestrians, breaking down streets into two sides. Mass transit implies hubs around which services and people congregate.
Housing for the future
I once had the pleasure of interviewing some of the leading lights in the property sector, both residential and commercial. Some of the results went into a report for Hyperoptic on the future of residential broadband.
The CEO of a large developer told me that one of the biggest challenges when building something new is knowing what the user’s needs will be in five, ten, or twenty years. How can you construct something today that will have longevity when technology, culture, and working practices are changing so fast?
The future of planning
The answer comes in three parts: design, engineering, and information. Each is influenced by a principle for better strategy that is being adopted across business and I think has a strong role to play in government as well. This principle is simply that adaptation trumps optimisation as a predictor of sustainable success:
- Developers may be able to employ foresight tools to inform their decisions and enhance their arguments for particular developments.
- We have to consider when we are thinking about the future of planning that the future building may itself be much more adaptable than those in the past.
- What feeds foresight processes is good data, and there is a huge opportunity in the future for developers and local authorities to better inform their decisions with good data.
So, what will cities be like in the future? The design process is informed by rich data that combines geospatial, demographic, economic, and emotional data that assembles a business case and a design brief in a semi-automated fashion. The design itself is created with flexibility in mind, aware of imminent trends but also adaptable to those beyond the range of reasonable foresight.