INCREDIBLE Urban Designs for the Future
By Liam Jamieson
This week’s UN report on our warming planet made it clearer than ever: Our world is getting hotter. What’s equally obvious is that our cities will be forced to play a major role in the fight to curb global warming.
While I (maybe naively) envision a future for my hometown, Los Angeles, that is efficient, sustainable and equitable, today’s Daily Dose dives into cities that are already models for the future of urban design when it comes to energy use, equal access to green space and public safety. Read on for a glimpse of what tomorrow’s urban utopias may look like.
hong kong: reimagining energy use
Keeping Cool as the Globe Heats Up
Air conditioning may not be so cool after all. Energy-intensive AC is used extensively in heat-trapping glass skyscrapers. In Hong Kong, air conditioning in the 118-floor ICC skyscraper accounts for a whopping 70% of the building’s total energy. Ouch. As urbanization increases and available land on which to expand diminishes, cities are being forced to build up and not out, emphasizing a future reliant on towering structures. With global temperatures rising, demand for cooler air will also increase, and experts anticipate global AC energy consumption will triple by 2050.
Home to over 1,500 skyscrapers — the most of any city — plus around 8,000 high-rises, Hong Kong’s 42,000 total buildings use up to 90% of the city’s electricity and emit 60% of its greenhouse gases. But in line with the city’s goal to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, innovators are seeking solutions to reduce energy usage. One approach: turning skyscrapers into smart buildings with high-tech, centralized building management systems. The 48-story One Taikoo Place, one of the city’s highest-ranked green buildings, is paving the way for energy-efficient skyscrapers with several approaches: an artificial intelligence-powered system called Neuron that predicts the building’s AC and heating needs; the installation of energy-efficient AC fans called EC plug fans; and a heating/cooling system that runs on biodiesel generated from used cooking oil gathered from the building’s restaurants.
A Greener Future
One Taikoo Place is reaping the rewards of its green innovations. Completed in 2018, its energy use is now nearly 30% lower than a standard Hong Kong office high-rise. Neuron’s AC system saves almost $400,000 on electricity annually and the EC plug fans are reducing energy use by up to 30%. With the undeniable long-term benefits of investing in sustainable energy, buildings like One Taikoo Place are setting a precedent for a growing global trend of intelligent buildings.
washington, d.c.: equality through parks
Green spaces are a crucial part of urban life. They keep cities cooler, improve air quality, encourage recreation and provide solace from the bustling streets — all of which are essential for physical and mental health. But green spaces aren’t available to everyone, especially those who live in densely populated buildings with no yards. In cities around the world, access to parks and green spaces is largely unequal; residents of wealthier neighborhoods have many more opportunities to experience the benefits of parks than those who live in poorer areas. “We need to value access to parks and green spaces as critical to the health and well-being of everyone equally,” Dartmouth College professor and sustainability architect Karolina Kawiaka tells OZY.
Bridging a Divided City
A lack of access to green space is even a problem in America’s capital. Washington, D.C.’s historically Black Anacostia neighborhood has been cut off from much of the rest of the city by the pollution-spewing Interstate 295 freeway that slashes through the community. But change is underway, thanks to a project enacted by local leaders. The 11th Street Bridge Park, a redesign of the underserved area, is an elevated 7-acre green space that will boast a rain garden, boat rentals and an environmental education center. Set to open in 2023, the bridge park will connect communities on both sides of the river, fostering equitable access to green space and economic growth.
Fancy new parks have been built alongside disadvantaged communities before, but they tend to usher in higher housing prices and new development — aka green gentrification — at the expense of the very communities that they were intended to serve. So how are local leaders ensuring this won’t happen in Anacostia? To put it simply: community involvement. Discourse between park planners and local groups has allowed residents to voice their needs, leading to more than $60 million being invested in equitable strategies for the community. These strategies include helping families purchase homes, providing construction training to local workers, administering loans to local businesses and supplying pandemic relief funds. The lesson: Community involvement is crucial to providing equitable access to green space.
oslo: a safe haven
The Rise of the Car City
Following the invention of the automobile, cities quickly adapted to car-centric urban planning with multilane roads, complex highway networks and large parking lots. But this shift in urban design has come at a cost: the safety of those who prefer embracing the tradition of traveling on foot or by bike. The U.S. has faced “mind-boggling” rates of traffic-related deaths in cities like Los Angeles, the country’s deadliest city for those on foot, and New York City, which saw a 58% surge in pedestrian deaths in the first four months of 2021 compared to the same period in 2020. But this global problem disproportionately affects the poor, from bustling Bangkok to small towns in Romania. Can urban planning turn the tides to focus on humans over cars?
A Nordic Solution
Norway’s capital, Oslo, may have found the solution to this deadly problem. In 2002, Norway adopted Vision Zero, a project initially launched in Sweden in the ’90s that deems it unethical to accept death as an externality of roadway traffic and aims to eliminate fatalities and reduce the number of cars on the road. Further, Oslo implemented extensive road safety initiatives beginning in 2015 to “pedestrianize” the city. These efforts included reducing street parking to encourage residents to use public transit, installing speed bumps and redesigning intersections to slow cars, adding more bike lanes and walkways that are separate from roadways and creating car-free streets in city centers and around primary schools. “It’s not rocket science, but it does take political will to make changes that will keep people safe while still providing plenty of mobility,” founder and director of U.S.-based Vision Zero Network Leah Shahum tells OZY.
Before safety measures were introduced in Oslo, which has about the same population as Portland, Oregon, annual traffic fatalities were common, with 116 serious injuries and five deaths in 2015. But since the changes, the city has seen impressive results. In 2019, Oslo recorded zero pedestrian and cyclist deaths and only one traffic fatality. Though the urban updates faced opposition — some feared that reducing the number of cars on the road would stifle local trade — the car-free streets have actually stimulated the city center’s economy, and having fewer vehicles on the roads has led to a reduction in carbon emissions. As the pandemic has shed light on city dwellers’ love of car-free urban spaces, can Oslo’s simple and effective innovations serve as a model for car-crazed countries like the U.S. to bring back more human-centric urban designs? “U.S. communities have been designed and operated for too long in a way that prioritizes speed over safety,” says Shahum. “We can and must turn that around if we’re serious about safety.”
mexico’s city of the future
As the global population grows, more people are flocking to cities. To accommodate the influx of residents, urban spaces must morph and adapt through massive infrastructure projects and renovations. But what if we created new cities from scratch? With another 2.5 billion people expected to join the global urban population in the coming three decades, creating cities from the ground up won’t just be cheaper and simpler than retrofitting existing ones — it’ll be a necessity. It’s already happening in places like Saudi Arabia and Sri Lanka, where developers have wasted no time drafting blueprints and breaking ground on empty swaths of land for master planned cities: ready-made, high-tech bustling metropolises with thriving economies.
An Environmental El Dorado?
But how do you ensure that a future city doesn’t become just another energy-sucking, carbon-polluting megalopolis? Italian architect Stefano Boeri’s Smart Forest City project may have the answer. Boeri’s city, planned for the resort destination of Cancun, Mexico, aims to accommodate up to 130,000 residents in a 557-hectare, eco-friendly design. Part city, part botanical garden, Smart Forest City will contain 7.5 million plants from 400 species that will absorb 116,000 tons of carbon dioxide annually; be entirely food and energy self-sufficient; and house a high-tech innovation campus dedicated to addressing climate change and improving sustainability.
- Liam Jamieson, OZY Author Contact Liam Jamieson