Arup’s vision for future cities in light of climate change, urban populations and flooding

A new report by design and engineering consultancy Arup envisages the cities of the future as integrated networks of intelligent green spaces, designed to improve the health and wellbeing of citizens.

Global issues such as climate change, urban population growth, resource scarcity and risk of urban flooding make the natural environment a primary concern in urban development, and one that should be considered from the earliest planning stages. By working with nature and through high quality landscape design, Cities Alive proposes an economic way of addressing the challenges of population growth and climate change in our cities, to deliver significant social and environmental benefits.

The report, ‘Cities Alive’, undertaken by Arup’s Foresight + Research + Innovation and Landscape Architecture teams, has revealed how greener public spaces and urban forests, combined with virtual reality, Global Positioning Systems (GPS) and Geographical Information Science (GIS), will shape future city design.

Green spaces for health and communities
Faced with pressure for space within our cities, existing infrastructure will be mined for opportunities to integrate nature into our environment. Increasingly sophisticated technology will allow roofs, walls, building elevations, balconies and façades to be adapted into green spaces, which in turn will advance the health of residents. Arup’s report also highlights the importance of integrating stronger public transport infrastructure for cycling and walking into city design to create healthier urban populations.

Increasing the number of trees and woodland, combined with higher quality design of our external urban spaces is also highlighted as a key consideration in the future design of our cities to:

  • Provide shade and reduce city temperatures, protecting citizens from UV radiation while reducing the need for air conditioning in buildings through localised cooling and shading
  • Reduce pollutants from the air, helping to save lives and reduce hospital visits and the number of days taken off work
  • Enhance traffic calming measures; tall or closely spaced trees give the perception of making streets feel narrower thus slowing drivers down. Wide, treeless streets give the perception of being free of hazards and encourage faster and more dangerous driving

Tom Armour, Landscape Architecture Group Leader at Arup said:

“Often green space is employed as an after-thought in urban development, either due to costs, a lack of space, or a lack of understanding of the benefits it can deliver, but its impact on the health and wellbeing of citizens and the carbon footprint of the city warrants far more attention. We should be developing cities to promote biodiversity rather than hamper it, as part of a drive for higher quality external design to create better places for urban citizens to live, work and relax, where people can lead healthier and happier lives. As space in cities becomes more precious, planning for green needs to be considered as a fundamental consideration and not as an optional add-on or a nod towards biodiversity. We need to plan our external environment in a multi-layered way, so we can use our city space more effectively by exploiting and adapting existing spaces.”

Virtual public spaces
Innovations in virtual reality such as Google Glass will create the ‘Age of Augmented Reality’. Symbolic of the vital interplay between technology and the natural environment in our future cities, these will merge the physical and digital, perhaps transforming traditional parks and squares into open spaces for concerts or sports events through large-scale projection onto natural or man-made dual-purpose structures.

Greater data sharing in public spaces will also see the rise of smart systems, with lighting, heating and cooling responding to people’s presence, or based on trends in citizen behaviour, instead of being always on. New smart systems will react to the weather – ejecting shades or rain cover, or heating pathways to protect citizens in colder climates. Technologies will also further bid to reduce the carbon footprint of city lighting. With Arup’s report revealing innovations such as sprayable lighting for roads and alleyways and bioluminescence spliced into trees, the future close collaboration between city planners and landscape architects is once again bought to the fore.

Advances in technology using GPS, satellite imagery and GIS, as well as the availability of more public data, will also provide an incredible opportunity for planners and developers to utilise ‘big data’ and model future cities based on citizen behaviour. These advances in technology will provide opportunities to measure, quantify and monitor the value that the urban green can deliver. This approach will allow urban space to be optimally planned and designed in the future for the benefits of urban populations.

GIS will allow the mapping of people’s relationship with their environment, ensuring that cities are used optimally including suitable travel routes and the potential for alternative future applications of city space. This will become increasingly vital as we could see the rise of driverless vehicles and smart transport links which will require integration with other city systems.

Funding challenges:

“The report concludes that while the huge benefits of high quality urban realm and green space within urban environments have been repeatedly proven through global research, funding priorities are often focused in other areas. A longer term view of the benefits of Investing in quality external space and urban green is required as these can bring benefits over generations in comparison with the relatively design lives of many buildings and developments now. At the same time urban green can build in resilience to the effects of climate change to realise significant economic benefits. As an example between 1988 and 1996 in Chattanooga, Tennessee, new parks, greenways and street trees have injected an estimated $500m into the city through encouraging inward investment.”

“There needs to be a much better understanding that good landscape design using nature as a driver can not only deliver significant social and environmental benefits and climate change resilience, but also economic benefits. These are linked to encouraging healthier lifestyles which then create savings on health costs – as an example in Copenhagen, it is estimated that a 10% increase in cycling saves the city £12m per annum in healthcare costs as their population is healthier. It simply proves that if a city is furnished with well-planned, well managed streets, spaces and open areas people will use them, reap the benefits and this has positive economic implications. Alternative models of funding such as crowd-funding, loans for a profitable investment, philanthropy or public-private partnerships need to be considered in order to realise longer term benefits,”

Access the full report here.