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Straining at the seams

Harry Rich

Rising urban populations are prompting questions of resilience. Designing cities for the challenges ahead needs to start right now

Singapore’s skyline has changed out of all recognition. Predicting now what will be transformative is impossible.
Singapore’s skyline has changed out of all recognition. Predicting now what will be transformative is impossible.

This year will be crucial to the development trajectory of cities. In 1800, less than 2% of the global population lived in cities. Today that figure is one in two people and by 2050 it’s likely to reach over 70%. Such mass urbanisation requires a rethink about how we plan and design. If we want the urban spaces of the future to be sustainable and healthy places to live in, the city of 2025 will need to look radically different. 

In September, the United Nations is expected to agree a new set of Sustainable Development Goals which will define new international development objectives. One area expected to be included is an objective to make cities more sustainable. In December, the Paris summit will attempt to finalise a new climate change agreement. Although the impact of the two global agreements will be crucial in ensuring future prosperity for cities, the national, regional and local governments should seek to develop smart city solutions to ensure they can be future-proofed effectively. 

Climate change poses a new and worrying challenge. Already 50% of cities are dealing with its effects, and nearly all are at risk. Over 90% of all urban areas are coastal, putting most cities on earth at risk of flooding from rising sea levels and powerful storms. 

Rapid urbanisation is straining economic, environmental and social fabrics. Challenges caused by population growth – such as  traffic congestion, pollution and social tensions, as well as diseases such as cancer, obesity and depression – present a growing challenge to policy makers.

There are no one size fits all or quick solutions to complex interests and failings accumulated over centuries of development. Local governments will therefore be crucial in creating ambitious and proactive area-specific policies and programmes that integrate climate change, public health and ageing population priorities into planning and development to achieve a long-term approach. 

Our cities are also home to a sizeable and increasing older population. By 2050 there will be two billion people aged over 60 worldwide, a 250% increase on today’s figures, many of whom will live in cities. Japan is already facing this change, with extra pressure on public services and appropriate housing. With more than 30% of its people aged over 60 – far higher than any other country – architects and planners there have taken a major role in adapting urban environments to support healthy ageing of populations. 

Rapid urbanisation is straining economic, environmental and social fabrics

This combination of environmental pressures, different economic patterns and demographic change means that the cities of the future will need to be designed to operate differently. These challenges also present huge opportunities. With the right focus and resources, cities can become more sustainable: urban planning, design, technological and governance models could all facilitate this.

Planning gains

The planning of cities has already been transformed and can go much further with the right resources in place. Pen and paper has long been supplanted by a wide range of electronic data devices, geographic information systems, satellite mapping and visualisation software. These offer urban planners and designers a deeper insight into human behaviour as well as a greater understanding of the physical attributes of sites, to inform design and delivery. As the technology grows more sophisticated, these new approaches can combine to create place-based design approaches that, for example, address the health and environmental impacts of cities by integrating routes which will encourage residents to walk and cycle as well improving public transport, making denser development more appealing to residents.

New approaches are also enabling architects and planners to better understand how cities affect their environments. Increasing the use of natural features helps to reduce flooding by improving sustainable drainage, and prevents cities from overheating. Incorporating green infrastructure also helps to support mental wellbeing, yielding savings in future health budgets.

Technology can help plan growth in a more integrated way – addressing societal, environmental and design issues. Interesting examples can be seen in cities such as Rio de Janeiro, which is pioneering new digital transport and governance systems through an operation centre that connects 30 agencies, from transport to the emergency services. It daily helps officials collaborate on running public services more smoothly and efficiently. In the event of crisis, such as a collapsing building, the operation centre helps roll out a co-ordinated response. 

Proposed way forward

The planners and architects of tomorrow will have a range of tools that their predecessors never dreamed of. Predicting which of these developments will be truly transformative is impossible and will vary significantly from city to city. But exploring the potential implications and applications of a range of technologies will highlight the possibilities ahead of us – leaving us both prepared and in a position to better control the fate of cities.

People-watching in the night market in the Djemaa el-Fna, Marrakech. Deeper insight into sites  and human behaviour is increasingly possible from data.
People-watching in the night market in the Djemaa el-Fna, Marrakech. Deeper insight into sites and human behaviour is increasingly possible from data.

Modelling and testing various approaches will be important to reach the optimal design or policy intervention. This will require not only new technologies, but also a willingness among local and central governments to adopt longer-term development approaches, and to increase public participation in design and planning. City leaders, planners and designers will need to incorporate continuous feedback loops that provide information about social, economic and environmental changes into their thinking to maintain public and political support.

In construction, this will necessitate a shift to a circular economy that is restorative, both naturally (for example, one that replenishes fresh drinking water) and technically (eg, building materials can be reused without polluting the environment). Buildings would also have to be built to anticipate future change, rather than existing conditions. History has taught us that the cities which fail to react to the changing world face decline. With the tools at their disposal today, cities have never been better equipped to rise to the challenge. Their success in 2025 and beyond will be determined by how well they do so. •

Harry Rich is chief executive of the RIBA
Designing City Resilience 2015, 16-17 June, 66 Portland Place, London.



By Graham Saunders

Disaster prevention and response must be part and parcel of planning, designing and building cities.

Anyone working in the humanitarian sector knows that natural or man made disasters are not isolated events restricted to the developing world – they are caused by a number of different social, economic and physical factors.

The built environment is an extremely important consideration for disaster prevention and response. However, in most countries, the two are disconnected, which means opportunities to build resilience are missed and, in the long term, money wasted.

In its broadest sense (anything from city plans to communications networks), design is often perceived by humanitarian professionals as not immediately relevant to disaster relief. Indeed, it is clear that the built environment, as the human-made space in which people live, work, and play, is not fully understood by this sector.

In fact, design is crucial to creating resilience, and disaster prevention and response should be part and parcel of the normal design and construction process. National and local governments, architects, engineers, planners and humanitarian workers must be involved in the planning and development of cities.

Only by being brought together will these people be able to understand each other’s roles in creating resilience and explore how they can collaborate to deliver robust solutions.

Everyone has a role to play: Humanitarians need to understand long term development and planning goals and the built environment sector needs to understand the imperatives for disaster relief when designing for resilience.

Graham Saunders is head of shelter and settlements, International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies


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