Cities of the Future: What Does Sustainability Look Like for Our Urban Centres?

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Over half of the world’s population lives in cities, according to the UN, which also projects that the figure will rise to 68% by 2050. And the way we use our cities is also changing rapidly, spurred on by our increasing digital connectivity, as well as concern for the future if we can’t effectively reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.

Cities continue to attract people looking for jobs and the benefits of a thriving and diverse urban lifestyle. But bringing so many people together in a small space has its downsides, as the pandemic so vividly highlighted.

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Housing shortages, overcrowding, pollution, and lack of infrastructure add to human health issues and strangle social mobility. At the same time, cities are major contributors to global greenhouse gas emissions, producing over 75% of the world’s emissions, according to estimates from the UN’s Environment Programme.

However, not all cities are created equal. Research published in Frontiers in Sustainable Cities calculates that over 50% of those greenhouse gas emissions come from just 25 urban centres. Other cities are already embracing innovations in housing, transport, and waste management to create a healthier, fairer, and more environmentally-friendly future for their citizens.

In a recent blog post, we looked at the new (and old) materials that are helping to create energy-efficient and eco-friendly buildings. We’re widening the lens now to consider our cities and discuss some of the projects already underway to secure a more sustainable future for our urban centres.

What Does a Sustainable City Look Like?

With the climate crisis becoming an ever more urgent issue, sustainability is often thought to be indistinguishable from the environment. And there is no denying that environmental concerns will play a vital role in shaping the cities of the future.

From reducing emissions and managing waste, to increasing biodiversity and prioritising green space, a sustainable city must consider every detail of how it operates to achieve its goals.

Concept by 1971yes

Cities may be made of individual people and buildings, but no single part can operate independently from the whole. Indeed, cities are reliant on a much wider regional, national, or even international network of supply chains and infrastructure to support themselves.

As a result, cities need to plan on a large scale that spans beyond their own borders. Urban development plans and legislation must work within a regional or national framework. But there’s still scope within this wider plan for smaller-scale, community-led projects that empower people to work for change.

Local government, businesses, and individuals all have a role to play in making the environment a priority for their city.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Individuals might look at the energy efficiency of their own homes, plant urban gardens, and bike, walk, or take public transport instead of owning a car. Communities can come together to grow food, implement a sharing economy, and take responsibility for the care of their local green spaces.

Businesses can look at their own infrastructure and ways of working to reduce energy consumption and waste. They can upgrade their offices to be more energy-efficient, implement environmental policies, and support their employees with bike-to-work schemes and hybrid working.

Local governments make all this possible by ensuring the city’s infrastructure, waste management, and public buildings are managed with the environment in mind.

An urban plan that prioritises walking and cycling, a reliable and affordable public transport network, and incentives to leave the car at home can go a long way to improving a city’s environmental footprint.

At the same time, waste, water, and energy management are a vital part of making cities sustainable. Plastic waste is a particular concern – with limited recycling opportunities, new approaches are needed to protect our oceans and prevent further environmental damage.

Air pollution is another problem that local governments must tackle, promoting clean energy sources and low emission zones to protect both the environment and human health. Our current cities rely heavily on fossil fuels – transitioning to alternative forms of energy will reduce their carbon footprint and make the air cleaner and safer too.

And biodiversity is another essential aspect of creating eco-friendly urban environments. Cities can be thriving ecosystems in their own right when planners make space for well-managed and connected green spaces.

Favela in Sao Paulo
Credit: Bruno Thethe on Unsplash

People as well as Planet

Fighting climate change and making our cities carbon-neutral is understandably a priority for many of us. But the sustainable cities of the future also need to consider the needs of their human inhabitants.

Cities are economic powerhouses, creating jobs and contributing around 60% of the world’s GDP, according to the UN. But many people live in urban poverty. The International Institute for Environment and Development estimates that around a billion people live in informal settlements – sometimes known as shantytowns.

Even in rich countries like the UK, the wealth gap in cities is huge. In London, for example, the Trust for London say that 42.5% of the wealth is held by just 10% of the population. Meanwhile, the bottom 30% have just 1% of London’s wealth.

With insecure housing, overcrowding, and lack of access to healthy food, many of our cities are failing their citizens. A sustainable city is one that works to close the wealth gap, prioritises people’s health, and creates plenty of affordable, safe housing.

Of course, the pandemic has also highlighted the importance of space and resilience in our cities. While those in rural areas can mainly self-isolate if they need to, those in cities struggle to keep a safe distance. Stay-at-home orders only work if everyone has a safe and secure home they can retreat to – ideally with access to outdoor space for their physical and mental health.

Pressures on space mean that giving each individual household a garden is unlikely to be viable in most cities. But the sustainable cities of the future must embrace opportunities to create communal green spaces, including those where people can increase their resilience and access to healthy food by growing their own.

How Can We Create Sustainable Cities?

A sustainable city is one that works for both the environment and its citizens. Architects, engineers, and urban planners have often imagined the cities of the future and these green and equitable cities aren’t simply a future dream. Innovations are already taking place that could spell a brighter future for our urban centres.


Cities Leading the Way

In Europe, Gothenburg in Sweden and Copenhagen in Denmark usually top the list of the most sustainable cities for their focus on renewable energy. Copenhagen aims to be the world’s first carbon-neutral city by 2025 and has already reduced carbon dioxide emissions by 54% from 2005.

The city takes a holistic approach to creating a sustainable future, which includes encouraging buy-in from its citizens. There’s a huge focus on transport, with five times as many bicycles in the city as cars, according to the city’s 2017 report.

Waste management is also a vital part of Copenhagen’s strategy. As well as Copenhill, the large waste-to-power plant that sits beneath an artificial ski slope, the city has an innovation platform called Circular Copenhagen’ that encourages businesses to develop new green solutions.

Meanwhile, over in Asia, Singapore has plenty to boast about when it comes to innovative solutions to creating a sustainable future for the city.

Making the island city a thriving and biodiverse ecosystem is a major part of Singapore’s Green Plan. The city aims to set aside a further 200 hectares for nature parks by 2030 so that every household is within a ten-minute walk of a park.

Colossal solar-powered “supertrees”, Bay South garden, Singapore
Credit: Photo by Victor on Unsplash 

Singapore’s plan includes planting a million more trees, which it estimates will sequester 78,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide, as well as improving the city’s air quality and increasing its resilience to heat.

Food security is also a major focus. Singapore’s Green Plan includes the goal of meeting 30% of the city’s nutritional requirements from locally grown food by 2030. On a small island, this is a challenging but necessary aim. The city believes technology will play a vital role in increasing its food resilience and plans to create indoor, multistorey farms powered by LEDs to boost production.

Affordable Eco-Friendly Housing

Technology could also provide answers to the housing crisis, which sees cities around the world struggling to build enough affordable and energy-efficient housing to accommodate their citizens.

The first fully 3D printed home was completed in the Dutch city of Eindhoven in 2021. The Guardian reports that such homes could cut costs and reduce the amount of cement needed in construction.

Across the Atlantic, the city of Denver introduced the Green Building Ordinance in 2018. As well as focusing on renewable energy and reducing energy consumption, the Ordinance requires buildings and extensions of over 25,000 square feet to include a certain amount of green space – which can be met through the creation of a green roof, as well as from terraces, balconies, and communal gardens.

Reducing the energy consumption of our buildings helps to create more sustainable cities. And, as fuel prices continue to soar, more energy-efficient homes also lead to lower bills, making them more affordable for inhabitants.

New buildings must usually meet stringent criteria that ensure they use as little energy as possible. Technologies are increasingly available to help people monitor their energy use too. Smart meters, zoning, and remotely controlled heating and lighting can all give inhabitants more control over their energy usage.

Energy-Efficient Office Spaces

These smart technologies have as much of a place in our workplaces as they do in our homes. While office spaces have advantages in sharing resources like light and heat, smart technologies can help to monitor and manage the environment as efficiently as possible.

According to research by YouGov, 8% of UK businesses are already carbon-neutral and a further 46% plan to be by 2050.

Since the pandemic sped up our move to remote and hybrid working, the offices of the future will need to carefully consider how they use space and other resources to make them environmentally friendly and flexible enough to meet the needs of a changing workforce.

The National Trust may more usually be associated with historic stately homes, but their central office in Swindon demonstrates what is possible when businesses put sustainability at the heart of their workspaces.

Designed by architects Feilden Clegg Bradley, Heelis won two awards for its innovative and sustainable approach. The building makes as much use as possible of natural light, with smart ventilation and blinds which automatically adapt to the outdoor conditions to keep the indoor environment comfortable.

Well before the pandemic, modern office spaces like Heelis were designed to meet the needs of a remote and hybrid workforce, with hot desks the norm.

Another example of this is The Crystal, in Newham, London. Conceived by Wilkinson Eyre Architects, operated by Siemens and formerly displaying the world’s largest exhibition on the future of cities, it is one of the most sustainable buildings in the world. It is now set to become the new home for the Mayor of London and assembly members. It would potentially save the authority more than £60m over the next five years.

The Crystal, London
Federico Fermeglia

Planning the New

The growing global population and improved life expectancy presents every country with a dilemma – how to house and feed ever more people while still protecting the planet and reducing reliance on fossil fuels.

In our existing cities, space is already at a premium and affordable housing is hard to find. It is no wonder that governments around the world are planning new cities to help them cope with increasing pressure on resources.

Early attempts to build the eco-friendly new cities of the future have seen mixed results. One of the earliest efforts was Masdar City, a low-carbon city built in the desert of Abu Dhabi.

Construction started in 2008. The city was originally slated for completion in 2016, but that date has been pushed back due to the impact of the financial crisis (and, more recently, the Covid-19 pandemic). The one sector of the city that has been completed is populated, but not by as many people as planned.

Masdar City is a striking commitment to progress towards a more sustainable future, especially coming from a country best-known for its dependence on oil. It will run on renewable energy and embrace architectural innovations that will reduce the need for air conditioning in the desert heat. Buildings will have sensors in place of taps or light switches, cutting down energy and water usage.

However, the city has already rocked back on some of its original commitments. Masdar City was planned as a zero-carbon city, but now only aims for low-carbon. It was supposed to be car-free too, relying on an innovative Personal Rapid Transit system to transport its citizens. After piloting the system, this plan was scrapped and there are plenty of cars on Masdar City’s current roads.

Many have also raised questions about the sustainability of building a totally new city in the desert, where resources are scarce.

Still, the project is an attempt to show how cities might become more sustainable in the future. Other countries have their own new cities in development too. There’s Liuzhou Forest City in China, for example, which will prioritise biodiversity and tackle air pollution by covering the buildings with plants and trees.

A similar project is underway in Malaysia, where the Forest City being built on four artificial islands will combine cutting-edge technology with vertical planting to create a city that is both smart and green.

Meanwhile, Indonesia plans to move its capital to a new eco-friendly city being constructed on the island of Borneo, in an effort to combat congestion and pollution in the current capital, Jakarta. However, there’s concern over the environmental impact of the construction of this new city on the area’s precious rainforests.

Upgrading the Old

It is not just the energy used in heating and powering buildings that contribute to their carbon footprint. Any new building requires resources. Transport, materials, and construction all use energy and add to the embodied carbon in a building.

Our older building stock isn’t as energy efficient as the new buildings that make up more recent developments. However, demolishing existing buildings to replace them with eco-friendly new builds ignores the issue of embodied carbon.

Photo by Bill Mead on Unsplash

Instead, existing buildings can be sensitively upgraded to increase energy efficiency and reduce emissions. Introducing insulation and replacing heating and electrical systems can go a long way in improving the performance of older buildings.

As extreme weather conditions become more common, existing buildings and cities also need to be able to cope with increased rainfall and flood risk. Improved stormwater systems, wider gutters for streets and buildings, and more green spaces can help to offset the impact of a changing climate.

Hotter summers have already caused several emergencies in recent years, so our cities also need to introduce measures to manage high temperatures. In San Diego, for example, Cool Zones provide places for people to gather to escape the heat. These community hubs reduce energy usage by allowing people to share air conditioning.

Greener Transport

We’ve already seen how Copenhagen’s transition to a sustainable city has involved becoming a haven for cyclists. Initiatives like these, which prioritise greener transport options, are now in place in many cities around the world.

London’s Congestion Charge Zone is still one of the largest in the world. Introduced to reduce the number of cars in the centre of the city and encourage alternative methods of transport, it has now been joined by the Ultra-Low Emissions Zone, which charges vehicles that don’t meet the emissions standards £12.50 for every day they are within the zone.

Londoners are also familiar with the capital’s bike-sharing scheme – officially named Santander Cycles but more commonly known as Boris-Bikes. Initiatives like this are found in cities around the world – according to research by the Bike Sharing Blog, there are over 10 million bikes in sharing schemes across the globe.

Photo by Humphrey Muleba on Unsplash

Of course, technology has a role to play here too. To keep cities both mobile and accessible, public transport systems are vital. The increasing viability of electric vehicles means cities can do more to make public transport sustainable.

There’s even hope that electric buses may be able to charge wirelessly as they drive, increasing their viability. A pilot scheme in South Korea in 2013 showed disappointing results. But technology has moved on since then and a new trial has recently started in Daejeon, the Korea Herald reports.

Tackling Air Pollution

Dirty air is a major problem in most of the world’s cities. Fumes from vehicles and industry are harmful to both human health and the environment.

Singapore’s approach of introducing more trees is one way cities can improve air quality. Reducing road traffic and encouraging more eco-friendly forms of travel also helps to reduce fumes.

Meanwhile, new technologies provide exciting solutions to tackle air pollution. An innovative project from Professor Daan Roosegaarde and his team has created the SMOG-FREE TOWER – a structure that uses ionisation to clean the air in public spaces. The team has also developed a SMOG-FREE BICYCLE that filters polluted air and gives clean air to the cyclist as they peddle.

Whitford’s Commitment to Sustainability

As a plastic-free skincare brand based in London, we know our responsibility as a business to contribute to the sustainable future of the city we call home. Our studio is housed in an FSC-certified timber-frame unit that is powered by 100% certified renewable electricity. We also have a green roof to catch rainwater and reduce energy loss.

You can find out more about our commitment to sustainability on Our Values page.

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Sources and Further Reading

United Nations, 68% of the world population projected to live in urban areas by 2050, says UN

UN Environment Programme, Cities and climate change

Wei, T., Wu, J., & Chen, S. (2021). Keeping Track of Greenhouse Gas Emission Reduction Progress and Targets in 167 Cities Worldwide. Frontiers in Sustainable Cities, 64.

The International Institute for Environment and Development, Introduction to urban poverty

The Trust for London, The distribution of wealth

City of Copenhagen: Urban Development, The CPH 2025 Climate Plan

City of Copenhagen, Copenhagen: City of Cyclists. Facts and Figures 2017

Singapore Government Agency, Green Plan

Singapore Food Agency, Grow Local

The Guardian, Dutch couple become Europe’s first inhabitants of a 3D-printed house

Denver, Complying with the Green Buildings Ordinance

YouGov, How many businesses have plans to meet carbon-neutral targets?

Feilden Clegg Bradley, National Trust Headquarters

Transport for London, Congestion Charge

Transport for London, Ultra Low Emission Zone

The Bike-Sharing Blog, The Meddin Bike-sharing World Map – Mid-2021 Report

The Korea Herald, Bus of the future could charge itself while moving

Studio Roosegaarde, SMOG-FREE TOWER

Centre for Public Impact, Masdar City in Abu Dhabi

Stefano Boeri Architetti, Liuzhou Forest City

Forest City, About Forest City

Bloomberg, Indonesia Sets 2024 Deadline to Move Its New Capital to Borneo

San Diego County, Cool Zones

The Crystal

Our World in Date – Life Expectancy

Global Destination Sustainability Movement

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