The future of sustainable cities depends on us right now

8 Agustus 2019

In his novel New York 2140 Kim Stanley draws a sad yet scientifically plausible picture of the world to come. As climate change has caused sea levels to rise, the Big Apple has come to resemble a giant version of Venice.

The people who have remained there live at the top stories of skyscrapers and are reduced to checking their buildings constantly for leaks. They cruise through city canals during their daily commutes.

Mere fantasy? Hardly. Hundreds of other coastal towns and cities around the world which might not even make it onto maps of the next century. Meanwhile, higher land like mountainous regions might see an influx of newcomers from all parts of the world.

Challenges brought by climate change will merge with others such as population growth, declining biodiversity and other issues, all piling on top of each other. Still, we can still address all of these issues and also make sustainable cities into a reality. What would they look like if we succeed?


Some great insights come from the winners of the Reinventing Cities competition, featuring amazing examples “carbon neutral and resilient urban regeneration.” Created through innovative collaborations of architects, developers, authorities, and activists, these 16 solutions feature a blossoming diversity of green urban futures.

A Recipe for Future Living project by a group of architects from Oslo showcases elegant green architecture completely based on principles of a circular economy and the maximum reuse of materials. The urban area will feature a mix of residential and commercial spaces while aiming to achieve a 90% reduction in emissions compared to regular buildings.

It will also ensured that 50% of spaces will be dedicated to the public with lost of gardens, beehives, orangeries and other hotspots of biodiversity. These envisioned urban places will include a hub for sustainable startups focusing on climate change, while its founders will also work on promoting ecological living habits among the residents.

Just as inspiring is the Living Landscape project coming from Reykjavík, Iceland. Its mixed-use passive building is designed to ensure a positive impact on the environment featuring a highly diverse community of plants in its surroundings, with green spaces occupying 75% of the area. Developed on the site of a previously polluting industrial zone, the building will also serve as an example of an ambitious sustainability transformation and the largest wooden construction in Iceland by far.

In the near future thriving neighborhoods will be linked to larger green urban networks and shaped by AI. The tech will notify residents about all relevant parameters and instabilities in urban ecosystems while ensuring quick adaptability to the changing conditions. And to improve resilience we will teach cities to absorb excess water like sponges, while our buildings will be able to regenerate after light earthquakes thanks to self-healing materials.

Among other features of future sustainable cities will be roads and pavements producing electricity and huge walls of moss cleaning the air more effectively than any amount of other greenery. These cities will also maximize benefits of hybrid renewable energy systems, while some of them might even be energy positive. A case in point is the Oslo Airport City, which is to be built near Norway’s capital. Thanks to more welcoming urban designs, we can also except better accessibility, increased safety and lower rates of airborne diseases.


But back to New York 2140. No matter how much we would like things to turn out well, we should still be prepared for the worst. In New York’s case, workable solutions could involve ideas for floating sustainable cities developed by Bjarke Ingels, which will withstand any amount of sea-level rise.

The future of our cities will ultimately depend on the way we choose to shape our cities today. Their fate will be about how we as citizens live our lives, show respect towards all life on Earth and contribute to solutions that create a better world.

Luckily, the options are many. They include a host of solutions from engaging in urban experiments and asking local authorities to enhance sustainability action to urban gardening and switching to bicycles. Each of those choices matters and together they make a large impact if each of us embraces responsibility for the cities we inhabit.


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