The City of the Future: Putting “People” at the center of our cities

Our world today faces no shortage of pressing, intractable challenges. From globalization and crumbling infrastructure to massive population shifts, our cities are at the forefront of a revolution.

Our world today faces no shortage of pressing, intractable challenges. From globalization and crumbling infrastructure to massive population shifts, our cities are at the forefront of a revolution. Right across the world, city leaders, architects, planners, politicians and businesses of all shapes and sizes are trying to make sense of the city of the future. But whatever we choose to build, wherever we choose to build it, at the forefront of our thinking must always be one simple thing – the human being.

Two decades ago, Kowloon Walled City was demolished. What began as a Chinese military fort in the mid-1800s saw its population soar after the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong in World War II. At the height of its existence, nearly 40,000 residents squeezed into just 350 buildings, each 12 to 14 stories high, packed into a city block in New Kowloon, Hong Kong—the densest place on earth.

Mir Lui, a postman assigned to work in Kowloon Walled City in 1976, got to know it intimately. He became one of a select few capable of navigating the city’s tangled layout. His mail route was more of an obstacle course, taking him across rooftops and up dark, twisting stairwells.

Mir Lui’s story is one of thousands that capture the complex reality of Kowloon Walled City. A hotbed for criminal activity, it was also home to families and small business owners living peaceful, routine lives.

So what makes Kowloon Walled City so fascinating? It was a city unplanned, unregulated—created largely by its own residents. Architect Aaron Tan, the director of Hong Kong-based firm Research Architecture Design, wrote of the place: “we started to see the people could be more intelligent than us, the designers.”

Certainly, architects and designers have an endless supply of tools at their disposal. It’s now easier to densify our cities and make them ‘smarter’. Technological advances have shown us new and exciting ways to make our trains faster and our buildings taller. It is tempting to get caught up in the race to innovate, but for all the brain power poured into such issues as mass transit, big data, technology or safety, one constant remains: the human being.

The increasing demand for space and food adds urgency to the need for a human-scaled, holistic approach to planning and urban design. Add to this the existing and potential impacts of climate change, and the emphasis on the human element is heightened. How can putting humans first impact the decisions we make and the environments, infrastructure and systems we create for the city of the future?

To start, we know that resiliency is enhanced when humans are socially invested. A high level of social investment will be key to addressing possibly the greatest challenge of our time: climate change. The impacts are broad—air pollution, sea level rise, drought and deforestation—and the response must be tailored to local context.

While these issues are rightfully placed at the forefront of any discussion on resiliency, it is important to remember that resiliency takes many forms. The goal of planning and urban design should be to pinpoint comprehensive solutions for not only environmental, but social and economic stressors that impact a community and threaten its liveability. We know that putting humans first in the planning and design of today’s cities brings measurable benefits in the form of resiliency, economic vitality and heightened quality of life. An honest analysis of what really works uncovers several lessons for today’s planning and urban designers to internalize.

Lesson 1: Respect context and climate
With over half of the world’s population living within 60 kilometers of the sea and more and more development popping up along coastlines, nothing is more vital to long-term value and resiliency than planning for the impacts of climate change and sea level rise. As cities around the world—like Sydney, Australia and New York City, for example—consider the future of their waterfronts, the potential to turn these locations into innovation hubs for environmental resiliency is huge. These incubators of urban revolution can play host to a micro-scale approach with global implications.

Lesson 2: Considering Land Use and Mixed-Use
The evolution from mono-use to mixed-use development has unfolded as people increasingly desire a more compact lifestyle: the convenience of living, working and shopping in close proximity. Success is hugely dependent on creating a variety of experiences that accommodate live, work and play functions. In practice, this amounts to combining convenient amenities with a hospitable workplace and a vibrant retail, entertainment and cultural district in a manner that maximizes value.

Lesson 3: Providing Access to Quality Transit
Addressing the unique needs of a project requires designers to understand the urban context, balance market and development goals and take into account multidimensional traffic and transit solutions, including metro, taxis, buses, cars and bicycles.

Lesson 4: Providing High Quality Education
“It takes a village to raise a child.” This old adage may have resonated more with small, rural communities, but creating a tight-knit relationship between educational institutions and the city at large can be immensely advantageous. Investment in education equates to an investment in the future economy. Schools integrated into the community and physically sharing space can benefit from valuable partnerships with companies and organizations who can provide vocational training or volunteer opportunities and, in turn, benefit from fresh ideas and a new pool of talent.

Lesson 5: Providing State-of-the-Art Community and Cultural Facilities
This strategy is directly related to economic vitality and resiliency. Through both human capital and physical density, community and cultural facilities as part of the urban fabric help to multiply the benefits of a mixed-use environment. Not only is the creative industry encouraged, but deliberate connections and partnerships between sectors bolsters the economy, and the city at large attracts an increased amount of talent and number of visitors.

Lesson 6: Diversifying Housing Stock
Government regulations and laws can make it difficult to employ diverse housing stock in a city masterplan. Often, regulations trail behind demographic shifts in the population, creating a disparity between housing needs and available stock. In response, designers are creating new housing types and asking to bend the rules to accommodate demand.

Lesson 7: Providing Public Green Space
Green space is all the more important and desirable in avoiding the “concrete jungle” effect for high-density districts. Other than the obvious environmental benefits, green space can provide a healthy dose of biophilia, leading to greater productivity, higher tenant retention rates, and additional revenue-generating opportunities.

Lesson 8: Investing in the Public Realm
Atmosphere: that elusive quality of a space capable of transcending design and, instead, is shaped by the people and activities that inhabit it. Investing in the public realm is essential to creating memorable places where people wish to return time and time again. It is here that the core identity of the city of the future is shaped—where goodwill and social investment is fostered, and community ties are strengthened. It is here that placemaking becomes essential.

Each of these lessons challenges us to merge our fundamental understanding of the human being and his or her needs with the high-performance, high-density developments of our time. They recall the philosophy of Charles and Ray Eames’s groundbreaking film Powers of Ten, in which the system of exponential powers is used to visualize the importance of scale, from the infinite expanse of our universe to a tiny atom. In designing the city of the future, we must employ the Powers of Ten to simultaneously think big and think small, and, as the Eameses intended, recognize that “eventually everything connects—people, ideas, objects. The quality of the connections is the key to quality, per se.”

Greg Yager

City Executive Shanghai Ask me a question
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