What will the city of the future look like?

by | Jul 1, 2016 | Society | 3 comments

When you hear the words future city the first thing that springs to mind might be a landscape of flying vehicles, glossy skyscrapers and neon textures.

City of the Future

Maybe something like this?

Undoubtedly influenced by the minds of directors like Ridley Scott (Blade Runner), James Cameron (Terminator), Alex Proyas (i-Robot) and George Lucas (Star Wars Franchise), an image arises mostly inspired by their aesthetic or plot-driven considerations, when in fact what will determine how cities of the future look is their functionality.

Join us as we take a look at the myriad of ideas about how the future city will look, from buildings made of sand to solar panelled roads, ecological city gardens to huge dome structures. The emphasis is on the visual, so logistics, connectivity and socio-political developments will not be looked at (…yet…watch this space).

Urban Planning

One aspect that sci-fi films touch on accurately regarding future architecture and urban planning is the need for vertical growth as opposed to horizontal. This means building up instead of sideways. Aside from developing economies where the rural-to-urban switch is in its nascent or developing stage and it might be necessary, urban sprawl is generally deemed a bad thing.

One of the most talked about entrants to the Now + When: Australian Urbanism exhibition of 2010 was John Wardle Architect’s Multiplicity. It envisages a future where new streets and boroughs are built on top of each other, rather than developed alongside. It can be viewed in this video.


Tokyo, which regularly appears on lists of the most futuristic-looking cities, will have a mile-high skyscraper built in its bay area, partly as part of a construction of islands to protect against earthquakes. It will contain a mix of residential facilities and amenities.

However, when it comes to future architecture, talking about skyscraper plans and abstract concept exhibition entrants is a little conservative. Entire cities are being planned and plotted.

One example is Masdar City, a planned city in the UAE. With hugely reduced energy and water needs, a driverless personal transit system and a walkable and pedestrian-orientated layout, it is aiming to be the blueprint for future urban planning.

Masdar City in the UAE

An even more experimental and downright audacious idea is HavvAda Island, near Istanbul. It does away with a horizontal landscape altogether; starting from scratch and envisaging a series of huge domes with residences lining the structure and public amenities inside.

The plan of the designers is to have the structure of the island and the urban constructions intertwined, seamlessly merging into one gigantic geo-urban behemoth.

The dome design is clever in more ways than one. Firstly, it mimics a natural volcanic island. Secondly, it makes up for the waste of air space resulting from the evolution of cities up until now. Because to all intents and purposes, the space in between skyscrapers is useless. Very often you can’t build there, planes cannot fly through it and the landscape is ruined from a naturist’s point of view anyway. I’ve illustrated this with the following simple drawing.

Green Dome City

The green area represents both the dome structure, but also what is aesthetically and functionally difficult to use in the current urban set up without building more skyscrapers. With the domed urban design, the area could be used in a myriad of ways, as you will no longer be limited to building upwards, but could go down or sideways as well; non-structural usage like weather mimicking, entertainment, or other endeavours are also aided by its enclosure.

Another example of a future city concept proposed is the Shan Sui City design, developed by Beijing-based MAD architects. In this video the head architect walks you through the design.

The project is essentially a marriage of nature and people, paying attention to the urban landscape and treating it as an environment: the design has greenery and waterfalls permeating it. It aims to stop the isolation of buildings from nature, and create an atmosphere that emanates from the designs themselves.

An EcoCity Concept

An EcoCity Concept

It has much in common with HavvAda Island in this sense: a response to the lightning speed urbanisation that has been seen in the developed world and is underway in the developing world. A process that has taken place without much, if any, consideration of the ramifications of taking humans completely out of their natural habitat and plonking them in a concrete jungle (more on this later).

Skyscrapers are like penguins

However, assuming that we stick to regular bottom-up, horizontal construction, skyscrapers will not emerge in the way depicted in sci-fi art, such as the picture in the beginning of the article. What they tend to do is cluster. For obvious logistical reasons and to minimise the effect I demonstrated with the diagram, skyscrapers tend to be built alongside each other.

Whether it’s the City of London, Dubai’s business towers dotting its E11 road, the bay side business district in Singapore, the midtown and downtown areas in New York, or the cluster of skyscrapers that is Hong Kong, tall buildings buddy up.

Skyscraper Clustering in Dubai

Skyscraper Clustering in Dubai

Skyscrapers might not be everyone’s cup of tea, aesthetically speaking. However, their productivity benefits and morale-boosting effect are documented by papers reported on by the Economist and the LSE. Benefits include increased face-to-face meetings for workers, easier accessibility to amenities for breaks, wonderful views while working and the prestige of working in a landmark.

Hong Kong

Hong Kong

So unless we find ourselves living in a HavvAda-style island dome any time soon, building skyscrapers could continue to be the modus operandi for meeting the needs of economic output and urban settling. And with the cluster effect, it is likely we will see plenty more Hong Kong’s in the future. More on this later.

Concrete Jungle or Marrow Metropolis? Alternative materials for future cities

The very materials used for future construction are also now a topic of discussion. Steel and concrete are the standard at the moment, but this could change.

Recent research has suggested that bone marrow and egg shells could be a more eco-friendly alternative. Sounds absurd at first, perhaps, but these materials are made up of a combination of minerals and protein that provide a strength and resistance to fracture that is nearly on par with steel and concrete, if used with the right consistency and adequate structural integrity.

Others speak of advanced fibre composite materials, 3D-printed bio materials, and even sand playing a bigger role in the future. Another idea is a completely ecologically sound, self-building city, where it grows only using the waste it produces, mimicking the material cycles found in nature. This would be done through a process of urban mining (recycling) and producing building materials from the fruits of that labour. City Metric compiled a list of 9 building materials made entirely from waste products.

Glass Building in Tianjin, China

Glass Building in Tianjin, China

Putting the idea of building skyscrapers out of bone and sand aside for a second, there are some obvious ways that building material patterns could change. Increased taxes on emissions in the future should see a general switch from materials with high carbon emissions in their production (steel, concrete and timber) to those with lower emissions (glass, aluminium and plastics). This would see a shift from the dark, monotonous grey of the modern industrial city, to a slicker, lighter grey and white theme we see reflected in sci-fi projections of the future (again, the directors prove they thought these things through).

The ecological city, and reconciling this with the skyscraper frenzy

So while I mentioned the trajectory we are heading towards with skyscrapers dominating the skyline for the time being, there is a move away from this by some architects, towards plans with sustainability at the forefront of them.

The Hanging Gardens of One Central Park

The Hanging Gardens of One Central Park

You’ve already seen how a city could work more like a natural environment with the Shan Shui idea. One could achieve the green effects aimed for by MAD by constructing buildings that capture smog and carbon emissions, the design of which will lead to some fantastically intricate building facades, which can be seen here. Another way would be hanging gardens like the ones that are part of One Central Park (pictured above): 23 gardens and 85,000 plants decorate the building.

Not to mention solar panels. Already they are taking an increasingly prominent place in urban development, with the latest wonder being the solar panelled roads in the Netherlands; while Norway is aiming to construct roads that produce more power than they consume, so called Power Roads.

Concept art of Ecopolis

Concept art of Ecopolis

Ecopolis, pictured above, is one of the most comprehensive ideas put forward for a sustainable city design, details of which can be read here (warning, it’s long). It is part of a wider move in urban planning away from merely ‘sustainable’ (not causing further damage) to ‘regenerative’ (actively reversing the effects of climate change wrought thus far).

Humanity will need to make a choice in this regard. Pursue a program as we currently have done for the last 60 years of economic growth with the objective of increasing material wealth, and we will see the skyscraper clusters become the staple city image. London alone has 119 tall buildings (above 150m) in the pipeline, and the UAE has seen most of the world’s new skyscrapers built over the last 20 years.

E11 Road, Dubai

E11 Road, Dubai

Or conversely, programs of sustainable or regenerative growth such as the ones we’ve looked at (Ecopolis, Shan Shui, HavvAda) could be pursued, with cities increasingly blurring the lines between things nature and things urban.

Analysing the eco-city plans, one notices the idea of making those skyscrapers we do construct take on an increasingly natural look, like a tree or hill, rather than the rigid columned monoliths we’re used to. An effort to make the citizen feel like they are in a natural environment, perhaps to combat those ramifications of displacement I mentioned earlier.

And even when architects haven’t necessarily subscribed to the eco-friendly framework of design, there is a visible departure from the concrete block of the post-WWII building frenzy, which will continue and evolve in the future.

City of Arts and Sciences Valencia

City of Arts and Sciences, Valencia 1: museums and cultural centres have some of the most innovative and futuristic architecture you can see today.

I know, intriguing, right? Here is a list of 35 of the most stunning works!

In any case, skyscrapers and ecological approaches to urban planning are not mutually exclusive. To what extent this fact will play out in future is uncertain. What is certain is that those born today will see a change in the city at least on the scale of the last 70 years, if not, even greater.

Toronto: the near future?

Toronto: the near future?