Cities can grow to defy our current perceptions of plausibility. In the future, each spire in a collection of gleaming, vertical towers could harness density through a mixture of use types from working to living to growing food. Not only could each building produce its own renewable energy, but the excess could be pumped back into the city around it to help power the seamless public transit system ranging from lighted bike paths to high speed trains that allowed people to sail from one urban core to the next. Air quality would rise, water use would fall and the cultural affordability would compliment density with diversity. In a word, Oz.
But these will not be the cities of 2030.
Fifteen years from now most of our cities will bear a remarkable resemblance to those we have now. Not all that surprising given how similar most of today’s cities to their likeness at the new millennium. There will be no technological silver bullets waiting for us in fifteen years to redefine humanity’s impact on the biosphere. Much of our current cities will still be there, but that doesn’t mean progress is beyond our reach. Glitzy tech make smooth the way, but meaningful progress will revolve around better ways to use what we already have.
Our cities will still have buildings tracing back to their origins. For many of our cities, 80% of the buildings we will have in 2030 are already here. Our improvements in the use of energy and water will not rest on the shoulders of new tech towers, but the adaptive renovation of some of our oldest building stock. The creativity brought to existing structures will preserve the latent energy within them rather than the resources expended on their replacement. Affordability and innovation will work together to increase the utility of smaller spaces, leading to the question of why we thought we needed so much space in the first place.
Our cities will have still have infrastructure. Though the country will not be revamped into a smart grid powered by only renewable energy or car-free pedestrian thoroughfares, we will know more about these systems than ever with an explosion of data. Each instance of upkeep and improvement will create opportunities for new sources of feedback to yield far beyond what we currently have available. Through these numbers our infrastructure will speak to us in new languages and dialects to tell us its state of repair, how we are using it and how we can make it better.
Our cities will still have density, only more. Our migration into urban areas will continue and within the diversity it inherently encourages there will be more voices with more perspectives and more ideas in closer proximity. Energy use per capita will fall while cultural exposure will rise. While all signs point to our population continuing to grow for the next 15 years, so too will the diameter of our digital highways to move more knowledge faster in between larger numbers of people.
Cities will still be our centers of progress. Our world leaders will still gather in urban cores to discuss sustainable goals where the most ears can listen. We will still be making mistakes, but the mistakes will be known by more us of and move amongst us with greater speed, making the solutions only that much clearer. The last polar bear will die in an urban zoo, unleashing the largest climate marches the planet has seen to date onto urban streets.
When we look back in a decade and a half, our familiar surroundings will remind us of a familiar lesson–one just as clear today with a glance back to the turn of the century: most of what we need to build better cities is already here. The cities we can have in 2030 are the cities we could have had today. With all hope, a future reflection on the past will be able to see us move past the our biggest impediment. In the future we will leave behind our focus of creating ways that allow us to change as little as possible and start embracing the growth within all of the possibilities of change.
This post was submitted as part of Masdar’s 2015 Engage Blogging Contest
[One can find Intercon’s winning entry to the 2014 Engage Blogging Contest here]