Engineering the Living City

Written by Buro Happold on 4 February 2013

World Cities Network is pleased to feature Engineering the Living City by Buro Happold, featured in their latest publication Y-Magazine.

For the past half century the human race has grown at an alarming rate, along with the urban areas in which many of us now live. It is estimated that over half of the world’s population live in cities, and that figure is predicted to increase to 70% by the second half of this century.

The High Line, New York, USA
The High Line, New York, USA

The UN estimates that there are 40 million new city dwellers in Asia every year, and by 2030 there will be over two billion new urban residents worldwide. While many governments in developing countries grapple with the challenge of accommodating this shift of demographics, some cities in the developed world are facing a different set of problems, such as economic stagnation and a shrinking population. This leaves concurrent issues: many cities are growing too rapidly for the existing infrastructure and services to cope, leaving them struggling to provide essentials such as adequate water, waste treatment, energy and food, while other cities have an infrastructure which is too big for current needs and too costly to maintain. With cities also being responsible for a reported 75% of the world’s carbon footprint, a radical set of solutionsis needed to tackle the social, economic and environmental issues that are becoming increasingly familiar.

One major solution that is finding its way into debates about our urban environments is the ‘smart city’ – a city that is built around new and emerging information and communications technologies, focusing on the opportunities that applied science and technology can provide in relation to management of city systems and advancements in knowledge communication and social infrastructure. Technology giants IBM claim that the smarter systems are already making a huge impact on today’s cities – in 2011, 400 cities globally used smart traffic systems, saving their road users 100,000 hours in delays and saving each municipality $15m. IBM claims  that smarter cities offer ‘tangible outcomes and benefits’ to cities across the globe, saving energy, money and time. It’s clear that integrating ICT systems with city planning is working effectively.

But does smart city thinking really go far enough? Or do  we need to think beyond the technology? Andrew Comer, Infrastructure and Environment Director at Buro Happold, thinks so. “We feel that the term ‘smart cities’ is restrictive in describing an approach that needs to be taken to tackle the huge challenges that need to be addressed at a city level. While we recognise that technology has a significant role to play going forward, we believe that real solutions go beyond pure technology.” Comer argues that while technology will help us to achieve more sustainable outcomes for future communities, issues such as governance, economic resilience and futureproofing of environments – to name a few – all have their part to play in the future city space. “Our work with parties close to city development and regeneration has provided us with the evidence that there are a number of key elements which need to be integrated for a city to develop in a truly ‘smart’ way – optimising the planning, design, construction and operation of infrastructure systems, public space and buildings in a way that meets the current and future needs of its citizens,” Comer explains. “Our team at Buro Happold call this approach to urban development ‘The Living City’ – we aim to work holistically, to embrace not just resource efficiency but promotion of good health, economic stability, a sense of shared community and an ability to adapt to future challenges.”

Tun Razak Exchange, Kuala Lumpur

The Living City model works on the premise that engineers, architects and planners need to incorporate ‘layers of smartness’ into cities, considering every aspect that an urban environment needs to function more effectively with the demands of a growing population, decreasing natural resources and the increasing impact of climate change. Comer believes that consulting engineers, with their ability to harness technology and science and apply them for the benefit of society, need to take a more prominent and pivotal role in the built environment. At the same time, he acknowledges the need for a broader approach to planning and design, ensuring that issues such as governance and growth, economics and funding, security, safety and welfare are also given due consideration. The impact that this approach will have on the development of the built environment is already taking shape – a good example is Buro Happold’s recent work to guide the 20 year strategic framework plan for the future of Detroit which demonstrates the value of the Living City approach. A city that has been in catastrophic decline for the last 50 years due to the loss of industry, Detroit Mayor Dave Bing has spearheaded the project to introduce both short term and long term plans to bring people back to the city. An expert panel working on the project identified 14 separate elements that, when combined, will improve the quality of life for the people living there, while encouraging long term growth and sustainability. Plans to reshape Detroit’s future include the provision of a co-ordinated infrastructure and transport system to provide adequate support for economic growth, a new social housing initiative and plans to create recreational and leisure hubs in the downtown area of the city – and technology will have a key role to play.

So the future of the cities, whether growing, regenerating or down-sizing, is a commitment to broad-based, integrated planning and design, with opportunities offered by technology to enable them to operate more effectively and adapt to future change; and engineers are at the forefront of the process.

Categories: Living, People, Governance, Technology