Cities on course to get bigger and smarter

Bright lights, big city: Booming Shanghai with over 24 million citizens is China’s largest city.

The cities of tomorrow are being built today, as architects hurry to house more and more of the world’s population. The future is urban — but will it be greener or gloomier?

Today, more than half the world’s population live in cities and the number of urban residents is increasing by 60 million each year – that is two every second. By 2050 over 70% of the global population will be urban.

Such daunting statistics have led designers, architects, tech experts, engineers and developers across the world to start imagining, and even begin building, the cities of the future.

Most of these visions focus on ways to make a city cleverer. For, example, there are sensors everywhere in Songdo in South Korea, a city built from scratch using smart technologies. They ensure everything runs smoothly. Escalators only move when someone steps on them and sensors can detect when dustbins are full.

Others want greener, more energy efficient cities. From water to rubbish, everything in the city of Masdar, a city in the middle of the desert of Abu Dhabi, is measured and monitored. It is pedestrian-friendly and entirely car free.

More and more cities will use automated cars in the future, like the ones Google has recently been testing, and cities in general will rely far more on robots and technology to function. Drones will deliver pizzas to our doorsteps and robots will assist us when we shop.

There is also a drive to make cities safer. Crime-fighting street lamps in Glasgow contain sensors which monitor noise and movement and can alert the emergency services to trouble.

Then there are the bigger threats such as flooding and hurricanes, which oblige planners to make buildings and infrastructure more resilient. The fear of terrorist attacks could make our cities more paranoid and filled with surveillance cameras.

Other utopian planners relish the idea of ‘playable cities’, where everyday life becomes a game. Rather than use escalators, pedestrians will instead opt for musical piano steps, for example, and bottle banks will be turned into video games.

Many architects are designing ever more beautiful and breathtaking structures, such as Dubai’s Dynamic Tower, where each floor will be able to rotate independently, or Farmscrapers — vertical green towers teeming with plant life.

Metropolis now

Some take a gloomy view of the future. The very definition of a city will soon be meaningless, they feel, as tens of millions of urban inhabitants cram into vast, sprawling shanty towns. Some predict worse. ‘All this assumes that environmental catastrophe doesn’t drive us into caves,’ one critic laments.

But others are filled with hope. Greener and cleaner, safer and grander, cities will be beacons of progress and modernity. Our rapidly improving technology and data control will make all our cities more sustainable, comfortable and safe.

You Decide

  1. Will the cities of the future be pleasant places in which to live?
  2. What are the biggest challenges facing modern cities?


  1. Pretend it is 2050. Write a diary extract with lots of imaginative detail, whether pleasant or unpleasant, about the life of the city in which you now live.
  2. Design your own city of the future and present your plans to the class. What are the key elements for a successful city? Your classmates will act as its potential future citizens and ask questions to challenge your vision.

Some People Say...

“Cities are the greatest creations of humanity.’Daniel Libeskind”

What do you think?

Q & A

Why should I care about this?
Shakespeare once posed the question, ‘What is a city but the people?’ The vast majority of us will be living in cities in the near future, so we should all be aware of the challenges facing cities, and what sort of environment we want to live in.
Anything else?
The future of cities is also big business, filled with exciting opportunities for creative and technical minds. The UK, for example, is keen to become a world leader in smart-city technology. The government ran a competition last year and the winner, Glasgow, was given £24m to spend on smart technologies. There are hopes that the city, which has many social problems, including the lowest life-expectancy in the UK, may be transformed by the initiative.

Word Watch

Urban residents
People migrate to cities for many reasons, including entertainment, excitement and employment opportunities.
Replicas of architectural landmarks, including New York City’s Central Park and Venice’s canals are being incorporated into this brand new city, which is expected to be completed by 2016. A wasteland ten years ago, it now has 67,000 inhabitants.
Automated cars
These driverless cars will be safer, so much so that rising insurance premiums may make it prohibitively expensive for most people to drive themselves. Google is also planning a fleet of ‘robo taxis’ that pick up passengers on demand.
Hurricane Sandy ripped through New York two years ago causing damage worth $20 billion. By the 2050s when ocean levels are higher and New York’s population larger, experts suggest a similar storm could cost $100 billion.
Dubai’s dynamic tower
The rotating floors mean the tower will constantly be changing its shape. However, although it was expected to be completed in 2010, work has barely started on it.

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