A group of Cambridge PhD students working on the future of cities give their views on the opportunities ahead.
In an issue about Futures, it seemed only right to ask young people their views on the challenges and opportunities that London will face in the coming years.
As part of its support of the Future Cities programme at Cambridge University, Capital and Counties Properties PLC (Capco) funds eight PhD students a year to develop their research on topics relating to the future of cities. This year’s crop of students comes from a range of disciplines: engineering, social anthropology, architecture, land economy, and epidemiology. Their specialisations range widely across human-centred architecture, adaptive buildings, the electrification of road transport and autonomous taxi services, overheating, urban farming, the links between infrastructure and inequality, the effects of cities on obesity, and the marginalisation of older people.
The students share an awareness that the world is being reshaped by rapid urbanisation and technology. As cities become more efficient, how can they deploy technology for human ends? We asked them what they see as the biggest challenge, what advice they would offer the Mayor, and which other cities inspire them.
Globally, one in five people will be aged over 60 by 2050 (UN, 2015), with the change most concentrated in urban areas. Older people face numerous challenges – in health and social care, housing, transport, infrastructure and the built environment. Cutting across these are issues of mobility and visibility, which both have a significant impact on isolation, loneliness and fear.
When it comes to new technology, people at the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum have the least involvement in decision making. There is often limited understanding of the complex conditions in which new technologies will operate, leading to the misalignment of technological advances and everyday challenges, reducing the opportunities to help improve the lives of those most in need. My work involves qualitative, in-depth research into the everyday lived experiences of older people – how they are existing, surviving, or thriving in Newham.
London needs to develop civic spaces – streets, squares, transport infrastructures, markets and shops – that are accessible to all. Older people often become excluded, and civic space is fundamentally important, especially when older people are vulnerable: it affects their ability to be a part of the city. Regeneration and the privatisation of public space may improve urban conditions, but can also disrupt communities. The cities of the future need to be for everyone – and addressing inequalities of access for older people must be a fundamental part of this.
My research focuses on hydroponics: an automatic system that circulates nutrient-rich water at the base of plants, allowing many crops to grow per square metre. Hydroponics allows plants to be grown faster, in a smaller area, and using 95 per cent less water than in traditional farming. Integrating this technology into unused urban space could liberate large swathes of land from intensive agriculture, while reducing the requirement for imports of fresh vegetables into the city. It also offers a solution to the heat-island effect of cities, which means that additional cooling is required to make them liveable. London is growing, and the South East of England now houses a third of Britain’s population. An urban planning strategy connecting energy, water and air would allow for innovative developments – for example, greenhouses on rooftops that re-use warm CO2-rich air from buildings to grow food, or re-using rainwater on site in a greenhouse instead of building more tunnels to evacuate stormwater.
I am inspired by cities like Tokyo and Singapore, which manage their resources extremely efficiently and are already dealing with the pressures London will face tomorrow. Singapore recirculates 95 per cent of its water in the system, releasing very little as wastewater. In Tokyo, over 20 dedicated urban farm buildings exist to produce leafy greens for the inhabitants hydroponically. London can learn from the circular economies created in these cities, and improve upon them – integrating nature in a more organic way than Singapore, and relying on rectangular buildings less than Tokyo.
Personal mobility is a basic human need and has been a main driver of growth and prosperity. But motor vehicles have created congestion, accidents, environmental impact and noise, with the worst side-effects in cities. A shift towards innovative and sustainable urban transportation is imperative.
I have been researching a taxi service using autonomous pods: two-seater, driverless vehicles capable of navigating a route in open space without purpose-built infrastructure. The pods can perform journeys in pedestrianised areas, coexisting with pedestrians and cyclists, making them an attractive retrofit solution of any first- or last‑mile travel requirements.
I believe one of the most inspiring cities around the world is Milton Keynes, because it has pioneered the creation and testing of technologies that will influence future cities. Its electric buses have shown it is possible to remove 500 tonnes of CO2 exhaust emissions without compromising passenger service.
Alessandra Luna Navarro
Five billion people will be living in cities by 2030. There will be a need to minimise CO2 emissions while improving the wellbeing of inhabitants, particularly inside buildings – where people spend more than 90 per cent of their time and where human comfort currently calls for high levels of energy consumption. The principal challenge will be to ensure human-centred, healthier, natural indoor conditions in overpopulated cities, while deploying low-carbon technologies and minimising energy demand.
Intelligent and responsive building technologies – for example, adaptive façades – are already transforming city dwellers’ lives. A smart, adaptive built environment has become increasingly possible – but this raises questions about the extent to which a fully automatic intelligent city is desirable. Imagine if everything from your breakfast to your choice of clothes and route to work were controlled by an intelligent system… we need to make sure we start from a holistic understanding of people.
As our cities grow, citizens are increasingly prone to obesity. We need to make it easy for people to walk and cycle to work, to access green recreation space, and to afford fruits and vegetables rather than processed food. Technology has the potential to help: if, for example, there were fewer cars on the road (as a result of driverless cars) as well as fewer parking spaces, city streets could become play spaces, community gardens and farms, and we could prioritise cycling and walking lanes. Carbon emissions and air pollution would also be reduced, leading to healthier urban environments.
The Mayor needs to ensure that in his push for affordable housing he also emphasises the need for healthy neighbourhoods. Research shows there are more takeaways and less access to green spaces each step down a neighbourhood deprivation scale.
We need local food production and affordable healthy food that is readily available to everyone. Achieving sustainable, socially equitable food provision for the city is critical if we are to respond effectively both to climate change and to the obesity crisis.
I am inspired by Freiburg, Germany, which has taken a leading role in prioritising the development of public transport, restricting car use, and expanding cycle and walking lanes. Freiburg has significantly reduced carbon emissions and air pollution levels, becoming a healthier, more sustainable city.
Future cities will have to manage the risks posed by climate change – the rise in extreme weather events, an increase in droughts and flooding – while also acclimatising to rapid, unpredictable economic, social, political and technological change.
My work is on indoor overheating. Soaring temperatures and city heatwaves threaten people’s health and wellbeing, as well as their productivity. In the past, overheating risk assessments have been seen as a design issue. My research focuses on developing a decision-making framework to mitigate indoor overheating that would include the input of a broad range of stakeholders. It would be applicable to all types of building over a 50–100 year span, and would improve resilience to overheating at the level of the room, building, and city.
In developed countries, individual buildings evolve, disappear, and are redeveloped. But network infrastructures (for water, waste, energy, transport, and communications) will stand for many generations. The most important challenge today is to deal with climate change without excluding the urban poor from basic services.
Transport for London is an example of how network industries can work well, and offers clues as to how other network industries might develop. Access to basic public utilities should be universal rather than based on ability to pay. London could lead in this arena. The Welfare State was established to deliver basic goods and services such as housing, health and education. Now a new Connecting State is needed, to include energy, transport, digital connectivity and environmental goods such as clean air.
Robert Phillips, Geraldine Bedell and New Beginnings