Future cities: speculating urban design in 2050 and beyond

Arup report 2050 Scenarios: Four Plausible Futures, Post Anthropocene

Speculating how we live in the next twenty to thirty years is a tricky business. On the one hand, the image painted by sci-fi literature and film has been much more visually stark than our current reality. Our world appears to be less dystopian than, say, Ridley Scott’s vision for a Los Angeles of 2019, as pictured in his 1982 ‘Blade Runner’. We still live in a relatively traditional way – in standard homes and apartment blocks, furnished pretty much to the old tradition, with many working according to the nine to five standard. Yet, despite the visual calm, life has altered fundamentally since 1982. And with the global population expected to increase by 2 billion – from 7.7 to 9.7 billion – by 2050, sustainable, progressive development will require a deeper understanding of the issues facing us and our planet.

Larger building and regeneration schemes are long-terms investments and require long-term planning, which isn’t always easy given the fast pace of advancement. As a branding agency very much involved in this sector, our job is to be speculative – forecast future technology, follow trends and ideas, predict new ways of living. One of the latest reports to land on our desk is an insightful account of possible future scenarios, ranging from the collapse of our society and natural system to the two living in sustainable harmony, by the global architecture firm Arup. Through looking at the environment and societal conditions, ‘2050 Scenarios: Four Plausible Futures’ speculates the best and worst settings as a way of informing the design and planning decisions of our future cities. It argues that architecture can be a powerful tool in addressing societal challenges.

'2050 Scenarios: Four Plausible Futures' by Arup with the extinction express scenario

‘Sustainable development is fundamentally about creating a balance between the needs of a growing world population and the finite resources and health of our planet – our life support system,’ explains Jo da Silva, global sustainable development leader at Arup. ‘As engineers, scientists, and planners, we all have a responsibility to make sure that the decisions made today have a positive impact on our future. We must act now in our shared quest for a safe, resilient and resource-efficient world for all.’ The report offers some interesting conceptual initiatives: finding infrastructure requirements to withstand the destabilisation of global weather patterns, relocating subway systems above ground to avoid flooding and large-scale tunnelling systems to battle water scarcity, green high-rise apartments catering for urban density, and giant air domes that combat air pollution.

MINI Living Shanghai © Universal Design Studio

These are all ideas to navigate 2050 and beyond. On a more immediate level, another recent project caught our eyes. MINI, the archetype urban car brand, is using its know-how in creative solutions for small spaces, to help elevate city living, create communities and tackle the sense of isolation and loneliness in dense urban environments. ‘Cities today are becoming larger and more disconnected,’ says Oke Hauser, an architect and creative lead at MINI Living. ‘People are isolated and there is this element of social silence. We think that design can tackle this.’ It can be a lonely place, he adds. Through the MINI Living initiative, the company is involved in designing and constructing alternative living spaces in major cities, starting in Shanghai in April 2020. Working with Universal Design Studio, this dynamic multi-use space in the city’s central Jing’an district occupies a 7,600 sqm former paint factory site. The five buildings will offer a mix of private, communal and public areas with 45 apartments, a shared lobby and co-working space, shops, market stalls and a restaurant, a rooftop gym, an urban farm, and car-sharing scheme. Central to the design is the open shelf structure – a vast window at the entrance, a city-facing cultural centre inviting Shanghai residents in.

Goldsmith Street ©Tim Crocker

MINI Living and many other progressive designs, including the 2019 RIBA Sterling Prize winner, are essentially about placemaking – forming communities and a sense of comradeship. Hauser says these buildings are not aimed at a particular age group but a mindset. He hopes to attract ‘people who believe that if you open yourself to others and the community, you gain from it. Ultimately, we would like their mindset to shift a little. Sharing a space benefits everyone and offers a smarter way to live in cities. This is an open project and needs to stay alive.’

Images from top: ‘2050 Scenarios: Four Plausible Futures’ by Arup with the Post Anthropocene and Extinction Express scenarios © Arup, MINI Living Shanghai © Universal Design Studio, RIBA winner Goldsmith Street by architects Mikhail Riches Architects with Cathy Hawley © Tim Crocker.

MINI Living Shanghai
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