The current great transition of the world’s population from rural to urban is one of the defining transformations of our time. More than half the world’s population already lives in cities, and by 2050, two thirds of us will be city dwellers, according to United Nations estimates.

Managing urban living is one of the greatest modern challenges: infrastructure and services, often already stretched, will be put under increased pressure. But if we can rise to that challenge, city living could offer a host of benefits, from economic growth and improved healthcare and literacy to increased cultural engagement. Humans are masters of adaptation and, far from seeing urbanisation as an alarming prospect, designers are already looking at reframing the urban spaces in which we will live, work and play.

A metropolitan world

The development of more and larger cities isn’t confined to any particular area of the world; 37 cities, including London, New York and Tokyo are currently classed as megacities, with a population of more than 10 million. More than 80% of North Americans and three quarters of Europeans are city dwellers, while China recently reached 100 cities with more than a million inhabitants. Africa and Asia are urbanising particularly fast and the UN predicts that, by 2050, they will become 56% and 64% per cent urban respectively.

Many factors are driving people towards cities, including changing agricultural practices that require less manpower, resource scarcity, climate change and economic instability. Making those cities, existing, expanding and new, into fit homes for this influx will require planning, resources and imagination. Because cities aren’t only about housing, business, transport, technology and services – they are also about human connection, society and conviviality.

Cities: the new nations

The best examples of the cities of the future will be far removed from homogenised, soulless collections of high-rises, or teeming, unplanned slums. Winy Maas, director of the MVRDV architecture and urbanism practice, points to Asian examples in cities such as Seoul, Taipei and Jakarta, which are drawing on traditional community systems such as Jakartan kampungs (urban villages) while also taking the best ideas from modern European cities. This approach preserves national identity but also allows architectural and design vision to shine through.

At the same time, cities are themselves becoming potent symbols of identity for citizens. ‘The 19th century was the century of empires, the 20th was the century of nation states, and the 21st is the century of cities,’ Mayor of London Sadiq Khan told a conference in the City of London in 2017.

In this issue of Viewpoint, we explore some of the most imaginative examples of the myriad different ways that our urban landscapes can become sustainable, inclusive, workable – and beautiful.

studio and living space hidden under an urban bridge by fernando abellanas

The flexible city

City accommodation can no longer be designed around traditional models of the family; traditional terraces, townhouses, brownstones, villas and apartments are no longer the best use of limited room. Space is at a premium and increasingly expensive; regulations on minimum apartment space are already being waived in New York to allow for the construction of ‘micro apartments’.

Future planners need to take into account the exponential growth in single-person households; the UK Office for National Statistics (ONS) says that 28% of British households were one-person in 2014, and nearly half of American adults are single, says the US Census Bureau. It’s a similar picture across the EU, where almost two thirds of households are composed of one or two people. China Daily reports that the most recent census found 14% of households are one-person, more in urban centres such as Beijing and Shanghai.

Multigenerational living is also on the rise; in 2016, 39% of young British adults aged 15 to 34 were living with their parents, reports the UK ONS, while a 2016 Pew Research report finds that a record 60.6 million Americans live in multigenerational households of two or more adult generations.

We are also changing the way we work. Technology is enabling us to work wherever we choose, from our homes to co-working spaces to the ether, collaborating with virtual teams. This means increased demand for flexible, communal workspaces.

Tiny Homes Project by Jay Tsai with Ryszard Rychlicki

Achieving the flexible city

Designers and architects are at the forefront of flexible living solutions, drawing on concepts such as modular buildings with small footprints and modular interior designs that optimise the best use of small spaces. This makes for affordable, attractive housing. Imaginative furniture design helps people to combine their working and living spaces efficiently. Generation Rent is likely to move frequently and this approach can even enable a semi-nomadic lifestyle.

The design for Tiny Homes in Chicago, for example, by Jay Tsai with Ryszard Rychlicki, is certainly economic in its use of space, but, as the designer says, they also ‘promote an ambiance of empathy and togetherness.’ Tsai set out to infuse character and personality into a structure that he says could easily have felt cheap in the attempt to achieve compactness and efficiency, drawing on use of natural light and flexible communal space to give a sense of space and openness.

Towers Within a Tower by Kwong Von Glinow design office similarly draws on natural light in its designs for ‘stacked’ apartments. The multi-level apartments are each a mini-tower in their own right and the clever way they are stacked together creates shared outdoor spaces on every level, in a bright, light contrast to the traditional high-rise apartment.

Going indoors, the modular kitchen designed by LCMX with urban dwellers in mind allows units to be added or removed at will, a far more practical solution than fitted units. Adaptable, portable solutions such as these are being developed for every room in the modern home.

While thinking small is key to many of the housing issues in the modern city, multi-general living requires a different approach. The House for Four Generations by Tomomi Kito manages to accommodate four generations of one family under one roof, combining personal spaces with shared areas that allow accessibility and interaction – but also allow for privacy.

The concepts of collectives and communality are key to the flexible city. In their modern iteration, collectives are not only affordable, but they respond effectively to the demands of flexible living and working patterns. The Urby Staten Island co-living project offers rented residential homes, a communal kitchen, features such as a bike room and electric car chargers, and is centred around an urban farm, aiming to create a sense of socially responsible community rather than being merely an urban dormitory.

The Canopy co-working space in San Francisco by Yves Béhar and Amir Mortazavi similarly aims to create a sense of community that goes above and beyond simple office space – albeit beautifully designed office space. Canopy is akin to a members’ club, bringing creative people together, supporting and inspiring its subscribers and encouraging them to ‘rethink the meaning of work’.

Ku.Be House of Culture and Movement by MVRDV
Ku.Be House of Culture and Movement by MVRDV

The well city

At no point in their history (so far) have cities been actively associated with good health. These days, air pollution is contributing to sickness in densely populated cities across the globe. At the end of 2016, Paris suffered from its severest pollution in a decade and the French public health authority attributes 48,000 premature deaths each year to air pollution. The French government has set a 2040 target for no more petrol or diesel cars to be sold in the country, and Volvo has become the first major auto marque to say it will stop making cars powered solely by the internal combustion engine. However, significant falls in air pollution will require time and effort.

Perhaps wisely, city dwellers tend to spend around 90% of their time indoors, according to a study funded by the US Environmental Protection Agency. Because we spend so much time inside, the environment in the buildings where we live and work also has a profound effect on our health – mental as well as physical. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, mental health problems could cost the UK economy as much as £100bn a year.

The International Well Building Institute seeks to improve human health and wellbeing in buildings and communities through its WELL Building Standard. This, it says, makes sound economic sense as well as making people happier and healthier: ‘Examples from around the world demonstrate that healthy buildings can improve the productivity of staff while increasing the value of the building … However, while the benefits of healthier buildings are understood, there is still a lack of understanding of how to implement health and wellbeing strategies and solutions, particularly in operational buildings.’

The European Environment Agency identifies ‘urban stress’ as a specific problem with a variety of causes, including little green space, pollution, noise and traffic, concluding: ‘These problems are warning signals of a more deep-seated crisis, and call for a rethink of current models of organisation and urban development.’

Ku.Be House of Culture and Movement by MVRDV

Achieving the well city

Sanctuaries that offer respite from hyper-connected, over-saturated urban life are springing up across the world, as designers acknowledge that people need spaces to play and rest as well as to live and work.

The Ku.Be House of Culture and Movement by MVRDV, for example, brings health, culture, leisure and education to the Flintholm neighbourhood in Copenhagen, in a versatile building designed to appeal to the widest possible cross-section of the local people. Its playful aspect is epitomised by the route through the building, which includes the Mousetrap, a vertical maze, alongside slides and fireman’s poles.

While poor air quality remains a problem, city dwellers will seek urban oases where they can be confident the environment is pure. The Pavilion of the Origins by Hung Nguyen is situated in Hanoi, one of the most polluted cities in the world. It is crowded with plants that are not just ornamental, but also selected for their ability to absorb airborne toxins. The Breathe prototype by SO-IL at the Mini Living space at the 2017 Milan Salone del Mobile similarly explores the ways that homes could incorporate their own plant-based air filtration systems; its white mesh exterior, designed to filter city air, is topped by a plant-covered roof.

The +POOL project in New York combines both play and purification. This projected water-filtering floating swimming pool would make it possible for New Yorkers to swim in the polluted Hudson, reclaiming the river as a recreational facility, while drawing attention to issues around water quality. The Cities Project by Heineken, which aims to make positive impacts in cities round the world, came on board as a sponsor in summer 2017.

The mental and physiological effects of urban living are also being tackled at an individual, personal level, with designers addressing issues such as depression, stress and sleep. Sleeping well is important for mental and physical health; the Future Sleep project by Lena Saleh explores the impact of technology on sleep, and offers a range of functional, sculptural products that offer sensory experiences to help users wind down – as well as tracking sleeping patterns and adapting room environments to enhance deep slumber.

Kengo Kuma architects have designed 1hotel in paris to be an eco-luxury destination

The natural city

Wherever they live, country or city, humans have an innate tendency to seek connections with nature and other forms of life, according to the biophilia hypothesis. Many modern cities do not lend themselves to contact with nature; even daylight can sometimes be in short supply.

However, a number of studies have reliably demonstrated the positive effects of natural light, and also good ventilation, from reduced rates of workplace absenteeism and better grades in schools to shorter hospital stays and reduced need for pain medication. Health, Wellbeing & Productivity in Offices, a wide-ranging 2014 metastudy by the World Green Building Council on health, highlights the role of biophilia in the urban environment: ‘A growing scientific understanding of biophilic design, and the positive impact of green space and nature on (particularly) mental health, has implications for those involved in office design and fit-out, developers and urban planners alike.’

seoullo 7017 skygarden by mvrdv

Achieving the natural city

Reflecting this growing body of research into the positive effects of contact with nature, greening the city has been placed firmly on the agenda for architects and city planners. From large-scale urban forests to ‘living buildings’ to more modest concepts conceived for individual offices and homes, designers are working to engineer nature into the everyday life of the city.

Greenery is being worked into all kinds of structures. The Narita Rehabilitation Hospital by Kengo Kuma architects, described as a ‘forest hospital’ has floor-to-ceiling windows that allow natural light to flood in, and is surrounded by trees. Nanjing Green Towers by Stefano Boeri Architetti will be the first vertical forest built in Asia; the facade of the high-rise building will be cloaked in beautiful living plants which will absorb carbon dioxide, give off oxygen, and contribute to biodiversity in the city.

Public spaces are also contributing to the greening of the city, many reclaimed from industrial use and repurposed as green oases. The Seoullo 7017 Skygarden by MVRDV is a ‘plant village’ in the heart of Seoul, installed on a former inner city highway. The public space provides a home for 24,000 plants, as well as a resource for people.

Heatherwick Studio’s 1000 Trees in Shanghai is a striking mixed-use project on a 15-acre site that, as the name suggests, supports trees and plants as well as buildings. ‘Greenery comes naturally to our designs – everything in the studio we do is about human experience and biophilia,’ says Dani Rosselló Diez, group leader at Heatherwick Studio. ‘I’ve never met somebody that doesn’t like to be near to a tree, to be close to greenery.’ Currently under construction, the 1000 Trees project takes the form of ‘two tree-covered mountains’.

Housing and office design is also starting to reflect biophilia-centred design. Read more on this in our Innovation section, where we explore some of the latest developments in this field.

the hive by LIVIN Farms

The harvested city

As urban populations grow, the amount they consume and the amount of waste they discard will also grow. The World Bank says that by 2025 the urban population will have grown by 1.4 billion people, each discarding an average of 1.42kg of municipal solid waste per day – more than double the current average. In that period, it is estimated that annual worldwide urban waste will more than triple, from 0.68 to 2.2 billion tonnes per year.

At the same time, natural resources are dwindling, and a 2017 United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization report warns that ‘mankind’s future ability to feed itself is in jeopardy.’ Is it possible for cities to adopt circular models that will allow them to grow their own food, produce their own raw materials for use in a variety of industries, and repurpose their waste, in a continual virtuous circle?

A number of organisations are seeking circular solutions, among them the Circular Cities Hub (CCH), an international, interdisciplinary group based at University College London. Circularity in resource flows in cities can tackle the consumption of resources such as energy, water, buildings and land, says the CCH. ‘Systems integration, flexibility, intelligence, cooperative behaviour, localisation, recycling and renewable resources are the key concepts.’

One of the most attractive notions here is that we could even harvest pollution as a resource, possibly even the air pollution that is wreaking havoc on city air quality across the world (see the Well City section above).

Air Ink by Gravity Labs and Tiger Beer

Achieving the harvested city

In the city of the future, repurposing will be key to sustainability. Upcycle House by the Lendager Group takes a holistic approach to upcycling, basing the design of an entire home on upcycled materials, starting with rooms made of shipping containers, all fitted out with entirely upcycled materials.

Makers of all kinds are starting to see resource potential in urban waste – in pollution as well as the more obvious recyclable resources such as stone and brick. Asian start-up Graviky Labs, a MIT spinoff, has developed KAALINK, its own proprietary technology, to capture vehicle exhaust emissions and transform the soot gathered into Air-Ink, the first ink made entirely out of air pollution. Graviky Labs is a pioneer in the field – where it leads, others will surely follow, particularly as the venture is backed by MIT.

There are also pioneers at work on urban food production. Insects are a source of protein in many cultures around the world, but western nations have yet to appreciate their potential. Companies such as EXO Protein and Tiny Farms are aiming to change that. EXO Protein makes crickets into protein bars, aiming at a health-aware, gym-going audience. Tiny Farms in California also cultivates crickets for protein, applying design thinking and automation to build smart, easily scalable farming systems. Its Open Bug Farm open-source knowledge-sharing platform aims to encourage wider-scale adoption of bug farming and it offers a low-cost kit for those who want to get started.

While farming crickets may take a while to gain traction, other initiatives are raising more conventional crops in unconventional locations. Growing Underground in south London uses hydroponics to raise salad crops in former air-raid shelters. GrowUp in east London takes the opposite approach, with hydroponically and aquaponically sustained vegetable crops in vertical towers that increase productive growing space within a small footprint.


The maker city

The principles of the maker city tie in with the aims of the harvested city, responding to resource shortages and supporting the principles of the circular economy and the desire for self-sufficiency. But the maker ethos goes further than that. It’s not just about making items, although that is an important aspect. It’s also about making communities. Even though cities teem with people, they can also be lonely places to live. Single-person households, people working remotely or in the gig economy, centrally allocated housing rather than neighbourhoods that have grown organically, rapid gentrification that splits districts between rich and poor – all these factors can contribute to city dwellers feeling disenfranchised and disconnected.

Tackling this needs to come from the grass roots upwards. In his book Citymakers: The Culture and Craft of Practical Urbanism, Cassim Shepard, professor at the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia University, shows how urbanism today is less dominated by planners and politicians, and increasingly led by an array of citizens working in increasingly diverse practices, from community gardeners to architects to housing advocates. In maker cities, people are actively engaged at local level, creating communities and driving social change.


Achieving the maker city

A variety of initiatives are already seeking to promote citizen involvement. The Knight Cities Challenge, for example, is open to anyone with a big idea for improving life in 26 cities across the UK – with a specific emphasis on projects that create a culture of civic engagement.

Other projects seek to foster cultural co-operation. Cities are rich melting pots, and various local groups are reclaiming unused or post-industrial spaces to set up cultural cooperatives that engage with local communities and draw on their diverse skills. Partisan in Manchester, for example, is a cooperative that focuses on independent, community-led and cultural projects.

Projects such as these encourage people to connect and form social bonds as well as working together – and also to take responsibility for each other. The Block WorkOut Foundation in south London provides fitness and mentoring sessions to young people who are likely to become disenfranchised or even turn to gang culture; its slogan is ‘No One Gets Left Behind’. Cucula in Berlin is a collaborative platform that welcomes refugees and provides education and work. Cucula means ‘to do something together’ and ‘to take care of each other’ in the African Hausa language.

Maker spaces themselves not only democratise creativity but encourage conviviality, supporting and encouraging experts and beginners alike and celebrating local identity. The SuperLocal initiative takes hands-on workshops to local groups in the Netherlands, UK, Belgium and Italy – products are made using materials sourced within a comfortable bike ride distance of 2.5km. The Granby Workshop in Liverpool is a social enterprise that trains and employs local people to make handmade products for the home. These items are made using experimental processes that invite improvisation; each is different. Roma Makers, a FabLab-based Rome community for inventors, recyclers and crafters, is seeking to set up maker spaces in 20 schools in the city to foster creativity in children.

Towers Within a Tower by Kwong Von Glinow

The city of the future

The examples we highlight above are just the tip of a very substantial iceberg. In each category, we could have included many, many more, and new initiatives are springing up across the world. The ideal city of the future will combine elements of all, as designers, creatives, inventors, innovators and campaigners work together on urban environments that are flexible, healthy, sustainable and socially connected.


  1. The human experience is at the core of our urban future. However busy the metropolis, what matters most to us is how we live, eat and work day to day, how we connect with each other, the materials we touch and the emotions that we feel

  2. Cities have enormous potential for circular, sustainable, localised production. Previously undervalued waste streams can become opportunities, as we realise that raw materials are finite and waste is a resource

  3. Tech offers many opportunities, but human interaction offers authenticity – people need real connections and tangible experiences

  4. Wellness should be a top priority – healthy living and working spaces mean stronger communities and greater productivity

  5. The power of grass-roots movements is provoking change, meaning that future cities will be formed and shaped by their residents

Words → Hester Lacey