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The Future of the Urban Environment

The Future of the Urban Environment

February 23rd, 2017 by

A little over a year ago, I was asked to speak at the Connected Car Expo in L.A. to give my take on what the urban environment of 2050 might look like. Carmakers and affiliated professionals were looking ahead to try to tailor their efforts toward future trends in the urban environment and architecture. It was a bit of a daunting challenge, but I agreed and dove into researching projected demographics, as well as cultural and architectural trends.

I decided to begin my “talk” with some background on environmental sustainability, focusing on two critical elements to the future of our planet: water consumption and CO2 production. I started with a joke: “Why do scuba divers always fall backward out of the boat? Because if they fell forward, they’d still be in the boat.” Seems obvious.

Scuba Divers
Water Consumption
Here are a couple of water-related facts about our planet that might seem obvious, but are interesting nonetheless.

Flat Earth
CO2 Production
Most of the energy we produce and consume is harvested from fossil fuels, which are CO2-producing processes. How are we consuming that energy?

Most of that energy is used in our buildings and homes (40 percent). Almost half of all the energy we produce annually is used for heating and cooling, lighting, cooking, and cleaning. Next comes industry (32 percent), followed closely by the thing we most commonly attribute to CO2 production: transportation (28 percent).
Annual Energy Consumption
Buildings are our biggest polluters — not cars and trucks. Does this surprise you? Forty percent of all energy consumed annually is by our buildings, which equates to 40 quadrillion BTUs.

Moving Toward Sustainability
Going back 11,700 years, we started an Epoch or Age called the Holocene that began at the end of the last glacial period. Some argue that we’re entering a new one: the Anthropocene — the human epoch wherein man has had a profound effect on our planet.

Regardless of whether the geologists agree on the current Epoch, we know that population growth and the need to consume with less impact on our environment will force significant change.

Sustainable Cities
When I was studying at the University of Florida in the late ‘80s, some were predicting that, by now, suburbs would connect New York city to the District of Columbia. As we now know, that hasn’t come to be. Current trends are in the opposite direction. Today, 50 percent of the world’s population lives in the urban environment. By 2050, it is  projected that 80 percent will be living in cities.
NY to DC
Currently, our cities are very much the opposite of the natural environment; cities are more like machines consuming vast amounts of energy and producing vast amounts of waste. The current model is unsustainable. Our cities and the natural environment will need to be blended and complement one another.

To move toward a more stable model, we will have to develop systems based upon conservation and renewal for the infrastructure of our cities. As an example, currently our cities are predominantly paved, impervious landscapes. All the water that would have naturally fallen on the land occupied by them previously would have been absorbed into the soil, filtered, purified, and returned to the aquifer. In our cities, water is directed over hard surfaces where it picks up and conveys chemicals and litter before being directed through our sewer systems to nearby waterways. Future cities will need to be porous, like the forest floor, limiting the disruption of the natural watershed.
Another effect of our paved, impervious cities is called the heat island effect. All the surfaces and materials in the city absorb heat from the sun all day and radiate that heat when the air begins to cool. After sunset, air temperatures in urban areas can be as much as 20 degrees warmer than nearby, less developed areas. To compensate, we have increased use of mechanical cooling, greatly increasing peak energy demand.

Hot City
Sustainable Buildings
A building considered one of the most efficient office buildings in the world was recently completed in Seattle. The Bullitt Center acts like a tree. It collects the sun with a rooftop solar array for electricity; collects rainwater to clean and nourish itself (occupants); utilizes waterless urinals and toilets and composts the waste from these onsite; processes all of the water waste (dishwashing, handwashing, etc.) in a series of constructed wetlands; and is heated by the earth with a geothermal heating system. It is a self-sufficient building that has a net-zero impact on the environment.
Built Center
Biomimicry is the science of using nature to solve human problems. da Vinci used biomimicry to design machines for human flight — the Ornithopter. We’re starting to use biomimicry in the design of our buildings.

Grimshaw Architects designed a building skin after the shell of the fog-basking beetle. This beetle is a desert dweller and collects its drinking water for the day by raising its shell and catching the early morning fog, pooling what it collects and directing that down to its mouth. The building skin Grimshaw designed collects water from the air for use in a desalination plant. The process uses a fraction of the energy of a typical seawater-to-potable water desalination plant, and the energy that it does use is provided by a nearby wind turbine.

Sustainable Transportation
Our modes of transportation will have to change, as well. We all understand that it is extremely inefficient to use a 3,000-lb. vehicle to transport a 150-lb. individual, but that is our current model. And storing those vehicles is also a challenge.

In some buildings, zoning and building codes may require as many as 10 stories of parking before a habitable floor is reached. Vehicles take up a lot of space. The auto industry is working on ideas for consolidation, automation, and other efficiencies to reduce the need for — and impact of — one vehicle per individual.

10 stories of parkingIn conclusion, as well-known eco-architect, Michael Pawlyn, points out: “we need to focus on a radical increase in resource efficiency.” That, more than anything else, will shape the design of our cities in the years ahead. To stay up to date with our latest Viewpoints on the future of the architecture industry, subscribe to our blog.