Why Cities Of The Future Will Be So Much Better

Soil-free gardens, pollution-free factories moving back to town. City dwellers will see dramatic changes to life and work. Some bumps for sure, but overall good news for urbanites.

In Bremen, Germany
In Bremen, Germany
Petra Kaminsky

BERLINRobotic cars without drivers, the sharing economy, new factories in cities, electromobility, and the re-use of raw materials. These are all trends that city dwellers around the world can expect to see, if they're not already, say researchers with expertise in "future cities."

One example that can already be felt today is the trend towards sharing or renting smart cars, says Professor Hans-Jörg Bullinger. "If we just think a few years down the road, when we get to the train station, we'll be letting our car drive itself to a space in the parking garage or lot. In a controlled parking space, letting a vehicle drive autonomously is no problem," he adds, citing a report published by the Fraunhofer Institute of Labor Economics and Organization in Stuttgart. "And maybe later yet they'll be driving everywhere autonomously."

Sven Gabor Janszky, director of the 2b AHEAD trend institute in Leipzig, is counting on the gradual ascendancy of the robotic car. He expects to see the first cars that drive to a free parking space at the press of a button in about five years. "And in eight to 10 years, taxis in big cities will slowly start to be replaced entirely by self-driving cars," he says. But it's worth noting that many experts still have safety concerns about commercial, self-driving cars, especially in city traffic.

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A Google driverless car — Photo: Steve Jurvetson

Fraunhofer researchers say another city trend is the re-use of valuable raw materials, whether they're found in electrical appliances or load-bearing supports. Cities are like "mines of raw materials," they say. "We want to get our hands on valuable materials such as you find in cars. And that's going to be happening near consumers and near cities," Bullinger says.

Cities should also be building other bridges between work and leisure, which could include a return of factories to cities. "It used to be said that factories had to be outside cities because they made noise and smelled and polluted the environment," Bullinger says. "Many factories today don't make noise and have no pollutant emissions."

City farming

There are fish on the right, and tomatoes, salad and chili peppers on the left. Sneaker-wearing Nicolas Leschke runs between the water tanks at one end of the hall and the greenhouse under the same roof. His project is unfolding on the grounds of a former malt factory in Berlin. The 36-year-old explains his electronically driven systems for heat and water. Computer technology will help him to combine raising organic fish and vegetables so that he needs as little floor space and water as possible in a densely populated place: the city.

"We won't be revolutionizing food production, but we will be adding to traditional agriculture," says the co-founder of Cityfarm ECF. The notion of "future cities" interests many young entrepreneurs, researchers and politicians.

Some scientists are developing concepts for electric cars that have zero noise and emissions. Others are working with fast Internet so that refrigeration systems, for example, can call in their own orders.

A great deal of what we can expect to see in the next 10 to 20 years is already going on in major cities, such as a "sharing" boom, whether it be apartments, vehicles, offices, or the trend for citizen initiatives and polls. Visions are changing too.

The German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) is calling 2015 the "Year of the City of the Future" so that the subject can be more widely discussed.

Central themes

Problems such as congestion, noise and toxic emissions have increased so much that new solutions simply must be found. Models that allow cars to be shared and rented instead of owned have been popular for a while now. Electromobility is another often discussed idea. The German federal government's goal is to have a million electronic vehicles on German roads by 2020 — even if the environmental effects vary depending on the source of the current. Adding cycling paths is another alternative.

"The future is not in car-free cities but in driverless cars that are also low on noise and are clean," Copenhagen-based architect Andreas Klok Pedersen writes in Technology Review magazine. His idea is to have intelligent tarmac with programmable sensors, a technology that would allow for autonomous cars.

Many are counting on a step-by-step introduction to the driverless car. Professor Hans-Jörg Bullinger of the Fraunhofer Institute expects that it will start with vehicles making their own way to free parking spaces in parking garages. Researcher Sven Gabor Janszky says that in eight to 10 years, taxis will begin to be replaced with self-driving cars. So there is time to work on the safety of networked robotic cars and make them safer than the test cars developed so far by Google and many big classic car brands.

"Edible cities"

"Tomatoes, not tulips, in public green spaces." That's the model the city of Andernach in Germany's Rhineland-Palatinate state has adopted since 2010, and it's one that has become a model for many other cities where citizens can also help themselves free of charge to potatoes, berries and orchard fruit. There are several dozen "edible cities" already promoting themselves on the Internet.

In other places, private citizens and initiatives are developing vegetable gardens. Lovingly planted small areas around city trees, placed with or without official permission, have become a common urban phenomenon.

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Frankfurt skyline — Photo: Kiefer.

But even if green spaces seem to be cropping up everywhere in urban areas, many experts see high-rises as a trend in heavily populated areas. "Density and growth will be big topics," says Wolfram Putz, a managing architect at the Graft firm in Berlin. "We're assuming more and more building is going to take place upward. At the same time, competition for flat spaces will sharpen."

Avoiding long transportation routes and working in confined spaces are two of the goals set by city farms such as ECF. Founders of Infarm, however, have chosen to go another way: In a Berlin courtyard, they're developing concepts for growing small vegetables and herbs in the tiny city spaces, whether these be restaurants or shower cabins. Their model works without soil — just light, air and water — explains company founder Erez Galonska, who comes from Israel. Other trendsetters in the urban farming movement use roofs and empty lots to produce.

Do-it-yourself is not only big in gardening, but also in city living in general. People may set up a place to play boules or build benches along the streets where their kids play. "When residents are themselves active in their environment and take responsibility for the space outside their front door, they identify more with their area — their street, their quarter," says Laura Bruns, author of Creating the City Yourself.

The foundation for many trends of the future are digital networks. "In the city of the future, daily life is unimaginable without intelligent information and communication technology," the Fraunhofer study stresses. Fast Internet is in any case far more advanced in urban than it is in rural areas. Many city dwellers cherish a kind of village-like feeling that runs parallel with computer life and online shopping, says the Graft architect.

"On the one hand, people want to be close to state-of-the-art technology and progress. On the other hand, they want a village feel in a big city. You could call it the neo-gentrification of cities."

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