28 apr 11  | Nissan Technology Magazine

5 Guests - 2025, the future of mobility and our cities

Predicting what cities will be like 25 years from now, and what they should be like at that time, are, of course, two different tasks. For all the fast-paced change in the architectural profession over the past quarter-century, especially in the use of digital design tools, the built environment has remained on the whole remarkably static. This is primarily because new, higher-performing buildings represent only 1% of the commercial building stock at any given time; the other 99% remains largely unaddressed by cash-strapped building owners and governments who might otherwise pursue green retrofits. And despite the consensus about the role of buildings as the primary contributor of greenhouse gases - they are responsible for about 70% of carbon emissions worldwide, about three times that of automobiles - architects, urban designers and the developers they serve are still making many of the same mistakes that produced the giant carbon footprints of our most inefficient, sprawling metropolises.

The safest prediction about the future of cities is that they will become significantly more populated. In 2015, according to current demographic trends, 3.9 billion people will be living in cities around the globe, and over 40% will be living in cities of more than one million people. By then, 375 million people will be living in 23 megacities, urban areas of over 10 million people, including Tokyo (26 million), Mumbai (26 million), Lagos (23 million), Dhaka (21 million) and São Paulo (20 million).

The question is how cities will adapt to this growth. Will they continue to sprawl, paving over vast new tracts of arable land and natural habitat, and requiring longer commute times for workforces traveling in fossil-fuel machines on increasingly gridlocked highways? Or will they become denser, taller, cleaner, and more walkable in all weathers? Will they invest in developing public transit? Will they find ways to increase the density and diversity of their urban cores by adding green space, schools, grocery stores and other amenities necessary to make them more hospitable to families? Will they add high-performance buildings, update existing buildings to make them more energy-efficient, and convert older, underperforming commercial buildings into residential? Will they update their infrastructure grids to become smarter and more efficient, allowing new and existing buildings to generate, store and share energy?

The answers depend on several volatile factors, including the state of the global economy and the ability of political and business leaders to envision and effect improvements of the varieties mentioned above. The rate of visible climate change will obviously play a significant role. If the developed world experiences, as some predict it will, a notable rise in climate-related economic and ecological stressors (such as rising sea levels and frequent disruptions to international travel due to hurricanes and other forms of extreme weather), the pace of progress might quicken. The always rising cost of energy, especially from fossil fuels, will likely produce an increasing percentage of capital devoted to investment in renewable energy, in particular wind and solar. Global cooperation on climate change, in the form of international agreements aimed at establishing carbon emission standards around the world, remains elusive, but significant steps in the right direction might yet be taken in the next few decades.

On a localized scale, some of those steps are already being taken. Just outside Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates (where the government of that oil-producing nation has shown remarkable foresight in envisioning a future beyond fossil fuels), Masdar City is rising from the desert. It will be a carbon-neutral, no-waste, no-automobile city that could inspire similar developments around the world. Our firm's design of Masdar City's headquarters building, now under construction, will produce the world's first large-scale positive-energy building. The design integrates building form, passive strategies, energy-efficient systems and the world's largest photovoltaic panel array to produce a complex that will generate 103% of the energy it consumes. It's fitting, we think, that the building will house the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), a multinational organization promoting the global adoption of energy from renewable sources.

Our firm is also currently designing the still-confidential master plan of a one-square-kilometer eco-city in China that will advance the lessons of Masdar. The project focuses on high-density urban living, incorporating principles of water conservation, high standards of transit and pedestrian-friendliness, integrated education as a cornerstone of sustainability, and a deeper understanding of waste avoidance and management. This is what cities of the future need to look like.

Another key idea for cities of the future is performance monitoring - the concept that a high-performing city is constantly informing itself. Appropriate technology which monitors, measures and broadcasts information about energy use and other performance indicators could inform and motivate residents and visitors. Intelligent vehicle distribution through communicative grids can manage traffic and report conditions in real-time scenarios for proper alternative routes, for example. A global standard could rank cities as "the world's best performers," measuring the quality of life for the best places to live in the world.

In our firm's own hometown, we have developed the award-winning Chicago Central Area DeCarbonization Plan, a roadmap for realizing the city's carbon reduction goals between now and 2030. In the Plan, eight key strategies - addressing buildings, the urban matrix, mobility, energy, smart infrastructure, waste, water and community engagement - work together with data and parametric models to produce a comprehensive vision of the kind of city we hope for, a quarter-century from now and beyond.

Gordon Gill, Co-founder, Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture
Gordon Gill is a founding partner of award-winning Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture. His work includes the design of the world's first net zero-energy skyscraper, the Pearl River Tower (designed at SOM Chicago), and the world's first large-scale positive energy building, Masdar Headquarters. These landmark projects achieve energy independence by harnessing the power of natural forces on site, striking a balance with their environmental contexts. Gordon has also designed performing arts centers, museums, schools, civic spaces and urban master plans across the globe.
Gordon's work has been published and exhibited widely in the U.S. and internationally. His designs have repeatedly been recognized by the American Institute of Architects and in 2009 he was selected as the Chicago's Best Emerging Architect by the Chicago Reader.

Prior to founding AS+GG in 2006, Gordon was an Associate Partner at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and a Director of Design for VOA Associates. Most recently, he co-founded PositivEnergy Practice, a consulting firm that designs and implements energy and carbon reduction strategies for clients around the world.