The City of the FutureHow mobility innovations could re-shape our cities
A city that needs no electricity. Driverless cars. Streets that turn into playgrounds. Refrigerators that order more milk themselves. Plus lots of space to live, breathe, and play: The “Smart City”, a city in which modern technologies allow for sustainable, living, will soon be technically feasible. Architect Tobias Wallisser dreams of the city of tomorrow – and explores what could be changed through new forms of transportation alone. Read More
The City of the Future
Cities always mirror the society that has created them. Take Paris, for example, where the boulevards of city planner Georges-Eugène Baron von Haussmann from the 19th century reflect the absolutist power structure of the time. Straight axes were drawn through the medieval city so the military could march right through the metropolis.
Chicago’s satellite structure, in contrast, is a clear demonstration of an urban planning vision from the 30s – in this case inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright’s idea of the “Broadacre City”. He envisioned a decentralised city in which every family owned an acre of land, resulting in checkerboard configuration only occasionally interrupted by natural structures like lakes or mountains.
The spread of the automobile has been particularly influential in reordering dominant urban structures, though not always for the best. Inner-city motorways are a good example: In order to cross such a street, you need to get in a car, drive to the next exit, turn around, drive back along the other side of the street, and park there. The car promised us easy, quick access to anywhere. But the infrastructure it requires sometimes separates entire parts of the city from one another.
Today, we have technically arrived at a place where the world of the automobile might soon undergo fundamental changes. Around the globe researchers are working on technical innovations like new drive technologies and collision recognition systems, while others explore autonomous driving systems. From a purely technical standpoint, the first driverless vehicles– basically robots that participate in traffic – could take to the roads today.
An urban utopia
All these technical innovations provide a range of new opportunities. And they raise important questions: How do we want to live? Which of these changes will actually improve our societies?
If we look around our cities, it is apparent that lifestyles of heath and sustainability, known as “LOHAS”, are booming. “Urban gardening” and “green guerrillas” are taking over our cities, while cyclists take to the street demanding more space. The trend is clear: We want to live in a healthy environment.
The city of Masdar is a technology utopia from 2006 that was designed to fulfil exactly this vision: It was supposed to be the first CO2-neutral city, a completely solar-driven urban space in the middle of the Abu Dhabi desert. Water supplied by solar-powered desalinization plants, no waste thanks to an extensive recycling system, parks, and renewable energy sources were all included in the plan.
Transport inside Masdar City was to be purely electric. Visitors could park their petrol cars in central parking garages, large, round buildings on the edges of the city, then climb into driverless electric vehicles that would link every part of the city underground. The aboveground streets and squares would be reserved for pedestrians and Segways. People who lived in the city would only need to walk to the next stop, no further than 200m away, and enter their desired destination on a touch screen to order a vehicle in just a few minutes.
Construction began on Masdar City in 2006, but lost momentum in 2009 due to the financial crisis and other problems. It will take a few more years before Masdar City is a reality. But we don’t really need to build a completely new city to try out some of the new concepts available to us today:
Transportation in our existing cities could also soon be fundamentally transformed through new technologies.
When city centres become safe zones
Driverless vehicles are particularly interesting for cities because they are so much safer. A robot’s reaction time is much shorter than a human’s. Just imagine if we no longer needed to teach our children that crossing the street could be deadly. These vehicles recognise a ball or a person on the streets and automatically adjust their driving speed and route.
So why not create “safe zones” in city centres? Today Germany already has “environmental zones” where only cars that fall below a certain emissions level are allowed. This is designed to reduce smog in large cities. It would be just as easy to create safe zones in which only driverless vehicles were allowed. Instead of park-and-ride lots where commuters can leave their cars and board public transport trains, there could be park-and-go stations where you switch to a different kind of vehicle.
When cars become our new living rooms
Automatic cars would also radically change life inside the vehicle. Today the driver sits behind the wheel, focused on everything happening outside on the street to avoid causing an accident. This would no longer be necessary in future, which would turn our cars into another kind of living space. We could hold videoconferences from the road or play with our kids. This would allow us to move part of our working or family lives to the road.
This is particularly exciting for us architects. To date we have only talked about “real estate” by which we mean immovable buildings. But driverless cars would add mobile living and work spaces. Combining these mobile and immobile spaces, and allowing them to interface, would have the greatest impact on the city. Mobile living spaces could cover part of our need for space. Perhaps we would even need less immobile space: Vehicles parked at offices could be used as meeting rooms, for example.
When traffic lights become superfluous
Automatic driving could also fundamentally change mobility patterns in city traffic. Today as a rule, all our traffic lights are controlled and coordinated by a central operating system. But if everyone on the streets of the future were able to communicate with one another, we would no longer need lines marking the vehicle lanes or curbs. In theory this would also make traffic signs and lights superfluous. Pretty much any part of our infrastructure used to provide orientation would become unnecessary. Even today, we are increasingly getting our directions from our smartphones and get where we need to go without the assistance of external signage. The streets might look soon resemble the vision of German architect Jürgen Mayer H.
When the streets become a football pitch
Intelligent road markings are also conceivable. Parts of a space could be closed off for an event, for example. As the BIG architecture office from Copenhagen simulated for Pariser Platz in Berlin, vehicles would automatically drive around these event spaces. Or one side of the street could be closed off, as indicated with the big, white “X” here, for a friendly neighbourhood match.
Public spaces would serve different purposes at different times of day. Car lanes could become parking spaces at night. Or a street could turn into a playground on the weekend.
Smart cities: so many more possibilities
In the Modern Age, one order dominated everything. Every space only served a single purpose. Today we can control a whole new level of complexity, and spaces can have multiple functions. We no longer need to distinguish so clearly between what serves as a road and what does not. One day we might even create a fluid line between a private garden and public space:
Innovations in mobility alone could change the entire urban space.
But new developments are also taking place in other branches. Similar to how driverless cars have to be “intelligent” to enable them to respond to unexpected situations, engineers and scientists are also developing intelligent machines in other areas. The Internet of things would be a network that links all objects that have an on-board computer. Combining all these inventions would create a complete system that would change the cityscape even more radically: the smart city.
The idea behind the smart city is that we could use new technologies to design healthier, safer and especially more sustainable cities. This idea began with simple household concepts. Such as the question of whether a refrigerator could be made to recognise when the milk was getting low and order some more. In visions of the smart city, such intelligent household appliances communicate with other intelligent machines, with cars and, of course, with people.
In our LAVA (Laboratory for Visionary Architecture) architecture office, we have worked on visualising what this might look like – and developed a green vision of the future for Karl-Marx-Allee in Berlin. With wind turbines, electric cars and vegetable gardens right in the centre of the city.
This is, of course, a far-fetched vision of the future. But new technology is opening up new worlds of opportunity. At the same time, a lot of changes need to be made – in addition to a mobility revolution, we also need an energy and agriculture revolution:
How would they change our cities?
Tobias Wallisser held a speech about this topic at re:publica 2014.