Written by David Ivory. First published 20 July, 2016.

The form of our cities is rooted in the past but is that best for the future?

The physical form of our built environments is a product of our technology and so the future form of our cities and homes is dependent upon how we respond to changes in technology that are upon us now. Solid State City is a project to examine a number of nascent technologies and then apply them to how we live and work in the near future.

The advent of cities derived from the need and desire to enhance the interaction between citizens whether for protection, work or leisure. Rural folk who move to cities increase their wealth, live longer lives, and provide even greater opportunities for their children. City dwellers have fewer children who live longer and are better educated. The pull of cities will only increase as even more of humanity move to cities. But the form of our cities is rooted in the past with developing nations following the forms laid down by countries who crossed the threshold to modern city life 100 years ago.

What happens when we design a city from first principles? What are the generative forces that will be crucial in the coming years? What technologies are likely to emerge, or are here already but not widely applied, that will upend our conception of city?

Until the industrial revolution cities were not the home of the majority of a country’s population. People lived and worked in rural environments with a few exceptions but as the need for factory workers increased so too did the requirements for housing them. Worker’s cottages were located close to factories so they could walk between home and work.

This phase gave way to the oil and gas driven industrial age with workers able to live in extended suburbs around the city centre, while industrial factories moved to zoned regions separate from the commercial heart of cities. New forms of occupation arose in the form of administrative and service oriented jobs. These commuting workers required motorways or commuter train lines to tie their living quarters to their places of work. And so the city reduced in density, becoming porous and filled with roads threaded by cars with only one occupant. The proportion of a typical American city devoted to roads and car parking reached 40-50% by mid-century

Cities reduced in density as they became porous spread out and cut with roads threaded by cars.

In Asia and Europe there is more public transport with trains, subways and bus systems providing a greater proportion of mobility. The form of cities in these regions thus differs from North America.

What happens then when cars are self driving and no one owns cars due to ride sharing apps? How might such automated cars affect public transport when cars can be platooned into convoys that resemble trains? Might public transport splinter into a series of vehicular forms depending on distance travelled? If all such vehicles are autonomous but coordinated might the form of train stations change to accommodate the interchange between these modes?

See Thyssenkrup's vision here

The advent of elevators in the late 1800s lead to practical skyscrapers thus enabling cities to rise higher than before and to increase in density even as they were threaded by arterial roads and commuter networks. Without elevators few would wish to live and work above the 5th floor of a building.

What happens when elevators are freed from lift shafts and severed from their cables and can move horizontally in convoys up and along a building, or even between buildings? Will elevators begin to resemble public transport modes when they start to travel longer distances? How does this affect the form of our buildings and the transport network between them?

What happens when sustainable principles are applied to building construction and operation. Can we create carbon neutral buildings that generate their own carbon free electricity?

Construction is one of the most carbon intensive industries and buildings are the largest consumers of electricity in the US - up to 39% of carbon emissions and utilising 70% of the electricity generated.

Construction technologies have changed dramatically over the last 100 years from brick and stone to steel and glass. But new materials such as manufactured composites and nano-scaled fibres enable new forms. The technology of design and manufacture allows new precision construction in factories that reduces costs, increases quality, and reduces time to build.

With limits applied to a building’s carbon intensity might concrete and steel become too expensive for use? What is the balance between the cost to the environment of the embedded carbon in a structure, its energy efficiency in operation and lifetime before replacement or refurbishment? Might new materials change this calculus and what will the impact of the forms these new buildings might take be upon our built environment?

In cities designed to be only navigable in cars most are not walkablei. The sedentary lifestyle is imposed on city-dwellers and can only be overcome by concerted effort to seek physical exercise - it can not arise naturally though natural movement through the built environment in the course of a day. The sedentary nature of city dweller's lifestyle is a cause of their reduced fitness, increased weight and consequent lowering of their lifespan.

Will city governments and developers be sued by city dwellers due to the enforced use of cars because of poor townplanning choices?

What happens when city dwellers threaten tort suits against city planners and developers for forcing occupants of a city into a sedentary lifestyle. If the choices planners make to accommodate cars and public transport reduce opportunities for a lively pedestrian environment should we be examining the costs, then take responsibility to seek new resolutions?

What is the optimum design for urban environments to maintain productivity, increase physical activity, increase interpersonal interactions, while providing efficient transportation links that city dwellers are motivated to use?

Everyone owns or will soon own a smart phone that enables enhanced interaction with one another, to our machines and to the spaces around us. Our built environment generates a wealth of data, and as we seek our way through our cities and building we are forever seeking wayfinding information, optimising our routes and seeking new stimulus from our public spaces.

How might we best integrate information technology into our built environment so we can communicate and hold a conversation of sorts with it. If there was a standard interaction layer that could provide information or enable buildings to respond to our needs - would we use our cities differently?

New means of communication and transportation may drive new urban forms.

Since physical connectedness has been the driving force shaping our cities can new means of communication and transportation drive new urban forms? And what should these new forms be?

There are aspects of the city appeal to our human need for interaction and enjoyment of place - public spaces, complex pedestrian alleyways and souks, markets and waterfronts, beloved views and overlooks. But there are spaces found in our current cities that detract from our enjoyment of cities - motorways, car parks, garages and driveways, noise and pollution from industry, subterranean walkways, culvert transformed waterways and a dehumanising separation from nature?

Can we develop city forms that enhance their best aspects while removing or reducing the functions that might be made redundant due to new technology just as we’ve removed polluting factories to dedicated zones?

Should we even attempt to design a future city given the poor results of much city planning over the past 100 years. Aren’t the best cities the ones that were not designed but grew organically and only later retrofitted with modern infrastructure?

Is there a limit to how we can plan for and build for the complex interrelationships between place, economy, technology and human foibles.

The aim of the Solid State City project is to address these questions and provide a realisation that changes the conversation about how we should develop our cities now and for the coming decade.

Related content:
Developing urban Smarts (Rob Peart).