Paris began as bunch of small villages that grew together over time. Could that model be revived as the design for tomorrow’s new cities?

Kent Larson calls the type of villages that comprise cities “compact urban cells.” In size, they’re about 1.5 kilometres across, and may house 20,000 to 50,000 residents, as well as most businesses and services the residents need on a daily basis.

“Most of what people need in life can be within a 5- or 10-minute walk,” Larson said in his TED Talk.

Larson is a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab. His current research is focused on Responsive Urban Housing, among other projects, and recently gave the keynote address at the Green Cities Conference in Melbourne.

“Paris was a series of these little villages that came together, and you still see that structure today,” he said. “The 20 arrondissements of Paris are these little neighborhoods. When you have that kind of structure, you get a very even distribution of shops, physicians, pharmacies, cafes, in Paris.”

In contrast, in places where development followed automobile use, low density suburban development was the norm.

“The model was: give everyone a car, build roads to everything, and give people a place to park when they got there. It was not a very functional model,” Larson said.

That layout is not functional, not healthy, and leads to mind-numbing commutes.

National Geographic fellow Dan Buettner studied the world’s happiest places for his book Thrive: Finding Happiness the Blue Zones Way. Buettner determined that housework and commuting by car are the tasks people hate the most.

“In fact, if you can cut an hour-long commute each way out of your life, it’s the [happiness] equivalent of making up an extra $40,000 a year if you’re at the $50-60,000 level,” he said.

Today, cities are again where the action is, and that’s only going to increase. Innovative urban planning, along with new technology solutions, will be required to meet the demands of growing urban populations.

“We have to start with getting the planning right,” Larson said. “Without that, the technology will have very little of a positive impact.”

According to Larson, 300 million to 400 million Chinese will move to the cities in the next 12–15 years.

“That means building the equivalent of the entire built infrastructure of the U.S. in the next 15 years,” he said. “Imagine that.”

Cities are where 90 per cent of the population growth will occur, where 80 per cent of global CO2 is produced, and where 75 per cent of the world’s energy is used. They’re where most wealth is created, and particularly in the developing world, where women find opportunity. Improving cities’ liveability while accommodating millions of new residents is a critical issue in much of the world, and hundreds of cities are under construction worldwide right now.

At the same time, jobs are changing; work is becoming distributed and mobile, and many people no longer need to commute to an office or factory. As the office becomes obsolete, the home is becoming relatively more important; it’s once again the centre of family, work/production, shopping, education, and healthcare. The home is becoming the focal point of life again.

“The city of the future is a place for people,” Larson said. “But how do you have all the good things without the bad things? The congestion, pollution, disease?”

Ideas such as compact urban cells offer solutions for more liveable cities that people prefer and also promote greater health and happiness.

According to Larson, his team at MIT has been working on design and technology solutions that will enable cities to work better and accommodate millions of new residents in compact urban cells. Their solutions include:

  • A folding city car that, he said, is seven times more space efficient than a typical car. When combined with car sharing, a small vehicle like the city car achieves 28 times greater land utilisation than a standard car. The small electric vehicle weighs less than 500 kilograms, holds two people and is now undergoing trials in Europe. It has been scheduled for production in 2014.

  • Convertible and customizeable housing he called an “open-loft chassis.” The lack of affordable housing is one of the biggest problems for cities, so increasing the number and functionality of small spaces offers a solution. With the goal of making a small apartment work like it’s twice as large, Larson’s team designed a series of modules that residents can select based on their needs. Multiple units work together and can be stored away when not needed, including modules for sleeping, cooking, dining, work, exercise, and so on.

“There’s no reason we can’t dramatically improve the liveability of cities like they’ve done in Melbourne with the laneways, while cutting levels of CO2 and energy,” Larson said. “It’s a global imperative.”