Six Sustainable Ideas for the Cities of Tomorrow

Thursday, March 20th, 2014
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Micro cities, mobility on demand and living large on a small footprint are all possible directions for the world’s future cities.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) director and principal research scientist Kent Larson, Green Cities’ first keynote speaker, revealed as much when discussing the centre’s research and new inventions designed for future cities that place a focus on people.

Green Cities is an annual conference co-hosted by the Green Building Council Of Australia and Property Council of Australia. This year’s theme was Beyond The Base Line.

Kent Larson

Kent Larson, Director and Principal Research Scientist, MIT

The 2014 event aims to move beyond “green wash” with local and global sustainability leaders unveiling their strategies and technology that will sustainably serve the rapid rise of urbanisation.

Larson began his talk by acknowledging that half of the population currently live in cities, a figure set to rise to 70 per cent by 2050.

He recognised Melbourne’s three-year run as the world’s most liveable city and noted the fact that Australian cities hold four spots in the top 10 list of the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Global Liveability Survey.

However, Larson kept away from general green building discussion during his talk, raising some questions for thought and looking back on the value historical cities can bring.

“I won’t talk about green buildings, we know how to do that, that’s not the big challenge,” he said. “We’re looking at how we can dramatically increase the liveability of cities while at the same time reduce resource consumption.”

Melbourne World Most Liveable City

Melbourne – The World’s Most Liveable City three years in a row

“(We need to ask ourselves) how to move away from private automobiles which I think is a very dysfunctional pattern. How we can increase the utilisation rate of buildings, parking facilities etc. How we can bring urban food production into the city and how we can use technology to make life better for people.”

Larson credits medieval cities as a benchmark modern cities need to return to, explaining that the settlements were centred around a scarce resource such as a water well with a community and amenities built around it where the well would always be within walking distance.

This model still remains in many cities in Germany and India, Larson said, where food production is close by.

“Medieval was the ultimate human scale settlement because it was before machines, it was designed for people rather than machines,” he said.

He noted that industrial factories and the noise and pollution they created pushed people to the outskirts of the city, at which point “production became centralised, as did energy production, learning and healthcare became concentrated in hospitals and learning in schools.”

Medieval Brussels Map

Map of medieval Brussels – the benchmark of micro-cities

“We (particularly in the US) went car crazy and infrastructure for cars starting to dominate thinking about the needs for people.”

Larson also referred to ongoing concerns for cities, including pollution, urban sprawl and the importance of properly dealing with density without losing nature or creating unmanageable noise pollution and traffic congestion.

1. Create Cities Of Micro-Cities

Future Plan For Micro-Cities

Future Plan For Micro-Cities

While this is not a new concept, Larson reinforced the importance of urban neighbourhoods displaying culture and featuring shopping and a rich diversity of amenities all within walking distance, citing Paris as the ideal model and touting the car free laneways of Melbourne.

“I think a healthy community has a very distributed pattern,” he said. “Our concept of creating cities is that you create more or less a mass network, internet typology of cities where you have these higher density neighbourhoods constrained in size like by mass transit.”

Larson also predicted that car parking would be situated around the perimeters of these neighbourhood, removing the need for a private car within the centres. In the vein of New York’s famous High Line, which continues to be replicated across the globe, he said microcities will focus on pathways to move people through cities without them having to interact with cars.

2. Mobility on Demand


RoboScooter – alternative urban transporation

“We really think we have to develop alternatives to the private automobile,” said Larson. “You can’t ban cars; you have to create alternatives for a more convenient, affordable and pleasurable (commute). If you do it right, you can essentially eliminate traffic congestion.”

Larson also referred to what is known as The Cheaper Generation – “young people rejecting the ownership model and moving towards a service economy” – pointing to a sharing-based economy as a growing trend.

He lauded mobility on demand systems such as shared bicycles for urban areas, an initiative already in place in many of the world’s largest cities.

MIT's Electric CityCar Project

MIT’s electric CityCar project

MIT researchers have been working on a RoboScooter – a small electric scooter designed to operate like a bike sharing program. The concept is similar to electric delivery bikes commonly seen in China as alternative mode of urban transportation.

The school is also working on is the CityCar project, an electric car with drive-by-wire control, robot wheels and folding chassis, allowing it to park in one-third as much space as a conventional car. In the future, the project will explore sensor networks and autonomy.

“ It’s the holy grail of autonomy where a vehicle comes to you, repositions itself, parks and charges itself,” Larson said. 

3. Living Space On Demand

HomeGenome - algorithm design software

Home Genome – algorithm design software

This strategy sees “hyper efficient” micro-units which are affordable and productive for young professionals right in the heart of the city centres.

The project, entitled Home Genome, will establish an online apartment design program which allows users to customise their own space through a series of algorithms where people will be evaluated on their budget, age, activity and lifestyle.


Micro-apartments: flexible storage and adaptable space

Larson noted that 90 per cent of apartments in the US are conventional in construction and size, though more and more urban dwellers are looking for adaptable and flexible spaces similar to those in the Home Genome project.

“The concept is a loft, infilled into a standardised chassis,” he said. “Dynamically transforming from dining space to two sleeping spaces for examples, a conventional one or dining space for 10 or 12 people.”

Madrid Office Apartment

Madrid office apartment – adaptable space with walls that shift

4. Work Space On Demand

Shared & Co-Located Workspaces

Shared and co-located work spaces

This concept is similar to micro-apartments, but applied to work environments.

“The future of private work is cafes, shared cafes, desks, co-working spaces,” said Larson, citing a company in Boston which rents out seats and electronic device in its office to three employees because they mostly spend one-third of their work time at their desks.

Freelancers/Mobile Workspaces are a growing trend

Freelancers and mobile work spaces are a growing trend

Larson revealed that MIT is removing all private offices and has created a prototype which features a large computer and screen with a desk that elevates up and down, making it suitable for different users.

“At the end of the day, you just lock it all up. We’d like to commercialise it,” he said.

5. Urban Food On Demand

MIT defines this as vertical agriculture. Larson was personally driven to explore this opportunity through his experiences in China, where approximately 20 per cent of the farmland is being depleted and contaminated by heavy metals, to go along with growing concerns of water scarcity.

MIT built a food lab and was able to produce enough food in a small room to feed the entire media lab (approximately 30 people). The lab also grew a head of lettuce in approximately 20 days instead of the usual 70 days.

Opportunity for Vertical Agriculture On Skyscrapers

Opportunity for Vertical Agriculture On Skyscrapers

“We have higher nutrients, much less water, no pesticides, much less fertiliser and we’re now working on a larger lab,” Larson said. “We’re looking at building façades and creating very integrated and controlled environments.”

“We think we can skin buildings and eventually produce food right in the city…with 100 times the production per land area, 90 per cent less water and C02 and 60 per cent less fertiliser.”

6. Urban Nervous Systems

Urban Lighting System: Automated Lighting

Urban lighting system: automated lighting

“As architects, we started out thinking of buildings as skeletal systems,” said Larson. “We then introduced the circulatory system, now we’re thinking more about the nervous systems of buildings.”

The central nervous system strategy explores responsive lighting and sensors that can reconfigure lighting automatically, including an interesting finding that blue light uses approximately 30 per cent less energy than full spectrum light.

In collaboration with Siemens, MIT has taken LED lights and connected them to a sensor network that recognises and responds to office activities. MIT is now observing whether people can work productively in these dynamically changing work environments, which can lead to energy savings of up to 35 per cent.

The Future of Sensors

The future of sensors

Larson predicts a smaller footprint approach which reduces consumption among all inhabitants and machines.

“We love technology, we love designing new vehicles, cities are for people, not for machines and we need to start with people first,” he said.

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