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How Design and Urban Planning Will Shape the City of the Future

Architectural Digest recently asked five HOK design and planning leaders to share their thoughts on the challenges and technology that will shape the city of 2039. Here is the full conversation.

What will cities look like in 20 years? What will be the most important elements in urban planning?

jencek-150Brian Jencek, director of planning based in HOK’s San Francisco office:

“We are looking to combine people-focused design with cutting-edge technology to enhance livability with a greener, more connected public realm and new levels of sustainability.” 

We’re exploring how autonomous vehicles and emerging mobility systems can enhance connectivity and reshape the public realm. A city’s inhabitants experience it through the streets, corridors and connections that are rapidly evolving to address ride-share services, public transit and the promise of autonomous vehicles (AVs).

As AVs begin to shape a greener, more pedestrian-friendly and better connected public realm, we’re working with developers and cities to create new parking policies and standards that will enable parking garages to be transformed into mixed-use facilities (below). 

parking-garage Above: A parking garage reimagined as a workplace in the age of autonomous vehicles.  

rae-smithRae Smith, senior urban designer in HOK’s San Francisco studio:

Our cities are growing even as public health is declining. Building a healthier world will largely hinge on what we do outside the healthcare system and our ability to build more equitable cities, active communities and healthier places.

How do we design our infrastructure to get more value out of our streets? We are laser-focused on creating places for people. In these community conversations planners, urban designers, landscape architects and architects must set a positive vision of the tangible benefits smart urban planning can bring to our physical environments and our lives.  

The advent of the car forever changed our world. We began to pave the planet, transforming the urban realm with smog, heat sinks and noise. To thrive in the future, we need to maximize the value of our built environment and leverage it to solve multiple problems at once. Innovations in AV technology could inspire a greener, safer and radically pedestrian-centric streetscape.

Above: Conceptional rendering of the Khed Special Economic Zone in Mahrashtra, India. 

What sort of transportation will we have? Will roads be the same, for example, or irrelevant?

anthony-fieldmanAnthony Fieldman, design principal based in HOK’s Toronto studio:

All cars will be autonomous, as legislators are no longer able to ignore the fact that human drivers pose a clear and present danger. Two other forces will accelerate this: vehicles that are on-demand and zero emissions. Once these three forces take hold, cities will be irreversibly transformed:

  • Car ownership will give way to the share economy.
  • Rides will be hailed within seconds. 
  • Traffic will be a thing of the past, since every car will be part of a massive net and be able to ride just inches from others without danger. 
  • Our blood pressure will drop as ‘time certainty’ becomes possible and rushing is no longer necessary. 
  • Parking lanes will disappear, since cars can remain in motion without penalty. 
  • Traffic lights and road signs will be unnecessary. 
  • Humans will wear transponders that a car can ‘see’ and then instantly stop when a pedestrian crosses its path. 
  • Cars will become mobile living rooms and productivity will skyrocket. 
  • Roadbed recovered in cities and countryside will be returned to green. 
  • Public health will improve as carbon monoxide is eliminated in cities. 
  • Global warming will slow, though perhaps not soon or by enough.

Personally, I cannot wait!

Above: Autonomous vehicles allow streets to become part of the urban green space

Rae Smith:

Today cars take up 75 percent of our urban street environments. AVs will be able to operate in as little as 25 percent of the urban street environment, returning up to half of the street to human and natural uses. The efficiencies of AVs will provide opportunities to reclaim and repurpose city streets, creating open space for commerce, fitness and relaxation.

The redesign imagines environments that reorient to our natural rhythms so that overhead street lights, signage and traffic lights disappear and the city aligns with our circadian rhythms. It imagines a new urban soundscape in the 45-50 decibel range of a park or quiet courtyard. It creates places with less pavement and more trees, landscape, infiltration capacity and clean conveyance of stormwater to nurture healthy streams, rivers and lakes. It allows for city kids to play freely and creatively with less supervision. It extends an invitation for restaurants, workspace, retail, fitness and other ground level activities to spill out from the building and onto the sidewalks.

How will coastal cities like Miami or Venice be dealing with sea level rise?

kenworthey-150William Kenworthey, regional leader of planning based in HOK’s New York studio:

First, to prepare communities for the effects of climate change over the coming decades we need a public education and engagement process. There needs to be more public dialogue about how to adapt our cities to be more resilient and which infrastructure investments make economic sense.

What timeframe are we designing for and what is the target of coastal protection? Some cities will not be able to hold back the water without undertaking massive engineering projects or acknowledging that there are some impossible geological conditions that we can’t fix. Cities don’t last forever and, depending on the long-term realities of sea level rise, some may become the ‘new Atlantis.’

Above: Taihu Lake Golden Bay Tourism Complex in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province, China.

The unfortunate reality is that ceasing to pump carbon into the atmosphere doesn’t seem to be an option for our current civilization. Some politicians won’t even acknowledge the reality of climate change. Without leadership and coordinated public and private action now, the long-term impacts of climate change on coastal cities will continue to be unpredictable. I hope for the best but we must plan for the worst.

For Venice and Miami, building higher and planning for more canals, bridges and offshore breakwater structures are future considerations. Venice is already a model for how Miami might evolve to cede ground floors to the sea and become a city of canals and bridges. The soil in South Florida is a real challenge, so coordinating the infrastructure for all the different municipalities will require a regional strategy.

Above: Msheireb Heart of Doha imagines a sustainable, live-work community in the capital of Qatar.

What will the next generation of office buildings and condo/apartment towers look like? As the populations of cities grow, how will we accommodate the influx in people? 

mark-ejnes-150Mark Ejnes, design principal in HOK’s Los Angeles studio:

The next generation of buildings will have to be very adaptable and better accommodate the always changing needs of the people using them. Office buildings are already being designed to be more open in order to both allow for reconfiguration and to encourage more employee interaction. The buildings of the future will also include improved amenities and better connect with public spaces, so it’ll be easier to incorporate “live” and “play” into the places you “work.” There will be more cross-pollination of these activities.

Above: The award-winning Tamar Government Complex and greenspace in Hong Kong. 

How important will urban parks and green spaces be to cities and to human well-being, and how will we carve out space for them? Will green roofs and vertical gardening be the norm?

Mark Ejnes:

We already know that parks and green spaces in cities are very important to human well-being: there are numerous health, social and environmental benefits to having green spaces. In addition to large urban parks and green spaces, we’ll need to incorporate greenery into every space we can whether that is through balconies, green roofs or vertical gardening. In general, there will be more blending of indoor and outdoor spaces. For example, in workplace design, we’re incorporating more outdoor gathering spaces so that clients have the option to hold meetings, eat or just be outside.

Rae Smith:

Urban parks and green spaces are critical for human well-being. Urban greenery can help improve focus, enhance mood and eliminate fatigue. A short walk down a city street with trees improves short-term memory by up to 20 percent and can improve creative problem solving by up to 50 percent. A comprehensive study of walkability has found that people in walkable neighborhoods engaged in 35–45 more minutes of moderately intense physical activity per week and were substantially less likely to be overweight than people living in low walkability neighborhoods.

nile-valley-2Above: Nile Valley Aquaponics offers a sustainable method of farming to support urban communities. 

Anthony Fieldman:

Human beings are biological creatures whose needs are inextricable from our genetic origins, however quickly the pace of change threatens to upend this natural order.

In the context of children who don’t interact ‘the old way’ and who lament being outdoors for its lack of outlets and Wi-Fi, we are seeing an equal and opposite reaction by those just a few years their senior: a yearning for the tangible because of how removed from it our digital worlds have made us. Just look at the landscape of twenty-something creatives whose burgeoning epicenter may well be Brooklyn:

  • Artisanal, small-batch, uber-healthy everything, from coffee to chocolate to chicken eggs to bitters, cheese and beer.
  • Beard-and-plaid lumberjack chic; natural light-drenched workplaces covered fully in natural woods, daylighting, exposed concrete, stone, with gardens, textiles, bicycles and fruit bowls—everything to make it the opposite of sterile.
  • Urban gardens where symbiotic fish-and-greens hydroponic farms serve fresh lettuce, herbs and tilapia grown on the rooftop of your condo.
  • The uptick in Western adoption of meditation, yoga and other consciousness-centering practices that reground us in what we have forgotten.

To my eye, all of these are the direct result of feeling so disconnected from nature that we are reinventing it in our image. In this way, the future is green and Zen—and it all unfolds within 100 meters of your home.