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Will the City of the Future Be Designed Around Energy?0

Michael Kanellos | Wed Oct 13 2010 |

Ports and Forts

If you think about it, those have been the two operative principles of urban planning since the building of Ur 6,200 years ago. Cities needed to be connected to transportation links and, ideally, easily defended against roving armies and enemy ships. It wasn’t until Las Vegas that cities existed strictly for fun.

Now, modern megalopolises–particularly those in the emerging world–are being strangled by traffic jams, antiquated water and sewage systems, rolling blackouts and horrendous pollution. In Beijing, you might as well smoke, joke residents: walking around the city fills your lungs with the equivalent of a pack a day.

By 2030, the United Nations predicts that 60 percent of the world’s population will live in cities. Forty percent of China’s population already lives in urban centers, according to Stanley Yip, director of planning and development for Arup China, an urban development firm.

These problems don’t just exist overseas. Bostonians had to go without water for days after a main broke this year. Large portions of the U.S. water infrastructure are over 100 years old—50 to 60 percent of Chicago’s water never makes it to the tap.

Growth and survival might mean building cities with an eye toward access to resources. In Abu Dhabi, the government is putting the final touches on Masdar City, a zero-energy community that will contain a graduate school, housing, and an industrial park. Reliance on air conditioning is minimized by installing wind towers (to bring breezes down to walkway level) and plotting landmarks to create shade. (Here’s a video of the construction.) Cars are banned: to get around you hop around on robotic electric cars.

Meanwhile, the Shanghai Center, opening in 2014, will contain eight separate neighborhoods, stacked one on top of each other. The 14-story neighborhoods will include residences, shops, offices and on the floors, parks and lawns.

Both Masdar and the Shanghai Center, of course, will be upscale, gated communities, but efforts are underway to tackle the more far-ranging problems. Car companies and several governments have begun trials to employ IT technologies to monitor and control traffic better. Modular, energy-efficient desalination and purification are being considered in India. Recycling and harvesting methane from landfill will curb energy costs, but also reduce health hazards.

Will some object? Sure. Humanity has spent thousands of years overcoming the hazards of the natural world. Ideally, the compelling aesthetics of environmentally planned cities and homes will make people overlook that they are living within limits. But it will still take unprecedented planning and cooperation.

Can we get there, or will we get stuck in traffic?