14 innovative city design features

Ianthe Butt
18 February 2014

What will the super-efficient city of the future look like? Ianthe Butt tracks down some of the world's best urban developments so far

By 2020, the world population will be 9 billion and 75 per cent of us will live in cities, many of which are creaking under the strain. The perfect metropolis remains science fiction — but innovative designs are transforming urban living.

Water-producing billboards
The desert city of Lima is one of the driest in the world (second only to Cairo). Annual precipitation is less than 2cm, but the atmospheric humidity averages 83 per cent. Peru's University of Engineering and Technology and ad agency Mayo Draftfcb have created the world's first advertising billboard, which condenses moisture in the air into drinking water. The billboard houses an internal reverse osmosis filtration system: air passes through a filter on the side of the billboard and into a condenser, producing water, which is then purified and collected in a tank with taps.

Instant cycle lanes
Separating cycle lanes with a kerb — or at a different level to the road — decreases accidents and encourages cycling. Many cities, however, are still reluctant to invest in costly permanent cycle tracks. Enter the Copenhagenize Flow. These pre-fabricated recycled tiles click together to create an inexpensive, easy-to-implement and effective temporary cycle track system. Up to a kilometre can be laid in a day by a small team, at a tenth of the cost of a permanent structure.

Auto-dimming streetlamps
Why do streetlamps burn so brightly when no one is there to see them? This question is one Tvilight BV addresses with its dimmable streetlamps. Containing a wireless sensor module, during off-peak hours, lamps dim to a lower level. When a car, pedestrian or cyclist nears the lamp, the brightness increases to its maximum level. Light pollution is reduced, up to 80 per cent of energy is saved and carbon dioxide emissions are lower. The antithesis of a dim idea.

Carsharing with electric, foldable cars
Carsharing allows cities to keep up with public transit demands, while helping to combat congestion and pollution, says Boyd Cohen, urban and climate strategist. 'Twelve to 20 cars are taken off the roads for every vehicle added to a carsharing system.' Berlin is already home to eight carsharing companies, and now national rail company Deutsche Bahn is piloting its own carsharing programme with Hiriko's folding electronic cars. 'These occupy much less valuable space when parked,' says Cohen.

Digitally connected urban forests
One proposed solution to drought and rising temperatures in Melbourne is to increase the city's green canopy coverage from 20 per cent to 40 per cent by 2040. It is hoped that this increase will lower summertime temperatures by 4ºC. ‘There is an online interactive map of all trees in the city,' says Carlo Ratti, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Senseable City Lab. We'd love to see more cities branching out with green initiatives.

The Landfill solar energy site
Michael Bloomberg, the former Mayor of New York City, is set to convert 47 acres of landfill in Freshkills Park on Staten Island into the city's largest solar-energy facility. It's great to see a site like this being transformed into a showcase for urban renewal and sustainability. Once completed, it will produce up to 10 megawatts of power, enough for 2,000 homes. Operated by SunEdison, the site will increase New York's renewable energy capacity by 50 per cent.

Helmet vending machines
Forget fizzy drinks and crisps, Boston has upped the vending machine game with rentable cycle helmets. A study found that 80 per cent of those using bike-share schemes fail to wear a helmet. Each solar-powered HelmetHub, developed by Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduates, holds 36 helmets equipped with identification chips — which allow helmets to be tracked and their usage analysed.

Collaborative hackathons
Coding for a better country? You bet. Rewired State runs the annual conferences Parliament Hack and Hack the Government, which encourage hackers to use digital innovation and government data to solve real-world problems. One success story was GovSpark, which compiled energy consumption figures of each individual government department, to compare usage and monitor the government's pledge to reduce their carbon footprint. And, remarkably, this was created by a 16-year-old, Isabell Long.,

Carbon-neutral and zero-net energy office
The Aldo Leopold Foundation Headquarters in Wisconsin was the world's first building to be platinum certified carbon neutral in 2007 — but they're still far from the norm. The latest incarnation is Seattle's Bullitt Center, built last year. It's a carbon-neutral building, and, by generating its own electricity and water, will be zero-net energy too. This is particularly significant given that in the US, buildings account for 38 per cent of carbon-dioxide emissions, 30 per cent of waste and 65 per cent of electrical use. ‘The Bullitt Center sets an enviable standard for environmental responsibility for new construction — plus its elegant design makes sustainability sexy,' says Jonathan Nettler from urban planning website Planetizen.

Garden Bridge
Linking the South Bank to Temple, London's proposed Garden Bridge will provide a welcome shot of greenery across London's metallic skyline. Subject to funding, construction is due to begin in 2015 and combines a pedestrian crossing with public garden. The bridge, designed by Thomas Heatherwick — of London 2012's Olympic Cauldron fame — is set to increase the capital's ecological diversity with a huge range of trees, flowers and plants.

Augmented reality
Imagine looking at a busy city skyline, and moments later seeing the same area as it was hundreds of years ago. Now you can, with an augmented reality layer accessible by tablet computer, smartphone or Google Glass. 'This type of AR technology is likely to arrive sooner than you think,' says PD Smith, author of City: a Guidebook for the Urban Age. Seville's Past View video glasses enable you to see how buildings and streets looked in the past. 'In the future,' Smith adds, ‘the digital dimension will be essential to urban inhabitants.',

Improved liveability
Liveability is creeping up the agenda of many cities, and Moscow is no exception. 'Moscow has adopted people-first policies as city-planning strategy,' says Jan Gehl of Urban Quality Consultants Gehl Architects. ‘The city's streets and public spaces have been transformed.' The main street, Tverskaya, is an example. ‘It used to be dominated by cars and billboards. Now, you can see the Kremlin in the distance and walk without having to jump in between cars,' says Gehl. 'This marks a fundamental shift in city planning.'

Climate-controlled bus stops
Think of transport in Dubai, and an SUV probably springs to mind. But the Gulf city-state deserves credit for its climate-controlled enclosed bus shelters, says Daniel Brook, author of A History of Future Cities. ‘Over 1,000 futuristic pods sit on the city's roadsides, providing air-conditioned comfort for 14 potential passengers,' he says. With temperatures often tipping 40°C in the summer months, it is the norm to use a car, even for short distances. The hope is that the bus shelters will change this. ‘Dubai's transit authority is now implementing free wifi [to those with a valid fare card] in the shelters too,' says Brook.

The Water Bench 
Water Bench is an unconventional looking park bench. The design, from Shanghai's Mars Architects, is based on an antique Chesterfield sofa. Inside, the bench is threaded with tufted seams that collect and guide rainwater into a water tank ranging from 500-1,500 litres in capacity. A selection of drainage buttons then allow this water to be used to irrigate gardens and land plots — which is a boon in Mumbai, where public water supplies are low.

British Airways and its codeshare partners fly to all of the cities featured here.