Sub-sonic travel, beautiful infrastructure and space-saving micro-housing, plus seven other remarkable urban innovations that are changing the world’s cities, for the better.
Cities, at best, are a patchwork of unordered infrastructure, where utilities, services and resources are installed on an as-needed basis. With the advent of smart technology, urban centres with an eye on the future are angling to become far more savvy, connected, efficient and, yes, orderly.
Sooner than you imagine, you may wake up in a community that feeds and powers itself, and you’re likely to arrive at work in your electric car that can park itself and power up at a charging station, or–even better–feed electricity back to the grid while you get on with your day. Communities, too, will monitor your habits, even your waste, to help you live a healthier, more sustainable life. According to MIT researcher Newsha Ghaeli, who is currently hoping to curb disease and viruses by mapping out sewer systems, “Everyone knows we need to take a look at how we are planning and developing our cities. Fresh thinking is very important and multi-disciplinary collaboration is crucial for that to happen.”
1 Beautiful public transit in Munich, Germany
Toronto, Washington,and Boston are just three metropolises where fewer residents used public transport in than they did a year earlier. In Los Angeles alone, ridership has declined 10 per cent over the past decade, despite a US$9-billion investment in a new light rail and subway system. Transit that runs on time at a reasonable cost will always appeal to customers, but attractive stations are also magnets for riders. Last year in Munich, the transit authority unveiled German industrial designer Ingo Maurer’s eye-catching redesign of the Marienplatz subway station, featuring coated metal ceilings and lines of LEDs that bathe the hub in a welcoming red-orange light. The city has yet to determine if ridership has risen post-opening, but the feel-good atmosphere is getting rave reviews from riders enjoying a more pleasant daily commute.
2 Self-sufficient communities in the Netherlands
Living off-grid isn’t the utopian dream it once was. In the United States alone, an estimated 200,000 people willingly live a self-sustaining existence, even in cities. The dream now is to build entire communities that have pulled the plug. ReGen Villages, an off-grid master plan imagined by architecture firm EFFEKT and California developer James Ehrlich, may be that vision realized. The settlements of 75 to 100 people will actively grow their own food in gable-roofed greenhouses and produce their own energy.
Construction on the first village of 25 homes broke ground last summer, in Almere, the Netherlands, with others planned in Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Germany. Each home reduces energy consumption with passive heating and cooling systems and generates electricity with solar panels as well as a community biomass plant. Greenhouses, indoor vertical farms and livestock will feed families, with waste handled via a closed-loop system.
3 Sub-sonic travel in Los Angeles
An experiment with the potential to massively shrink our carbon footprint and move people and things faster took place in May at a test site in the Nevada desert. The first trial of Hyperloop One saw an electrically-propelled sled race down a track at 187 kilometres an hour. If fully realized, passenger and freight pods will one day rocket through tubes at 1,200 kilometres an hour. Thanks to magnetic technology and a low-pressure environment, travel from Toronto to Montreal would take a mere 30 minutes.
Tesla Motors CEO and entrepreneurial billionaire Elon Musk spurred renewed interest in the science by announcing he wanted to build a pneumatic tube between Los Angeles and San Francisco, and now various engineering firms have jumped on the challenge. Hyperloop One aims to move cargo as soon as 2019, with passengers travelling the link by 2021. “This is rad,” says co-founder Brogan BamBrogan. “And it’s going to get a lot radder from here.”
4 Skyline commuting in Chicago
With urban transportation increasingly stalled by congestion, visionaries are looking up for inspiration. In recent years, British firm Foster+Partners unveiled plans for SkyCycle, a 220-kilometre network of bike paths elevated above London’s railway lines; and in Tel Aviv, SkyTran is about to test a system of automated maglev capsules that travel on elevated rail, taking individuals and small groups on demand and directly to their locations. Now, a Chicago developer and tourism promoter are floating (literally) their vision for a cable car traversing the downtown core. Sailing up to 17 storeys above the Windy City’s streets, the gondolas would transport 3,000 passengers hourly from Navy Pier to Millennium Park. The proposal’s clear pods are the work of U.K. firm Marks Barfield Architects, designers of the London Eye.
5 High-street activism in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Earlier this year, global outdoor advertising agency Posterscope and NBS of Brazil unveiled a unique billboard in Rio de Janeiro that attracts and kills potentially deadly mosquitoes. When the sign releases carbon dioxide and a lactic acid solution–a combination that mimics the smell of human sweat and breath–the insects are drawn from as far away as 2.5 kilometres and become trapped inside the sign. With the Zika virus now considered a global health emergency, the billboards have the potential to help curb the spread of the disease.
Two billboards have been installed on the streets of Rio, and the firms have posted blueprints and technical specifications online to encourage others to replicate the design worldwide. It’s not the first time that billboards have combined technology with social activism. In 2013, a billboard in water-starved Lima, Peru, drew moisture out of the humid air to generate drinkable water. mosquitokillerbillboard.com
6 Urban micro-housing in New York City
Cost and availability of housing is a pressing issue in urban centres worldwide, but a New York City project offers hope to those lacking both money and space. In May, nArchitects and Monadnock Development opened Carmel Place, a modular, micro-residential building in Manhattan’s Kips Bay neighbourhood. Units are built from steel frames and concrete slabs fabricated in nearby Brooklyn and rent for as little as US$950 per month, compared to $3,400 for a typical Manhattan one bedroom. The complex features 55 apartments ranging from 23 to 34 square metres. (The city relaxed minimum size requirements for the project.) Construction took 12 months.
7 Smarter streets in the Netherlands
In the early years of the new millennium, smart phones began to integrate the most useful everyday electronics into a single device. Now, Dutch lighting firm Lightwell is doing the same for street infrastructure, to help bring order to our lives and de-clutter our neighbourhoods. Launched at Light + Building in Frankfurt earlier this year, LightMotion combines Wi-Fi, an electric vehicle (EV) charging station, a parking meter, a video surveillance camera and weather and carbon dioxide sensors. Embedded software enables residents to use an app to find an empty EV-charge station or locate and pay for parking. Manufacturing begins this year.
8 Disease control mapping in Cambridge, Massachusetts
Do not fear what lies beneath. That’s the message of the Underworlds, a US$4-million initiative that digs into our sewage to better understand human health, behaviour and the spread of disease. Researchers at MIT, led by project manager Newsha Ghaeli, are presently collecting samples from sewers in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to track the presence of viruses, e-coli, bacterial pathogens responsible for such diseases as cholera, and illegal and prescription drugs.
The resulting data can help create medical or behavioural maps of neighbourhoods to predict epidemics, offer targeted health education campaigns for such issues as high-blood pressure, even influence city bylaws or health regulations. “It’s no longer enough for cities to be sustainable,” says Ghaeli. “If we want cities to be safe, our generation is going to have to tackle health-issues head on.”
9 Auto-pilot fuel stations in London, U.K.
If we want a cleaner planet, we need greener vehicles. In Canada, passenger and freight travel account for almost one-quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions, but the ability to conveniently charge electric vehicles is a serious barrier to their mass deployment. That’s why automakers, including GM, Ford, Mercedes and Toyota, and such technology companies as Apple, are exploring how to integrate EV-charge stations into our streetscapes. Nissan and Foster+Partners recently collaborated on a promising scheme that imagines a refuelling network that wirelessly recharges vehicles while parked. And as self-driving vehicles are introduced, cars will be able to charge themselves and then re-park, to allow another vehicle to power up.
10 High-speed Wi-Fi for all in New York City
There is a lot of talk about technology reshaping our cities. Trash bins, for instance, may soon be able to summon a garbage collector when they are full, and a street management system will talk to your car to help locate an available parking space. We’re not there yet, but Sidewalk Labs, a Google research unit, is looking to become a leader in smart-city technology. Its first initiative is now in place in New York City, where it has partnered with communication firms and the city to replace pay phones with sleek kiosks that not only provide free local calling, but also free high-speed Wi-Fi, web browsing and device charging. Known as LinkNYC, the terminals also collect traffic flow information and air quality and noise data. Already, 180 kiosks are in operation and the plan is to roll out 7,500 units over the coming years.