The Future of Urban Planning: The Urban Skyfarm

urban-skyfarm-9The world’s population is projected to grow to between 9 and 10 billion people by the middle of the century. What’s more, roughly two-thirds of those people are expected to live in major cities. Coupled with the expected changes caused by Climate Change (i.e. increased drought and less in the way of arable land), and its understandable why urban farms are seen as a means of picking up the slack.

That’s the concept behind the Urban Skyfarm, a concept for a skyscraper that is shaped like a tree and comes with leaf-like decks to provide space for real trees to grow. Currently, most vertical farming operations – like warehouses in Chicago, Kyoto, Singapore and a recent skyscraper built in Sweden by Plantagon – grow plants with ultra-high-efficiency systems under artificial light.

urban-skyfarm-2However, this new design concept from Aprilli Design Studio takes a different approach, using lightweight decks to provide growing space outdoors on the sides of a giant skyscraper. The architects aren’t the first to embrace the trend of sticking greenery on towers, but they may be one of the first to look at how to use the technique to maximize food production. As architects Steve Lee and See Yoon Park explained:

Our version of the vertical farm was intended to become an independent, open-to-air structure which would be purely focusing on farming activities and sustainable functions such as generating renewable energy and performing air, and water filtration.

Designed to mimic the shape of an enormous tree, the Urban Skyfarm uses leaf-like decks to provide 24 acres of space for growing fruit trees and plants. The “trunk” houses an indoor hydroponic farm for greens, and solar panels and wind turbines at the top of the tower provide enough energy to power the whole operation. The design would also capture rainwater and filter it through a constructed wetland before returning it to a nearby stream.

urban-skyfarm-5So in addition to growing food and using rainwater to provide irrigation, the building also was also designed with an eye towards energy independence. The architects envision the project in the middle of downtown Seoul, South Korea:

It seemed to be an ideal place to test out our prototype since the specific area is very dense and highly active and has been suffering for a long time by all sorts of environmental problems resulting from rapid urbanization…With the support of hydroponic farming technology, the space could efficiently host more than 5,000 fruit trees. Vertical farming is more than an issue of economical feasibility, since it can provide more trees than average urban parks, helping resolve urban environmental issues such as air pollution, water run-off and heat island effects, and bringing back balance to the urban ecology.

The design would also provide community gardens, park space, and a farmers market to cater to a demand for fresh, local food in a city where apples can cost more than $20 at local markets.

urban-skyfarm-7Vertical farming has already started in South Korea. Another project, based in Suwon, is growing food in a three-story building and may eventually expand into a skyscraper. But the outdoor vertical farm is just a concept for now. Lee and Park are confident this is the way of the future, and that demand for clean, sustainable buildings that grow fresh food is only going to increase:

We believe there will be more attention and discussions of vertical farms as the 2015 Milan Expo approaches, and we hope the Urban Skyfarm can become part of the discussion as a prototype proposal. Vertical farming really is not only a great solution to future food shortage problems but a great strategy to address many environmental problems resulting from urbanization.

And with the problems of urban growth and diminished farmland occurring all over the developed world – but especially in nations like China, Indonesia, the Philippines, and India (which are likely to be the hardest hit by Climate Change) – innovative designs that combine sustainability and urban farming are likely to become all the rage all over the world.

Source: fastcoexist.com

Climate Crisis: China’s Pollution-Eating Skyscrapers

phoenix-towers-worlds-tallest-wuhan-china-designboom-01 Though it is already home to the world’s largest building – in the form of the New Century Global Center in Chendu – China is seeking to create the world’s tallest structure as well. Designed by UK-based Chetwoods Architects and known as the Phoenix Towers, this tower concept is slated to be built in Wuhan, Central China. But equally impressive is the fact that this building will be suck pollution out of the air and water and will host more than the usual building features.

The larger of the two towers reaches a total of 1000 meters (3,280 ft) in height – beating the Burj Khalifa by 170 meters (558 ft) – and sports an ambitious list of sustainable technology. The towers cover 7 hectares (17 acres) of ground on a 47-hectare (116-acre) plot that sits upon an island in a lake. In an attempt to make the design of the towers more relevant to Chinese culture, Chetwoods drew upon the Fenghuang (or Chinese Phoenix) mythological bird and designated the larger tower Feng (male), and the smaller tower Huang (female).

phoenix_towers_chetwoods-2The designers hope the building will serve as a catalyst for more sustainable design in the industrial city. Laurie Chetwood, chairman of U.K.-based Chetwoods, the architects on the project explained how the building’s water-cleaning features work:

The water goes up through a series of filters. We don’t use power to pull the water up, we’re using passive energy. As it goes through the filters and back, we’re also putting air back into the lake to make it healthier… Wuhan is an unusual city, dotted with huge lakes. Protecting the lakes could lead to other projects that protect them even more.

The towers also have pollution-absorbing coatings to help clean the air, vertical gardens that filter more pollution, and a chimney in the middle of the larger tower naturally pulls air across the lake for better ventilation. For the sake of generating energy, the building relies on a combination of wind turbines, lightweight solar cladding, and hydrogen fuel cells running on the buildings’ waste, giving it energy independence and even having enough left over for the local community.

phoenix_towers_chetwoods-4Inspired by the Chinese symbols of the phoenix, and the concept of yin and yang, one tower feeds the other with renewable power in a symbiotic relationship. Spheres hanging between the two towers will also hold restaurants with views of the lake. Pending approval by the city’s mayor, construction may begin by the end of the year and could be completed by 2017 or 2018, a pace that the architects say would be unlikely in other countries.

According to Chetwood, construction in China obeys a different set of rules and parameters than his native Britain:

The most amazing thing for me is that in the U.K. we strive as designers to get things built, and there’s a lot of red tape, but the Chinese seem to have a different view of things. I think they’re incredibly optimistic. If you have an idea and you think, ‘Oh, is this going to be too exciting’, they’ll actually want it more exciting. It’s more ambitious. They’re quite keen to push the boundaries. For a designer, that’s fantastic. It’s a thrill.

Whereas the sheer size of the buildings is reflective of China’s aim to assert its national authority on the world stage, it’s focus on pollution-eating and green energy is reflective of the desire to create living spaces in a sustainable way. And it is one of many building concepts being considered by Chinese authorities that seeks to address pollution by achieve energy independence, while at the same time being part of the solution by incorporating pollution-eating features.

shanghai_towerFor instance, there’s China’s Shanghai Tower, which finished construction in August of last year. This building is currently the tallest tower in China, is one-third green space and a transparent second skin that surrounds the city in a protective air envelope that controls its internal temperature. In addition, vertical-axis wind turbines located near the top of the tower and geothermal vents located at the bottom will generate 350,000 kWh of supplementary electricity per year.

And then there’s Sky City, a building under construction (though currently on hold) in Changsha, Hunan province. Designed by Broad Sustainable Building, this 666m meter (2,185 ft) skyscraper incorporates numerous sustainable building features. These include modular design, recycled building materials, non-toxic building materials, insulated walls and quadruple glazing. Beyond China, there is also the Pertamina Energy Tower in Jakarta, which relies on geothermal, solar, and wind turbines to act as the very picture of energy independence.

Together, these concepts (and many others currently under consideration) represent the future of urban planning and architecture. In addition to being assembled with recycled material, fabricated using less wasteful methods (like 3-D printing), and seeing to their own energy needs in a clean and sustainable way, they will also incorporate carbon capture, air and water cleaning technology that will make urban environments healthier places to live.

Sources: fastcoexist.com, designboom.com, gizmag.com

Climate Crisis: (More) Smog-Eating Buildings

pollution_eating2Air pollution is now one of the greatest health concerns in the world, exceeding cigarettes as the number one killer of people worldwide. With an estimated 7 million deaths in 2012 alone, the WHO now ranks it as the biggest global environmental killer. In fact, of the 1,600 major cities surveyed from around the world, over half are now above the safe limits of Particulate Matter (PM), with the highest cost borne by the poorer regions of South-East Asia and the Western Pacific.

Because of this, Carbon Capture technology is being seriously considered as an integral part of the future of urban planning and architecture. So in addition to addressing the issues if housing needs, urban sprawl and energy usage, major buildings in the future may also come equipped with air-cleaning features. Already, several major cities are taking advantage, and some innovative and futuristic designs have emerged as a result. Consider the following examples:

aircleaning_skyscraperCO2ngress Gateway Towers: Conceived by architects Danny Mui and Benjamin Sahagun while studying at the Illinois Institute of Technology, this concept for an air-cleaning skyscraper earned them an honorable mention in the 2012 CTBUH student competition. And while there are no currents plans to build it, it remains a fitting example of innovative architecture and merging carbon capture technology with urban planning and design.

The concept involves two crooked buildings that are outfitted with a filtration system that feeds captured CO2 to algae grown in the building’s interior, which then converts it into biofuels. Aside from the scrubbers, the buildings boast some other impressive features to cut down on urban annoyances. These include the “double skin facade”- two layers of windows – that can cut down on outside traffic noise. In addition, the spaces on either side of the buildings’ central elevator core can be used as outdoor terraces for residents.

CC_catalytic_clothingCatalytic Clothing: A collaborative effort between Helen Storey and Tony Ryan, the goal of this experiment is to incorporate the same pollution-eating titanium dioxide nanoparticles used in carbon capture façade into laundry detergent to coat clothing. According to Ryan, one person wearing the nanoparticle-washed clothes could remove 5 to 6 grams of nitrogen dioxide from the air a day; two pairs of jeans could clean up the nitrogen dioxide from one car.

If enough people in downtown New York, Beijing, Mumbai, Mexico City – or any other major city of the world renowned for urban density, high concentrations of fossil-fuel burning cars, and air pollution – would wear clothing coating with these nanoparticles, air pollution could be severely reduced in a few years time. And all at a cost of a few added cents a wash cycle!

CC_in_praise_of_airIn Praise of Air: Located in Sheffield, England, this 10×20 meter poster shows Simon Armitage’s poem “In Praise of Air”. Appropriately, the poster doubles as a pollution-eating façade that uses titanium dioxide nanoparticles. The full poem reads as follow:

I write in praise of air.  I was six or five
when a conjurer opened my knotted fist
and I held in my palm the whole of the sky.
I’ve carried it with me ever since.

Let air be a major god, its being
and touch, its breast-milk always tilted
to the lips.  Both dragonfly and Boeing
dangle in its see-through nothingness…

Among the jumbled bric-a-brac I keep
a padlocked treasure-chest of empty space,
and on days when thoughts are fuddled with smog
or civilization crosses the street

with a white handkerchief over its mouth
and cars blow kisses to our lips from theirs
I turn the key, throw back the lid, breathe deep.
My first word, everyone’s  first word, was air.

According to Tony Ryan of University of Sheffield, who created it with his colleagues, the poster can absorb about 20 cars’ worth of nitrogen oxide a day and would add less than $200 to the cost of a giant advertisement. While it is a creative tool for promoting a local poetry festival, it also serves as proof of concept that the technology can be incorporated into practically any textile, and will be reproduced on several more banners and posters in the coming months.

hyper_filter1Hyper Filter Skyscraper: Designed by Umarov Alexey of Russia, the Hyper Filter Skyscraper recognizes the threat of environmental pollution and seeks to merge carbon capture technology with the building’s design. Under today’s levels of pollution, harmful substances spread over hundreds of kilometers and a whole region and even a country could represent a single pollution source. Hence the plan to place a air-scrubbing building at the heart of the problem – an urban core.

Consistent with CC technology and the principle of photosynthesis, the Hyper Filter Skyscraper is designed to inhale carbon dioxide and other harmful gases and exhale concentrated oxygen. The skin of the project is made out of long pipe filters that ensure the cleaning process. While clean air is released to the atmosphere, all the harmful substances are stored for use in the chemical industry for later use. These can include chemicals products, biofuels, and even manufactured goods.

CC_mexico-hospital-facade-horizontal-galleryManuel Gea González Hospital: Located in Mexico City, this hospital was unveiled last year. The building features a “smog-eating” façade that covers 2,500 square meters and has titanium dioxide coating that reacts with ambient ultraviolet light to neutralize elements of air pollution, breaking them down to less noxious compounds like water. This was Berlin-based Elegant Embellishment’s first full-scale installation, and its designers claim the façade negates the effects of 1,000 vehicles each day.

Funded by Mexico’s Ministry of Health, the project is part of a three-year, $20 billion investment into the country’s health infrastructure, an effort which earned Mexico the Air Quality Prize at the 2013 City Climate Leadership Awards in London. Considering the fact that Mexico City is <i>the</i> most densely-populated cities in the world – with a population of 21 million people and a concentration of 6,000/km2 (15,000/sq mi) – this should come as no surprise.

CC-pollution-palazzo-italia-horizontal-galleryPalazzo Italia: Located in Milan, this building is designed by the architectural firm Nemesi & Partners, and comes equipped with a jungle-inspired façade that is built from air-purifying, “biodynamic” cement. This shell will cover 13,000 square meters across six floors, and will remove pollutants from the air and turns them into inert salts. Apparently, the material from Italcementi only adds 4-5 percent to the construction costs.

Scientists in the Netherlands have also adapted the photocatalytic material to roads, claiming it can reduce nitrous oxide concentrations by 45 percent. The building is set to launch next year at the 2015 Milan Expo.

Propogate Skyscraper: This pollution skyscraper was designed by Canadian architects YuHao Liu and Rui Wu, and won third place at this year’s eVolo’s Skyscraper Competition. Basically, it envisions a building that would turn air pollution into construction materials and use it to gradually create the building. Relying on an alternative carbon-capture technique that employs philic resins and material processes to transform carbon dioxide into solid construction material, their uses carbon dioxide as a means to self-propagate.

3028400-slide-propagateA simple vertical grid scaffold forms the framework and takes all the ingredients it needs for material propagation from the surrounding environment. Individual living spaces are built within this gridwork, which creates open square spaces between lattices that can then be filled by tenements. Its pattern of growth is defined by environmental factors such as wind, weather, and the saturation of carbon dioxide within the immediate atmosphere.

Thus each building is a direct reflection of its environment, growing and adapting according to local conditions and cleaning as the air as it does so. Unlike conventional skyscrapers, which rely on steel frame and concrete casting, the proposed skyscraper suggests a more environmental conscious construction method, an alternative mode of occupation and ownership, and possibly a distinct organization of social relationships.

Synthesized Spider Web: Another innovative solution comes from Oxford’s Fritz Vollrath, who was inspired by the behavior of spider silk fibers. With the addition of a glue-like coating, the thinness and electrical charge of spider silk allows them to capture any airborne particles that pass through them. These synthesized silk webs could be used like a mesh to capture pollutants – including airborne particulates, chemicals, pesticides, or heavy metals – coming out of chimneys or even disaster zones.

Spiderweb_towersSpiderweb Tower: Considering that London has some of the worst air quality in Europe, and the fact that air pollution is thought to be the second biggest risk to public health in the UK after smoking, solutions that can bring carbon capture and pollution-eating technology to downtown areas are in serious demand. And one solution comes from graduate architect Chang-Yeob Lee, who has come up with a radical design that would turn London’s BT Tower into a pollution harvesting ‘spiderweb’ that turned smog into bio-fuel.

Lee’s plan envisions the skyscraper being covered in a ‘giant eco-catalytic converter’ that traps pollutants from the capital’s air. At the same time, nano-tubes of titanium would turn carbon-dioxide into methanol and water using only the power of the sun. As Lee put it:

The project is about a new infrastructure gathering resources from pollutants in the city atmosphere, which could be another valuable commodity in the age of depleting resources.

Quite a bit of potential, and just in the nick of time too! And be sure to watch this video


Sources: iflscience.com, wired.co.uk, cnn.com, evolo.com, latintimes.com, catalyticpoetry.org

The Future of Transit: Parking Chargers and Charging Ramps

electric-highway-mainWhen it comes to the future of transportation and urban planning, some rather interesting proposals have been tabled in the past few years. In all cases, the challenge for researchers and scientists is to find ways to address future population and urban growth – ensuring that people can get about quickly and efficiently – while also finding cleaner and more efficient ways to power it all.

As it stands, the developed and developing world’s system of highways, mass transit, and emission-producing vehicles is unsustainable. And the global population projected to reach 9 billion by 2050, with just over 6 billion living in major cities, more of the same is just not feasible. As a result, any ideas for future transit and urban living need to find that crucial balance between meeting our basic needs and doing so in a way that will diminish our carbon footprint.

hevo_powerOne such idea comes to us from New York City, where a small company known as HEVO Power has gotten the greenlight to study the possibility of charging parked electric vehicles through the street. Based on the vision of Jeremy McCool, a veteran who pledged to reduce the US’s reliance on foreign fuel while fighting in Iraq, the long-term aim of his plan calls for roadways that charge electric cars as they drive.

Development began after McCool received a $25,000 grant from the Department of Veterans Affairs and put it towards the creation of an EV charging prototype that could be embedded in city streets. Designed to looked like a manhole cover, this charging device runs a type of electromagnetic wireless charging technology proposed by researchers Marian Kazimierczuk of Wright State University and professor Dariusz Czarkowski of NYU’s Polytechnic Institute.

hevo_manholeThe charge consists of two coils – one connected to the grid in the manhole cover, and the other on the electric vehicle. When the car runs over the manhole, the coils conduct a “handshake,” and the manhole delivers a charge on that frequency to the car. Though HEVO has yet to test the device in the real world, they are teamed up with NYU-Poly to develop the technology, and have already proven that it is safe for living things with the help of NYU’s medical labs.

So far, McCool says his company has commitments from seven different companies to develop a series of delivery fleets that run on this technology. These include PepsiCo, Walgreens, and City Harvest, who have signed on to develop a pilot program in New York. By creating regular pick-up and drop-off points (“green loading zones”) in front of stores, these fleets would be able to travel greater distances without having to go out of their way to reach a charging station.

electric_carIn order to test the chargers in New York City in early 2014, HEVO has applied for a $250,000 grant from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. The organization has already granted a feasibility study for the green loading zones. According to McCool, Glasgow’s Economic Development Corps is also exploring the idea of the technology in Scotland.

But looking ahead, McCool and his company have more ambitious plans than just a series of green loading zones. Already, HEVO is developing a proof of concept to place these kinds of chargers along major highways:

The concept is simple. There is a way to provide wireless charging in an HOV lane. That’s a small strip at every yard or so that has another wireless charging plate, so as you go down the street you’re collecting a charge. One wireless charging highway.

However, this is just a first step, and a major infrastructure project will still be needed to demonstrate that the technology truly does have what it takes to offset fossil fuel burning cars and hybrids. However, the technology has proven promising and with further development and investment, a larger-scale of adoption and testing is likely to take place.

roadelectricityAnother interesting idea comes to us from Mexico, where a developer has come up with a rather ingenious idea that could turn mass transit into a source of electricity. The developer’s name is Héctor Ricardo Macías Hernández, and his proposal for a piezoelectric highway could be just the thing to compliment and augment an electric highway that keeps cars charged as they drive.

For years, researchers and developers have been looking for ways to turn kinetic energy – such as foot traffic or car traffic – into electricity. However, these efforts have been marred by the costs associated with the technology, which are simply too high for many developing nations to implement. That is what makes Hernández concept so ingenious, in that it is both affordable and effective.

roadelectricity-0In Macías Hernández’ system, small ramps made from a tough, tire-like polymer are embedded in the road, protruding 5 cm (2 inches) above the surface. When cars drive over them, the ramps are temporarily pushed down. When this happens, air is forced through a bellows that’s attached to the underside of the ramp, travels through a hose, and then is compressed in a storage tank. The stored compressed air is ultimately fed into a turbine, generating electricity.

In this respect, Hernández’s concept does not rely on piezoelectric materials that are expensive to manufacture and hence, not cost effective when dealing with long stretches of road. By relying on simple materials and good old fashioned ingenuity, his design could provide cheap electricity for the developing world by simply turning automobile traffic – something very plentiful in places like Mexico City – into cheap power.

piezoelectric_nanogeneratorMacías Hernández points out, however, that in lower-traffic areas, multiple ramps placed along the length of the road could be used to generate more electricity from each individual vehicle. He adds that the technology could also be used with pedestrian foot-traffic. The system is currently still in development, with the support of the Mexican Institute of Industrial Property, and will likely take several years before becoming a reality.

Exciting times these are, when the possibility of running an advanced, industrial economy cleanly may actually be feasible, and affordable. But such is the promise of the 21st century, a time when the dreams of the past several decades may finally be coming to fruition. And just in time to avert some of our more dystopian, apocalyptic scenarios!

Well, one can always hope, can’t one?

Sources: fastcoexist.com, gizmag.com

NYC’s Futuristic Pool: Cleans Water Before You Swim

exorcisepool-perspective-poolWater pollution is one of the most serious environmental concerns facing the planet, and as with most things environmental, the culprit is urban sprawl. Take Newtown Creek in the Brooklyn neighborhood of East Williamsburg, which is one of the smelliest and dirtiest watersheds in the world. In addition to oil and industrial contaminants, the watershed is heavily burdened by the worst byproduct of urban living there is: sewage.

At present, storm water combines with the local sewage in a pipe-overloading combination that sends over a billion gallons of wastewater into the creek each year. Unlike industrial chemicals, which can be captured and treated to render it harmless, urban sewage is created in volumes that are extremely difficult to manage. And for most cities, the option of simply dumping it in the ocean is too attractive to pass up.

exorcisepool-treatmentHowever, architect Rahul Shah has a bold solution for dealing with this problem: Build a swimming pool. The Exorcise Pool – which Shah proposed for his master’s thesis at Parsons The New School For Design – wouldn’t use water directly from the Newtown Creek, its water supply would be the same, and its purpose would be both to mitigate and reveal the woeful state of local water pollution.

Instead, Shah’s project would divert an estimated 76,000 cubic feet per year of run-off into “bioswales”: ravines full of cattails, bulrush, and algae that would both absorb and carry water downhill. These bioswales would replace sidewalks on eight blocks of East Williamsburg, covered by grates where there are garages or doors to warehouse apartments.

exorcisepool-exteriorWater not absorbed by the plants would be carried to a series of water treatment technologies, using everything from algae to UV light to a bed full of reeds that will help trap solids. Ultimately, the water would not be clean to the point of drinkability, but would be safe as anything found in a pond. And in addition to drawing attention to the state of the river, the purpose, according to Shah, would also be to “showcase of different methods of water treatment.”

But of course, the main attraction, once all this water is treated, would be a series of patio misters and a public pool. The misters, according to Shah, will act as a sort of “test of faith”, where people decide to take a leap by letting treated water touch their skin. After that tentative step, they will have the option of swimming in it.

exorcisepool-showerAnd though the project is not being realized just yet, it stands as a suggestion of how to repurpose and redesign urban structures that were once sources of pollution into something healthier and more natural. In many ways, it calls to mind the work of the design firm Terreform ONE – which is seeking to convert Brooklyn’s Naval Yard into a vast greenspace through living architecture – or New York’s real estate firm Macro Sea, which began converting old dumpsters into mobile swimming pools back in 2011.

In the end, its all about converting the problem into a solution. Repurposing and redesigning the older, dirtier habitats of the past and turning them into something that actively cleans up the despoiled environment is much cheaper and easier than bulldozing and redeveloping them, after all.

And it also serves to remind us of how large urban environments are a part of the solution as well. With many people crammed close together amidst such sprawling infrastructure, the challenge of meeting future demands for space and clean living is visible and direct. As such, it has a hand in leading to innovative solutions and bright ideas.

Sources: fastcoexist.com, terreform.org, macro-sea.com

Climate Crisis: Rising Tides and Sinking Cities

climate_changetideWith all the population, urban sprawl, and consumption that we as a species are imposing on the planet, there are those who argue that we’ve entered a new geological era – known as the Anthropocene. It’s an age we’ve lived in since the neolithic revolution and the advent of farming, one where the human race is the dominant force shaping our planet. Since the industrial revolution, this era has been accelerating and escalating, and things are not likely to get better anytime soon.

It is because of this that we need to contemplate what the near future will look like. Consider the recent floods in the Canadian Prairies, or last year’s wildfires which raged across the American midwest. Consider the famines and shortages that led to a world food price crisis in 2007-8 which had serious political consequences, especially in the Middle East (i.e. the Arab Spring).

climate_changesandyWhen you add to this the fact that rising tides and the increased risk of storms are already effecting coastal communities in severe ways, you begin to understand just how turbulent the next few decades are likely to be. Already, incidents like Hurricane Katrina and Sandy, which rocked the Gulf of Mexico and the Eastern Seaboard in just the past decade, have shown just how extensive the damage can be.

Historically speaking, cities have been built in fertile river valleys and at river mouths to take advantage of fertile conditions, maritime resources and trade. Agricultural run-offs of sediment, water and nutrients created rich coastal deltas that could support greater food production. This and the good maritime and river connections for trade and transport made these ideal places to live.

Population_curve.svgBut as populations grew, rivers were tapped and diverted for irrigation, industry and canal transport. They were also trapped behind dams and reservoirs for energy and water storage, and depleted by droughts and other extractions. Meanwhile groundwater is increasingly being extracted from beneath cities, and sea levels are rising because of the run-off from the melting of glaciers and thermal expansion of the oceans.

As a result of these changes, many major cities are slowly sinking into the oceans. Our rapid industrialization over the past century has sped these processes, so that now, many urban centers face inundation by storm surges, and we stand to lose many of the most economically important parts of our planet. The loss of these cities will mean a terrible loss of life, economic fallout, and a massive refugee crisis.

Population_densityCities from Bangkok to New York have already experienced emergency flood conditions, and many more are to follow. Those most at risk include Mumbai, Guangzhou, Shanghai, Miami, Ho Chi Minh City, Calcutta, New York City, Osaka-Kibe, Alexandria and New Orleans. More than 3 billion people currently live in coastal areas at risk of global warming impacts such as rising sea levels – a number expected to rise to 6 billion by 2025.

And as was recently learned, the carbon levels in the upper atmosphere have surpassed 400 ppm (parts per million). The last time the atmosphere boasted this concentration of greenhouse gases was the Pliocene Era, a time when sea levels were as much as 60 to 80 feet higher than they current are. If sea levels rise to that level again, we can say goodbye to all these major cities, as well as any that sit on major waterways.

climate_changeshanghaiIt’s not just a matter of water rising up to swallow the coastlines, you see. As the flooding in southern Alberta and the Canadian Prairies demonstrated this week, there’s also the threat of flooding due to increased precipitation and of sewage systems backing up from increased storms and rainfall. These threats make shoring up river deltas and waterways effectively useless, since its not simply a matter of blocking the tides and rivers.

In terms of solutions, a number of major cities are investing in new sea walls, dykes and polders, or high-tide gates – like London’s Thames Barrier – to hold back high waters. In poorer places, people simply endure the problem until they are forced to abandon their homes. As the problem gets worse though, coordinated efforts to rescue people caught in flood zones will need to be mounted.

climate_changedykesAnd there are those who speculate that underwriting the damage will be a waste of time, since no government will be able to afford to compensate its citizens for the untold billions in property damage. In reality, many of these place will simply have to be abandoned as they become unlivable, and those forced out resettled to higher ground or protected communities.

At this point in any lecture on the fate of our planet, people are about ready to abandon hope and hang themselves. Hence, I should take this opportunity to point out that plans for dealing with the problem at the root – cutting our carbon footprint – are well underway. In addition to clean energy becoming more and more feasible commercially, there are also some very viable concepts for carbon capture.

These include inventions like artificial trees and ecoengineering, which will no doubt become absolutely essential in coming years. At the same time though, urban planning and architecture are beginning to embrace a number of alternative and clean technology concepts as part of their design. Not only will future buildings be designed to provide for the needs of their residents – food, water, electricity – in sustainable ways, they will also incorporate devices that can trap smog and turn it into biofuels and other useful products.

Of this, I will be saying more in the next post “Thinking, Breathing Cities of the Future”. Stay tuned!

Source: bbc.com

The Future of Cities and Urban Planning

future-city-1With the development of vertical farms, carbon capture technology, clean energy and arcologies, the future of city life and urban planning is likely to be much different than it does today. Using current trends, there are a number of people who are determined to gain some understanding of what that might look like. One such group is Arup, a design and engineering firm that produced a mockup that visualizes what urban environments will look like in 2050.

Based on the world as it is today, certain facts about the future seem relatively certain. For starters, three-quarters of the population will live in cities, or 6.75 billion of the projected 9 billion global total. In addition, everyone will have grown up with the Internet, and its successors, and city residents will have access to less natural resources than they do today, making regeneration and efficiency more of a priority.

Add to this several emerging technologies, and our urban environments are likely to look something like the building mockup below. As you can see, it has its own energy systems (“micro-wind,” “solar PV paint,” and “algae facade” for producing biofuels). There is an integrated layer for meat, poultry, fish, and vegetable farming, a “building membrane” that converts CO2 to oxygen, heat recovery surfaces, materials that phase change and repair themselves, integration with the rest of the city, and much more.

future_urban_planning

Most futuristic of all is the fact that the structure is completely modular and designed to be shifted about (by robots, of course). The building has three layer types, with different life-spans. At the bottom is a permanent layer – with a 10 to 20-year lifespan – which includes the “facade and primary fit-out walls, finishes, or on-floor mechanical plant” – and a third layer that can incorporate rapid changes, such as new IT equipment.

As Arup’s Josef Hargrave described the building when unveiling the design:

[A]ble to make informed and calculated decisions based on their surrounding environment… [a] living and breathing [structure] able to support the cities and people of tomorrow.

In short, the building is designed with personal needs in mind, based on information gleamed from a person’s behaviors, stated preferences, and even genetic information.

aircleaning_skyscraper3But what is even more interesting is how these buildings will be constructed. As countless developments are made in the field of robotics, biotechnology and nanotechnology, both the materials used and the processes involved are likely to be radically different. The rigid construction that we are used to is likely to give way to buildings which are far more flexible, adaptive, and – best of all – built by robots, drones, tiny machines and bacteria cultures.

Once again, this change is due mainly to the pressures that are being placed on urban environments, and not just technological advances. As our world becomes even more densely populated, greater proportions of people live in urban environments, and resources become more constrained, the way we build our cities must offer optimum efficiency with minimal impact.

nanomachineryTowards this end, innovations in additive manufacturing, synthetic biology, swarm robotics, and architecture suggest a future scenario when buildings may be designed using libraries of biological templates and constructed with biosynthetic materials able to sense and adapt to their conditions.

What this means is that cities could be grown, or assembled at the atomic level, forming buildings that are either living creatures themselves, or composed of self-replicated machines that can adapt and change as needed. Might sound like science fiction, but countless firms and labs are working towards this very thing every day.

It has already been demonstrated that single cells are capable of being programmed to carry out computational operations, and that DNA strains are capable of being arranged to carry out specialized functions. Given the rapid progress in the field of biotech and biomimetics (technology that imitates biology), a future where the built environment imitates organic life seems just around the corner.

biofabrication For example, at Harvard there is a biotech research outfit known as Robobees that is working on a concept known as “programming group dynamics”. Like corals, beehives, and termite colonies, there’s a scalar effect gained from coordinating large numbers of simple agents to perform complex goals. Towards this end, Robobees has been working towards the creation of robotic insects that exhibit the swarming behaviors of bees.

Mike Rubenstein leads another Harvard lab, known as Kilobot, which is dedicated to creating a “low cost scalable robot system for demonstrating collective behaviors.” His lab, along with the work of researcher’s like Nancy Lynch at MIT, are laying the frameworks for asynchronous distributed networks and multi-agent coordination, aka swarm robotics, that would also be capable of erecting large structures thanks to centralized, hive-mind programming.

nanorobot1

In addition to MIT, Caltech, and various academic research departments, there are also scores of private firms and DIY labs looking to make things happen. For example, the companies Autodesk Research and Organovo recently announced a partnership where they will be combining their resources – modelling the microscopic organic world and building bioprinters – to begin biofabricating everything from drugs to nanomachines.

And then there are outfits like the Columbia Living Architecture Lab, a group that explores ways to integrate biology into architecture. Their recent work investigates bacterial manufacturing, the genetic modification of bacteria to create durable materials. Envisioning a future where bacterial colonies are designed to print novel materials at scale, they see buildings wrapped in seamless, responsive, bio-electronic envelopes.

ESA_moonbaseAnd let’s not forget 3D printing, a possibility which is being explored by NASA and the European Space Agency as the means to create a settlement on the Moon. In the case of the ESA, they have partnered with roboticist Enrico Dini, who created a 3-D printer large enough to print houses from sand. Using his concept, the ESA hopes to do the same thing using regolith – aka. moon dust – to build structures on Earth’s only satellite.

All of these projects are brewing in university and corporate labs, but it’s likely that there are far more of them sprouting in DIY labs and skunkworks all across the globe. And in the end, each of them is dedicated to the efficiency of natural systems, and their realization through biomimetic technology. And given that the future is likely to be characterized by resources shortages, environmental degradation and the need for security, it is likely to assume that all of these areas of study are likely to produce some very interesting scenarios.

As I’ve said many times before, the future is likely to be a very interesting place, thanks to the convergence of both Climate Change and technological change. With so many advances promising a future of post-scarcity, post-mortality, a means of production and a level of control over our environment which is nothing short of mind-boggling – and a history of environmental degradation and resource depletion that promises shortages, scarcity, and some frightening prospects – our living spaces are likely to change drastically.

The 21st century is going to be a very interesting time, people. Let’s just hope we make it out alive!

Sources: fastcoexist.com, (2)