Most of the cities that we live and work in today are unplanned or only semi-planned. They got the way they are due to a combination of what locals wanted (housing, shops and parks), what businesses needed (factories, shipping channels) and what government interests deemed necessary (water treatment plants, incinerators). Because of the lack of plans, you see western American cities built around the car, which has exacerbated sprawl, and eastern American cities that have developed more eco-friendly public transit systems – but only because they had to.


Cities of the future likely will be much more planned, organized places. With the human population set to hit 9 billion by 2050, they will require planning. At the moment, more than 50 percent of us live in cities, and that number is expected to top 70 percent by the century’s end. In high-growth places, like China and India, entire cities are being constructed from the ground up. Find below just six of the new ideas we will likely see in sustainable cities of the future.


Cluster cities: Trafficking people, food, water and buildings into a small, localized areas requires a lot of energy and disruption every time a building or other piece of infrastructure gets added or changed. A city made up of deconcentrated hubs or networks of mixed-use areas (clusters) connected by WiFi and high-speed trains or other public transportation is not only more sustainable, but more liveable, too. And instead of cities just taking resources in, they might be able to start producing them. According to a book abstract by the Asian Development Bank, cluster cities, "… dispense with the urban-rural dichotomy of traditional development planning, recognizing that urban centers are not only hubs for economic growth but also service centers for surrounding areas."


Water Reduction: Cities use — and waste — tremendous amounts of water. And all that water requires energy to transport, filter and distribute it. This current system, which squanders both water and energy, is soon going to be turned on its head. Currently, most cities take clean rainwater and turn it into polluted water via aging sewage systems whose only job is to get the water out of the city. In the future, rooftop collection systems will use rainwater locally, saving energy and keeping water cleaner in the first place. In Rotterdam, it’s already part of the municipal rules to install green roofs that include rainwater collection. Conservation is the other key, according to professor Harald Hiesel from the Fraunhofer Institute : “The EU aim is to get down from 150 litres per day of average water consumption per person to 80 litres per day.” Hiesel continues by saying that instead of using energy, water treatment plants could be carbon neutral or use little power.


Mass transit: With increased population comes more cars on already-clogged roadways, resulting in significant carbon emissions, polluted air, and open space taken up by highways. It can also result in a lot more people using public transportation. But, mass transit needs to be smarter and more convenient than driving. The key to successful mass transit lies in data sharing. The data gathered and shared by programs like Google Transit mean that the information needed to make on-the-ground decisions about what transit works most efficiently in various areas can be sussed out — not just guessed at. “That’s the story that we’re increasingly seeing with the most successful cities, that transit and transport systems are being transformed not by the city’s own initiatives, but by third parties. And when the data is opened in the transit system, that can happen,” said Gordon Feller of Cisco Systems’ Urban Innovation Program at Vancouver’s 2012 Cities Summit. With computer models based on real-time data, future cities will have such efficient public transit, people wouldn’t want to bother driving cars (a current example of this is New York City, where more than 50 percent of the population doesn’t own a car).


Green building: More environmentally intelligent building solutions have been growing in popularity in recent years (especially LEED buildings), and in the future, Smart Buildings, which can regulate temperature based on capacity and need via computer programs (saving tons of energy in the process) will be the only kind worth putting up. But what about all the existing structures? Fifty-seventy percent of buildings existing today will still be used 30 years from now, so retrofitting will become not only a good business to invest in, but crucial for future sustainability.


Carbon neutral energy production: Cities are the largest contributors to greenhouse gas propelled climate change, due to their size and resource use, but individually, city-dwellers have a much lower footprint than their suburban counterparts due to resource sharing. Future cities will have to produce more energy for more people while lowering their carbon footprints. This will include the use of solar cells, rooftop wind turbines, energy produced from domestic garbage and even micro-power generation, which uses piezoelectric pavement to generate energy from footsteps or from road plates that can generate power as vehicles drive over them. More efficient homes and buildings will mean less energy needed, so that future cities could become energy independent.


Vertical farms: Farms and farmers are currently under great stress to produce huge quantities of food for low cost and using little labor. This leads to a reliance on chemicals and monoculture farming far outside cities to feed urban dwellers, as well as a reduction in what could be well-paying jobs growing food. Christopher Barnatt, associate professor of computing and future studies at Notingham University Business School, is one of many urban planners who see vertical farms as a way to save energy, green cities (literally), create jobs and get urban dwellers fresher food. He describes urban farms as stacks of artificial field that would, "allow city dwellers to harvest crops all year round in areas without available land. They would also significantly reduce the energy required for food transportation, would lower crop loss from shipping and storage, could recycle their own water and … use fewer pesticides. One vertical farm could potentially feed 50,000 people."


Here’s a short video about sustainable cities of the future:


Starre Vartan ( @ecochickie ) covers conscious consumption, health and science as she travels the world exploring new cultures and ideas.

Sustainable cities of the future
Here are just six of the new ideas we will likely see in sustainable cities of the future.