How will cities change in the future, and where will we choose to settle as our population grows? These are the big questions being explored by forecasters, urban planners and sustainability experts around the globe, as time ticks on and climate change accelerates.

By 2050, it’s expected that more than two thirds of the world will live in urban areas — many of which will be highly exposed to the impacts of climate change. Wildfires, droughts, heatwaves, storms and particularly coastal flooding, could affect over 1 billion people living in the Low Elevation Coastal Zone (less than 10 metres above sea level).

The growing risks for city dwellers will force huge change, and the need for innovative urban planning, infrastructure development, as well as a deeper commitment to environmental sustainability.

The concept of the ‘15 minute city‘, where people’s needs are catered for by mixed-use urban development — all accessible within a walkable distance of their home — is one vision that’s gaining traction, while some forecasters see value in people spreading to the countryside — a trend accelerated by the pandemic.

In our Cities of the Future podcast, hosted by broadcaster and anthropologist, Mary-Ann Ochota, expert guests share their thoughts on how cities might address these future challenges, and potentially thrive.

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“The sustainable city is going to be a much more heterogeneous, walkable city, where you have everything you need — from education, to healthcare, to recreation, to green spaces,” says Jack Pringle, architect and Chair of the Board of Trustees at the Royal Institute of British Architects. We will have a lot more green spaces in cities of the future to stop heat islands from building up. We’ll be using roofs a lot more — for recreation or for greening, or for pleasure.”

Lisa Chamberlain, Urban Strategist and Communications Lead for the Centre for Urban Transformation at the World Economic Forum foresees risks around access to water:

“There are a lot of issues around water — serious fresh water shortage, which is already happening all over the world,” she explains. “There are many cities that have too much water, so we will need to build a lot of infrastructure to capture that, save it, reuse it in the most efficient ways. In terms of renewable energy, desalination, capturing fresh water — these are all going to be really critical things to achieve those really beautiful cities that we want to live in. These are the fundamentals, in order to have the greenery and the park space.”

“We need to think about the interplay between urban and rural because if we think about all the challenges we have around the world, in terms of freeing up land for nature, reducing the impact of land for food production, then how do we manage the footprint of our urban forms?” asks Ana Yang, Executive Director, Sustainability Accelerator at Chatham House. “It’s all about the diversity.

Ana Yang quote

“The urbanisation process is an inevitability. The question is how we walk into that future. If we can imagine in our current living spaces how we can engage with our environment in a completely different way — and think about our responsibility in it — then we can find ways through our own behaviour of moving around, or through choices of food that we buy[…]. We can be that agent of change  — while also engaging with community projects to help shape our urban space.”

Trend forecaster and author, Karen Rosenkranz, believes there’s a future for more of us out in rural areas, as it’s where we will feel happier and healthier, where we can deepen our connection to nature and to others, and have an enhanced quality of life.

As part of her TED Talk, she explains how “moving to a smaller place forces us to interact with people with different political views, life experiences and values.  It also helps to combat loneliness. A problem that ironically is especially prevalent in the most populated areas of the world.”

“In cities, being aware of natural cycles is really hard. With so many young creative professionals suffering from burnout and exhaustion, connection to nature could provide a powerful remedy.”

“The cities and the cultural hotspots will become more decentralised and spread out. As artists and creators discover the periphery as an aspirational place to work and live, it will grow more attractive to the wider population as well. What is crucial for the shift to become a sustainable movement is collaboration between the old and the new guard.  

“Areas that suffer from population decline could be rejuvenated by an influx of younger residents stimulated by this new coexistence of tradition and innovation. Reverse migration of people who honed their professional skills in the city could create new jobs and economic prosperity. The potential is huge.”

Learn more by listening to our Cities of the Future podcast here, and watch the new ITN Business programme, Cities of the Future.