World's Most Visionary Cities
Sure, fast-growing Abu Dhabi seems like one of the world's most forward-thinking cities. But it might as well be a dusty relic when compared to the town blossoming less than 15 miles away.
When it's fully operational in approximately 2020, wholly sustainable Masdar City is slated to have zero waste and zero carbon emissions; it will recycle most of its water and rely on solar energy and other renewable resources. Gas-guzzling cars are banned—replaced instead by podlike, battery-operated transit systems that travel underground. It's a visionary template for the world of tomorrow.
While Masdar City may be the ne plus ultra of the future metropolis, its planners are hardly the world's only visionary urbanites. Across the globe, architects and social engineers are taking entirely unique approaches to redefine how cities function. And traveling to these visionary cities today gives you a taste of the world of tomorrow.
One of the biggest—and most visible—issues plaguing cities? Traffic. To reduce the growing number of traffic jams, many metropolises are implementing bike-share programs. The most novel is in eastern China's Hangzhou, where commuters, tourists, and residents take turns cruising on 50,000 bikes. According to Sarah Goodyear, cities editor of the environmentally focused website Grist, "It opens up the idea that bicycles are a viable form of transportation, that they're not for recreation or sport."
Not keen to take two wheels to work? Our old friend the bus is getting a facelift, too. Though city buses often travel at a snail's pace, Brazil's Bus Rapid Transit system in the city of Curitiba is a lightning-fast dream. Buses arrive as often as every 90 seconds, and because passengers pay before boarding it takes as little as 15 seconds to load travelers. When buses depart, they zoom down dedicated lanes unobstructed by idling autos or taxis.
"Brazil's city planners envisioned a bus system that would rival a subway for speed and efficiency," says Goodyear. As a result, Curitiba "has a low rate of car ownership, cleaner air, and more pleasant quality of life," she says. "It's the envy of many cities in South America."
Curitiba's is also a vision that attracts city planners from around the world who come to witness the dream firsthand—and, perhaps, take some ideas home with them.
Seoul: Public Bridge
The sleek, sculptural Paik Nam June Media Bridge—connecting Seoul's Dang-Li power plant with the National Assembly Building—will be a multilevel marvel. Inside the solar-powered span you'll find gardens (sprinkled with harnessed rainwater), a library, museum, and stores. Pedestrians and cyclists can leisurely cross the car-free bridge, and boats can dock at the base. Oh, and since the span is named after the renowned Korean video artist, expect the bridge to serve as a canvas for art installations. Construction is tentatively scheduled to begin in 2012.
Masdar City, Abu Dhabi: Sustainability
Eco-warriors, meet Mecca: once completed, Masdar City promises to be the world's most sustainable urban locale. The city will be powered by solar and wind energy; recycle the majority of its wastewater; and try to reduce its waste to zero via unorthodox methods such as transforming biological waste into soil and fertilizer. A perimeter wall surrounding Masdar will keep desert winds at bay, while shaded streets combat the blazing sun. As for gas-guzzling cars, they're eighty-sixed from city limits (electric vehicles are allowed), replaced by mass transit and pod-like vehicles that travel underground. Some systems are already operational, but the city will come online fully in approximately 2020.
Tallinn, Estonia: Public Internet
You can check your e-mail and update your Facebook status from nearly everywhere in the Baltic nation's net-savvy capital, where the government deems free Internet to be a birthright. Thanks to the Tiigrihüppe ("Tiger Leap") initiative to wire the nation, every school is connected to the Internet; residents can vote in elections online; free Wi-Fi service blankets parks, trains, museums, cafés, and the airport. But don't spend all your time online: Tallinn's Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Cleveland: Urban Farming
While Cleveland's forlorn steel mills may be crumbling, the city's shopping malls are springing to life—plant life, that is. In the former Galleria at Erieview mall, a project dubbed Gardens Under Glass is helping the mall morph into a greenhouse. Sunlight streaming through the glassed-in atrium, as well as a hydroponics system, ensures the lush growth of vegetables such as spinach, lettuce, and tomatoes. Once harvested, the veggies are sold at the mall's weekly farmers' market.
Sochi, Russia: Sports Stadium
In preparation for the 2014 Winter Olympics, Russia has designed the sweeping, sustainable Sochi Olympic Stadium to mimic a shell, thus bringing to mind the country's famous Fabergé eggs. To accomplish that, the stadium's walls and roof are wrapped in a semitransparent, crystalline skin that reflects sunlight shimmering off the nearby Black Sea and, at night, can be illuminated. Should Olympic events bore attendees, they can content themselves by soaking up gorgeous views of the Krasnaya Polyana mountains.
Dezhou, China: Energy Grid
Coal-crazed China may seem like an unlikely environmental booster, but it's betting on a green future in this northern Chinese city. Here, farmland and forest have been bulldozed to create an industrial zone dubbed the Solar Valley. The city is so committed to sun power that more than 80 percent of buildings have solar water heaters (Dezhou is the world's largest producer of the devices), streets are lit by solar lights, and luxury apartments—eco-friendly, of course—are outfitted with solar-heated pools.
Hangzhou, China: Bike-Share Program
Historically, Beijing has been China's most bike-mad city, but Hangzhou—situated several hours northwest of Shanghai—has stolen the city's two-wheeled crown thanks to its far-reaching bicycle-sharing program. More than 50,000 bright-red bikes, equipped with baskets and bells, have been placed at numerous rental stations around Hangzhou. Borrowing a bike is simple: after acquiring a transportation card (it holds your rental funds), swipe it over a bicycle and you're free to pedal, well, freely—the first hour costs nothing.
Paris: Public Housing
After decades of building bland, blocky social housing in its banlieues (the outskirts of a city), Paris has started commissioning cutting-edge architects to re-create public housing within the city proper. For example, the drab 17-story Tour Bois le Prêtre was retrofitted with balconies, and apartments were enlarged to maximize natural light. In the trendy Seventh Arrondissement, the modern Rue Saint Dominique Social Housing project stands apart with its Lego-like design, varied window openings, and exterior walls decorated with ornamental gold flakes. Leave it to the French to make public housing sexy.
Curitiba, Brazil: Public Transportation
In most metropolises, walking is faster than taking the crosstown public bus. Not so in Curitiba. In the 1960s, city planners examined their growing town and, to curtail congestion, implemented a comprehensive public-transportation scheme: Bus Rapid Transit. To speed up loading of the long, centipede-like buses, passengers—more than 80 percent of the population—pay low-cost fares beforehand (about 40 cents a ride, with unlimited transfers). The frequently arriving fleet speeds down dedicated streets unimpeded. It's often cited as the ideal public transport system.
Taichung, Taiwan: Floating Observatories
Next year in Taiwan’s third largest city, construction is set to begin on this skyscraper shaped like a tree trunk. The eight “leaves” are super-lightweight, helium-filled observational decks that glide up and down the side of the building, providing bird’s-eye views of the city and the Taiwan Strait. Besides being visually stunning, the building—which is slated to house offices, restaurants, and a museum—will also be outfitted with green technologies such as solar cells, wind turbines, a rainwater recycling system, and a geothermal power plant in the basement.
Detroit: Urban Farming
To help reinvent down-on-its-luck Detroit, millionaire John Hantz has purchased hundreds of acres of abandoned land and decided to create the biggest urban farm in the world. This spring, Hantz plans to start seeding up to 280 acres—separated into different “pods” across town—with apples, tomatoes, and lettuce, which, to maximize space, will be grown vertically. In the future, Hantz Farms hopes to expand to hydroponics (growing plants in mineral-rice water), aeroponics (growing plants in the air without soil), and aquaculture (fish farming).
London: The Shard
Internationally renowned Italian architect Renzo Piano (Paris’s Pompidou Centre, NYC’s New York Times Building) masterminded this triangular-shape skyscraper, which will be the tallest building in Europe—around 1,016 feet tall, encompassing 72 glass-encased floors and an open-air observation deck that stretches into the clouds. When the skyline-defining mixed-use building is finished in 2012, it will feature a blend of offices, apartments, fine-dining restaurants, and a luxury hotel—just in time to welcome visitors for the 2012 Olympics.
Tokyo: Shimizu Mega-City Pyramid
To solve Japan’s housing crunch, architects have taken cues from Egypt to design the Mega-City Pyramid. Thanks to sunken pillars, the three-square-mile development would float over Tokyo Bay, incorporate more than 50 pyramid structures, and feature skyscrapers suspended from the hollow exoskeleton. Power would come from a photovoltaic film that would coat the structure, or fuel cells powered by algae. The estimated 750,000 inhabitants would travel around via Personal Rapid Transit pods. Too good to be true? It is. The space-age, lightweight materials required to build the pyramid are still being developed.
Amsterdam: Electric Cars
To dissuade Amsterdam drivers from cruising around in gas guzzlers, the city has embarked on a far-reaching plan to make owning an electric vehicle a snap. Amsterdam has begun installing a network of several hundred charging stations for boats, mopeds, scooters, and cars—hopefully 200,000 electric autos will navigate the streets by 2040. To sweeten the deal, Amsterdam provides citizens with grants of up to approximately $61,000 to cover the additional cost of buying an electric car, and owners will have special reserved parking spaces.
Minneapolis: Public Internet Access
Wi-Fi service blankets 59 square miles of this Minnesota city, where the Wireless Minneapolis network is one of America’s most successful Internet initiatives. Fast broadband access is facilitated by more than 2,000 wireless devices tethered to traffic signals, light poles, and buildings. Though users pay a monthly fee, there are more than 100 free hot spots at places like parks, and community technology centers also provide complimentary online access. In addition, Wi-Fi has improved city services: during 2007’s collapse of the I-35 bridge, wireless access enabled Minneapolis policemen and firefighters to set up a remote command center.
Qatar: World Cup Soccer Stadiums
When Qatar kicks off the World Cup in 2022, it’ll do so with a series of ultramodern stadiums. To contend with the country’s searing summertime heat (temperatures average 105 degrees in June), the open-air venues will be cooled by solar-powered air-conditioning, keeping temperatures no warmer than a comparatively comfortable 80 degrees. Highlights include the Al-Rayyan stadium, which will be wrapped in a “media membrane” façade that will serve as a screen for projecting matches and news updates, and the Lusail Iconic Stadium: the site of the World Cup final is surrounded by a moat.
Pacific Ocean: Green Float
Looking for an oceanfront home but can’t find any affordable property? Japanese tech firm Shimizu (the visionaries behind Japan’s Mega-Pyramid) dreamed up this future model for aquatic living consisting of lush, kilometer-wide “cells” floating on pontoons in the Pacific Ocean near the Equator. Each cell (which could be linked with other cells) would house up to 50,000 people, both in the City in the Sky tower and in residential housing arranged around a cell’s perimeter. Forest and grasslands would enable farming and livestock cultivation, while power would be supplied by wind or solar energy—no shortage of that near the Equator.
The Ocean: SeaScraper
The self-sustaining SeaScraper would be anchored in areas with strong oceanic currents to power underwater turbines and provide endless free energy. The SeaScraper’s concave shape permits sunlight to penetrate the structure’s lower reaches, and a desalination plant would transform seawater into drinking water. In addition, the SeaScraper could be rigged to dispense nutrient-packed water that’d help phytoplankton grow and ideally foster a reeflike environment for fish to call home.
The Ocean: The Gyre
Underwater living at its finest. This conceptual aquatic tower would float across the ocean, harnessing energy from the wind, the sun, and water currents. The combination research station and resort would sink into the watery depths more than 1,300 feet, with four enormous “arms” extending off the main tower to keep the structure buoyant and provide safe harbor for docking boats.