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Cities of the future: how the world’s population is driving forward change


Cities have always moved at an unrelenting pace, but now with added demands in terms of climate change and the ever-growing need for space, how are the world's metropolises going to adapt?

In 2012, half of the world’s population lived in cities. The latest predictions now suggest that by 2050 this figure will be up to 70%, equating to six billion people.

The figure is unsurprising when taking into account that 80% of the world’s wealth is produced by cities. In fact, it is the 600 biggest cities that generate 50% of this wealth, being particularly developed for such sectors as research, economics and politics, which have the biggest impact on global wealth.

 This concentration of the world’s population means huge amounts of energy are consumed and produced and therefore the negative effects to the environment are significant, with 70% of greenhouse gases emitted from cities.

In recent months, much has been spoken about it terms of the negative effects of pollution particularly on the health of the population. According to research published in the European Heart Journal, scientists now estimate that 8.8 million people die prematurely each year because of air pollution, more than from tobacco smoking.

This problem is not only confined to one corner of the globe. When the world’s cities and towns were measured for air pollution, 56% of those measured were found to have levels 3.5 times or more above WHO guidelines. In concrete terms, this means that 92% of the world’s population live in places above these guidelines.

Transport in cities: how can it be made sustainable?

One significant contributor to city pollution is the use of cars and in particular diesel vehicles, which add irrevocably to the production of carbon emissions. Individual transport including cars and two-wheeled vehicles accounts for 63% of transport emissions, in comparison to public transport which amounts to 5%.*

Car journeys alone produce significant carbon emissions but due to the numerous individuals, often travelling alone, the weight of traffic in most cities is substantial and journey times in cars are significant. In Mexico for example congestion adds an extra 59% to journey time and in Bangkok 57%*. This only contributes further to the pollution being dumped into the atmosphere and with more and more people moving to cities, cities are growing and people are becoming closer and closer to harmful fumes.

The good news is that cities across the world are taking affirmative action to reduce greenhouses gases and the grave consequences that they can have on their citizens.

Madrid, Spain

By increasing pavement space and introducing a zero-emissions zone, where only those with limited mobility, who own zero-emissions vehicles or local residents are able to drive, Madrid aims to decrease air pollution by 40%.*

Shenzhen, China

In Shenzhen, the entire fleet of 16,000 buses is electric, and plans to do the same for the 22,000 taxis are also in place. One charge per night gives a bus 123 miles, enough to last an entire day.*

Paris, France

All vehicles must now display a ‘Crit’Air’ badge which ranks them in terms of carbon emissions. Annually the older Crit’Air numbers will be banned from entering Paris on weekdays between 8am and 8pm. Since July 2017, whilst only 3% of vehicles have been removed, Nitric oxide has been reduced by 15% and PM2.5 (atmospheric particulate matter with a diameter of less than 2.5) by 11%.*

A car free city: will it ever exist?

A Customer Experience of Urban Travel report by Conduent found that respondents from across 15 countries cited that they would be encouraged to take public transit more frequently providing their journey time was faster.

In order to encourage people to give up using their cars and be persuaded to take public transport, cities will have to offer faster alternatives that connect people easily to city centres at speeds that rival car commuting times.

One such solution currently being developed is the Hyperloop, a vacuum tube transportation system created by Elon Musk which can reach speeds of up to 1,200km/h. Since it was first presented by Musk, a host of start-ups have been keen to develop their own version and offer this technology commercially. A number of projects are already in the pipeline, including one that will look to reduce the time from Los Angeles to San Francisco from four hours to just 35 minutes.*

The way in which the Hyperloop works means that passenger pods will be moved through a vacuum tube and thanks to magnetic levitation, these pods will not touch the tracks meaning that friction and air resistance would be significantly low. This method would not only dramatically reduce transport times but it would also use much less energy than traditional transportation methods such as cars or planes. The Hyperloop might therefore be able to use renewable energy sources such as wind or solar, resulting in a faster, more environmentally friendly travel solution, which could revolutionise the way people travel, work and live.

Bringing nature back into cities

Cars and man-made activities are the source of the growing levels of pollution in our cities. It is therefore a logical step that we now see cities across the world making active steps to reintroduce nature into the urban environment. With vegetation naturally soaking up carbon emissions (between 20-50% of carbon emissions are soaked up by trees that line the length of a busy road*), lowering temperatures and contributing to the well-being of city dwellers, their importance is unequivocal and vital for the city of tomorrow.

Cities across the world are therefore pioneering new projects to boost the number of green spaces and reap the benefits that they bring:


After heatwaves in 2017 and 2018, Paris’ asphalt-covered schoolyards were found to be a contributing factor to the soaring summer temperatures. With Parisians only being 200m from an ‘ecole primaire’ but only having access to 5.8m2 of green space, an opportunity was seen in the 80 hectares of schools within the city.

The aim of the project OASIS* piloted by the City of Paris is to transform school playgrounds into ‘urban cooling islands’ with green space and the expansion of public areas for Parisians.

Going green up top: Sydney and San Francisco

In San Francisco and Sydney new buildings must now have vegetation on their roofs. In San Francisco each new building must house 15-30% of greenery, whilst in Sydney it is 30%*.

New York

Brooklyn Grange in New York is an example of urban agriculture at its best. The rooftop soil farm is the largest in the world and grows 50,000lbs of organically cultivated produce every year*. It also houses 30 beehives and plays host to a series of events which promote urban farming and community interaction.   

The city of tomorrow: what will it look like?

Cities change at an alarming rate, driven by the constant movement of their inhabitants. Indeed, with 1.3 million people moving in to cities each week they are unrelenting hubs of change and advancement.

Due to social pressures, such as the Paris Agreement, now more than ever cities are being pulled into question in terms of the effects they have on our planet and environment. Faced with any kind of challenge though, cities are able to respond and adapt to the world of the future.

In this regard, thanks to the rapid progress made in technology and the recognition of the importance of well-being, new ways of living are already in motion and will certainly change our cities. The introduction of faster transportation will certainly evoke changes, both in the layout of the cities, which may expand as people are able to live further away from the centre, and by moving away from traditional methods such as driving.  

How cities will look is also likely to change, with greater integration of nature as a means of actively combatting greenhouses gases is put into action. With greater awareness of this problem, cities’ citizens are driving forward the need for change and with the help of new technology, greater understanding of well-being and global objectives, cities are putting into place measures that work to restore the balance between urban and nature.

With mixed-use and responsive technology already in place and cities across the world making huge strides to redevelop and innovate, the city of tomorrow might not be such a long way away.

*Ville de demain étude BNP Paribas Real Estate 2019