Rethinking the Future of Sustainable Urban Development

Sustainable City - Green Spine

Rethinking the future of sustainable urban development is no longer a choice… it has become a necessity.

During the last century, the world’s population has increased significantly, and more people are living in cities today than ever before. Mega-cities with more than 10 million people are also on the rise. In 1950 there were only 2 Mega-cities, 40 years later there were 10 Mega-cities which when combined were home to 153 million inhabitants. By 2014, there were 28 Mega-cities, home to 453 million inhabitants. The United Nations projects that there will be 41 Mega-cities by 2030, of which Tokyo will have the largest amount of inhabitants at a population of 37 million people.

Today, over half of the world’s population are living in an urban area, that’s just over 3.9 billion people. By 2050, it is expected that almost 70% of the world’s population will be living in urban areas. This is an increase of approximately 2.5 billion people, of which nearly 90% will be concentrated in Asia and Africa. (United Nations)


Urban population 2050

Source: UNICEF

The rise in population & urbanisation will have severe impacts on our cities’ infrastructures and resources, as well as the health and wellbeing of its inhabitants. This dramatic rise in urbanisation coupled with climate change will also require a significant shift in the way we design our built environments. We need to focus our attention to rethinking the design of future Sustainable Cities to ensure they are more Liveable, Resilient and Inclusive.


Designing for a Liveable City

Since most of the world’s population are expected to live in cities, research on liveable cities has been growing significantly, as more cities compete globally to become the world’s most liveable.

The well-known rankings of liveable cities carried out by the Economist, Forbes, and Monocle have consistently put Melbourne, Vienna & Vancouver in the top Rankings. What makes these three cities liveable is intrinsically tied to their built environment. These are “people-focused” cities, who understand that the health and well-being of people are influenced by the built environment.

Although the rankings of liveable cities are driven by various aspects that influence the quality of life, such as crime rates, health statistics, unemployment, income growth, cost of living etc… The built environment, and the way a city is designed, has a great influence on the “quality of life”. To provide examples of this, let’s look at some of the densest cities, which have already begun laying the foundations and preparations for transforming themselves into healthy & liveable places.

San Francisco

In 2002, San Francisco’s Liveable City published a 40-year plan “The path to a liveable city”, which primarily looks at shifting the mode of transport in the city away from cars to walking, cycling and public transport. This shift will create more than just an “alternative transport”. Livable City describe their mission as creating “a San Francisco of great streets and complete neighbourhoods, where walking, bicycling, and transit are the best choices for most trips, where public spaces are beautiful, well-designed, and well-maintained, and where housing is more plentiful and more affordable.” (

One of its boldest goals is to create a cycling plan for the city. This bike network built of safe lanes and paths will link every neighbourhood and major destination in the city. It claims that 10% of all trips will be made by cycling if all destinations could be reached by bicycle.


10 percent bicycle


Melbourne 2030

Melbourne boasts the highest ratio of street furniture per person in the world. Since 1990, it has increased its outdoor cafes from 50 to over 600, and has doubled the number of pedestrians in the city on weekday evenings. These improvements came from Jan Gehl’s [Danish Architect & Urban Designer] recommendations for creating opportunities for outdoor dining in his “Public Spaces and Public Life” survey in 1993 (updated in 2004). Gehl describes a good city like a good party, he says “people stay for much longer than really necessary, because they are enjoying themselves.”


people stay much longer


For many years, Melbourne has ranked high in the top liveable cities according to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s (EIU) rankings, and since 2011 the city has consecutively ranked at the no.1 spot, beating competition from Vancouver & Vienna.

“Melbourne 2030: Planning for sustainable growth” published in 2002 is a 30 year plan by Melbourne’s Department of Infrastructure. The plan focuses on how land use and transport can best support social, economic and environmental needs of the city until 2030. During this period the population of Melbourne is expected to grow to over 5 million people and this plan will help Melbourne to maintain its top position amongst the world’s most liveable cities.


In 2008, the Centre for Liveable Cities (CLC) was set up in Singapore [the world’s third densest city which has consistently ranked as one the most liveable cities in Asia] to share knowledge on Liveable and Sustainable Cities. According to CLC’s “10 principles for Liveable High-Density Cities: Lessons from Singapore”, innovative planning which focuses on a “people-first” approach can help ensure that rapid urbanization does not compromise liveability and sustainability.
More details about the 10 principles can be found here.


Designing for a Resilient City

The challenges of increasing population and climate change will require cities, to develop strategies that help absorb future shocks and stresses to its social, economic, built environment & infrastructures. By absorbing these shocks and stresses, a resilient city should have the capacity to maintain the same level of “quality of life”.

Most of our cities however, are far from resilient. For example, the UK has some of the worst NO2 levels in Europe, and 1 in 6 homes are at risk of flooding. Passive Urban Design strategies which incorporate Green Infrastructure & Water Sensitive Urban Design will help in reducing these risks. Yet despite the various resources available on the benefits and applications of Green Infrastructure & Water Sensitive Urban Design, the majority of developments today are not incorporating them and so it’s “business as usual”.

One of the reasons for this could be because they have been designed from top-down by the people leading these projects. A ground-up approach to master planning with landscape design as a driving force will reduce flood risk & pollution and increase land/ property values, as well as improving people’s health & wellbeing. Ultimately the benefits of a ground up approach to developments will create a more sustainable, liveable, and healthier city.


Designing for an Inclusive City

The next generation of Sustainable cities are also inclusive. An inclusive city values the needs of all people equally, including the workers who are contributing to the legacy of some of the world’s richest countries. An inclusive city is one where everyone has an equal right to secure a sustainable livelihood for themselves and their families. This includes a sustainable capacity to acquire continuous access to affordable housing, water, electricity, food, medicine and clothing.

Today, there are many countries that do not see the long term social and economic benefits migrant workers bring to their cities, thus they fail at meeting the very basic needs to their livelihoods such as health & safety. In Qatar for example, the International Trade Union Confederation warned that up to 4000 migrant workers will die building Qatar’s World Cup before a single ball is kicked.


4000 migrant workers will die


An inclusive city also provides for a clear path to citizenship, this will ensure that migrant workers are mutually invested in the long term economic and social success of the city. The issue is how many governments are prepared to go far enough to offer real reforms which would give these migrant workers a real chance to become citizens in their countries? Thus are the best models for sustainable cities democratic?


Come 2030 will it be “Business As Usual”?

It is often said that in business, one of the most dangerous attitudes are “we’ve always done it this way”, or “we are too busy right now to make changes”. The same can also be applied to cities. The most successful cities are those which understand the need to rethink the future of Sustainable Urban Development by incorporating resilient passive urban design strategies, since these provide the biggest gains rather than active solutions.

About the author

Baharash Bagherian

Baharash Bagherian is a Designer working holistically at all scales, designing for a higher quality of life whilst also protecting the environment. He believes that great Architecture is more than buildings: “It’s about creating resilient destinations that make people feel healthy to live in, inspired to work in and want to visit.”

In his work, each project is driven by a process of investigation and experimentation. The outcomes of these studies form the basis of the design. He strives to develop innovative and creative solutions that make a positive contribution to our current and future generations.

His award-winning design studio, Baharash Architecture, have worked on projects in various scales, from urban scale; such as master plans, landscape design and buildings, to smaller scale; such as interiors, furniture and products. Recent projects include the Oasis Eco Resort in Liwa and phase 2 of Dubai Sustainable City.

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