We need leaders with tenacity to direct this transformation

Patrick Bellew on how the challenges of urbanisation will be met in the next four decades

The age of great men is going; the epoch of the anthill, of life in multiplicity, is beginning,’ wrote the Swiss moral philosopher Henri-Frédéric Amiel in the mid-19th century. His words somehow anticipate the global population explosion and the shift of people to the city in the 20th century. Might they also reflect the lack of greatness in global leadership in the 21st century? That is, perhaps, a different train of thought, but a lack of strong, consistent leadership of our nations – as well as of our cities – is, no doubt, one of the causes of the current environmental problems we face.

Intensification of the city – in terms of more people per hectare, rather than our urban areas necessarily just getting bigger – will continue all over the world. This phenomenon is already evident in the great cities, perhaps no more so than in London, where increases in building height and population density, usually around transport nodes, have been witnessed in recent decades.

For the most part, these developments tend to be piecemeal, and there are relatively few global cities where joined-up thinking about structure and infrastructure with planned urbanisation, is more than half-hearted. Singapore may be the only one that comes anywhere close to working to a plan.

As a designer, it is all too easy to project a future in which the big energy and transport problems have been solved by technology; in which micro-fusion reactors generate our power, and dynamic energy storage and smart driverless electric cars have relegated pollution and CO2 emissions to non-issues. In this world – where our new buildings are intelligently and passively designed around virtuous cycles – we integrate into their skins the ability to produce food and more fuel through algae and sunlight. Our all-electric buildings and cars are joined through a distributed network of domestic battery storage systems, which allow supply and demand to be regulated and controlled to ensure that the fusion power plant is sized correctly.

These smart environmental systems are tuned to our lifestyle and demands, through a global network that is geared to meet our comfort and physiological needs in the most efficient way possible. The circular systems that manage water and rainwater ensure that no citizen goes thirsty and our social structures, while still hierarchical, ensure access to a healthy and pleasant life for all.

It’s all very straightforward really

A more dystopian version of the same future has us scrambling for ownership of increasingly scarce resources – energy, water and materials – in cities that are choking on emissions and baking under the heat-island effect. Social divisions are rife between the haves and have-nots and it takes a heavy hand from national security forces to prevent civic unrest and a breakdown of society.

In practice, I believe the future will sit somewhere between these extremes, and that we will forge a slightly inefficient – and no doubt circuitous – path to a future that is mostly environmentally better than today. It will have got better through a continuation of the incremental improvements of the past 35 years, rather than by conforming to some grand plan or design. Grand plans usually require great people to inspire and deliver. Was Amiel right? Recent governments in the UK have done nothing to make us believe that the future will be any better than the past, retreating as they have from delivering leadership and vision in the environment and energy space.

Most cities are already too big to superimpose some of the utopian visions of a future world within the next half-lifetime. So the application and evolution of technology will bring the biggest changes – and it will be down to our ingenuity as designers to find the new norm that is better, stronger and more resilient to climate change.

Regulations and standards have been vital to improving sustainability in built environments, and UK standards have come a long way since the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive. Post-Brexit, it is going to need leadership at local and national level to reinvigorate our ambitions.

The past decade has shown us we need leaders with vision and tenacity to direct this transformation. We need to set a course and stick with it. Moreover, we must build capacity to implement the things we know make better cities. Not so straightforward, but certainly not beyond us.

Patrick Bellew FCIBSE MASHRAE is the principal and founding director of Atelier Ten