While the world may be more polluted, our cities could actually be less so

Tomás Neeson reflects on how the challenges of urbanisation will be met in the next four decades

Experts cannot predict what will happen at the next election, so being asked to fix the future, 40 years hence, is a big task. But here I will look at some of the developments, opportunities and threats around the future of building services

There will be an increasing focus, in the developed and developing worlds, on health over and above the accumulation of wealth. The wellbeing of people at work, developments in medicine and medical treatment, and tackling disease – particularly issues, such as obesity and diabetes, linked to sedentary lifestyles – will become more important. This will impact upon the built environment – in the creation of indoor and outdoor spaces designed to promote physical and mental wellbeing, as well as in the facilities for prevention and treatment that we build.

Even assuming the growth of a circular economy – and a move away from the use-and-dispose world of today – production and use of already overstretched resources will require technological changes, to match them with predicted population growth. The engineer is already heavily involved in such aspects as water efficiency and re-use, but their role will become more important in such developments, to make more from the finite resources that we have.

Solar and renewables will win. Growth in nuclear capacity, globally, has slowed since the Chernobyl disaster and now started to decline (Source: World Nuclear Association). While countries such as China and Russia have plans for large nuclear expansion, this is being offset by more countries decommissioning existing plants and stalling development plans. Apart from the environmental and safety considerations, a growing issue is the operating cost of nuclear in a market of low oil (energy) prices and competition from alternative sources – renewables, tar sands and the like.1 The growth in PV solar, when combined with emerging developments in battery storage and output efficiency gains, will lead to widespread off-grid electrical use, with implications for how we engineer buildings.

Population flow to urban areas will continue across the globe and, with it, the continued growth of mega cities.2 Cities of 40 million people will exist, with adjoining sub-cities of five to 10 million.

Global warming will probably have increased temperatures by three degrees by 2050,3 but this could be balanced by cleaner cities. The current clampdown on vehicles, more cyclists and electric cars, and more efficient buildings mean that, while the world may be more polluted, our cities could actually be less so. In the past 10 years, the number of cars entering London has dropped from 120,000 per day to 60,000 per day, whereas the number of cyclists has gone from 15,000 to 30,000 per day. Predictions are that, in the next 10-20 years, there will be more cyclists than cars in the city (Source: Transport for London).

The need to provide habitable accommodation in the face of increasing global temperatures and competition for resources will require the development of more efficient construction methods, giving many opportunities for innovative engineering solutions.

Some say global warming is not happening but, year on year, the highest temperatures ever recorded are being logged and global sea levels are rising.4 The environment in which we live is changing and our buildings will have to adapt to this. For example, we need to find better ways to control internal temperatures and air quality – in everything from private residences to hospitals  – to cope with increased summer heatwaves. We’ll also need to enhance green landscaping and urban drainage to improve heat and flood resilience.

A lot of this we already know, but engineers will have to be more innovative, more forward-thinking and braver to meet the increased demands.

Our work needs to respect the health and wellbeing of humans and the natural world, in a future where there will be ever-more competition for space and resources. There is a pressing demand for the public to understand that how they live now, as consumers, will have major implications for those who follow.

There is an even greater need for us to inspire a generation of engineers who can make the most effective and efficient use of the decreasing resources. Our buildings need to lead by example through clever engineering solutions and long-term thinking.


  1. The World Nuclear Industry Status Report 2016
  2. UNDESA, 2014
  4. National Ocean Service

Tomás Neeson is managing partner at Cundall