Cities. For more and more of us the future has so much to do with them. By 2050, it’s estimated
that an additional 2.5 billion people will be living in them – that’s two out of every three
people. And, despite the coronavirus pandemic casting a shadow across normal life, the trend of
urban growth is expected to continue. Just as growing cities are a mega-trend, megacities are a
As we design products for a changing world, we’re continually looking to grow awareness of the
drivers of change, and part of what makes cities so endlessly fascinating is their ability to
bring a new context to our design thinking.
Designer: Baldwin and Bagnall
Photographer: Katherine Lu
Location: Sydney, Australia
Dumb question, right? It’s just a whole bunch of people living near to each other. But cities are
different things to different people. And there are better ways to describe these great
agglomerations. For instance, the US urbanist Ed Glaeser describes them as the “absence of
physical space between human beings” – the closeness enabling the “flow of goods and ideas, and
the use of shared urban joys, including museums, parks and restaurants”.
"Richard Sennett, a senior advisor to the UN Program on Climate Change and Cities, has used two
French words to define the functions of the city. The ville is the built environment, the cité
is the character of life. “The built environment is one thing, how people dwell in it another."
And Jane Jacobs, author of the 1961 classic The Death and Life of Great American
Cities, described that localized portion of the city, the neighborhood, as “not only
an association of buildings but also a network of social relationships, an
environment where the feelings and the sympathy can flourish.”
Defining a city is one thing, but figuring out what motivates people to live in one is another.
Generally speaking, we can equate the popularity of cities with the opportunities they present.
Suketu Mehta, writing in the fantastic compendium of essays Shaping Cities (Phaidon, 2018)
describes them as “our great mark on the planet...the purest expression of who we are as human
beings – the best and worst parts of us”.
Humans prefer “colonies, not caves”, Mehta writes, noting that cities, with scale and
variety, present opportunities for social connection, employment and
entrepreneurism, cultural and community diversity, amenity and entertainment.
Architect: Liz Walsh and Alex Nielsen.
Photography: Sean Fennessy. Tasmania, Australia.
What’s the plan?
Cities are growing fast, but the world has seen rapid urban growth before, responding
with new urban planning and architectural concepts for housing and connecting
In ancient Greece, the answer to city growth was a system of grids; proportion was seen as
equivalent to beauty. The Garden City movement of the early 1900s proposed self-contained
communities – small “smokeless, slum less cities” – with homes, businesses and agriculture
surrounded by greenbelts. It was exported around the world. In the modernist apartments of the
mid-19th century, organized around radically rethought kitchens with improved hygiene and
sanitation, we see a drive for post-war modernisation and renewal.
In today’s post-manifesto world, we see many ways to accommodate people, from ranks of
cookie-cutter apartment blocks in Seoul, Singaporean ‘ground scrapers’, luxury apartments in
ultra-tall and thin New York skyscrapers (a result of the peculiar ability to purchase “air
rights” from adjacent properties). At city scale, however, the predominant trend is to become
smarter and greener, with micro mobility, electrification and car-free zones common themes.
California’s ambitious goal of using 100% zero-carbon electricity by 2045 is driving innovation,
while San Jose is the largest city in the US to ban natural gas infrastructure from many new
It’s not about how fast you can go
Also growing in popularity is the idea of the 15-minute city concept, which
recognizes that maybe we’ve been focused too much on speed and not enough on access.
Enjoying life is not about getting from point A to point B quickly, it’s about being
able to easily visit grocery stores, or get to school, or go to a cafe or gym.
It’s a deviation from the accepted city planning approach of previous decades; that is, you can
live anywhere you want, and the city will build the infrastructure to move you to where you need
However, as travel distances increase in tandem with commuter numbers, life becomes more
complicated, not less – which is why Sorbonne professor Carlos Moreno proposed the “ville du
quart d’heure”, or quarter-hour city, to Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo. The benefits of the 15-minute
city include more self-sufficient communities within each arrondissement of the French capital,
the ecological benefits that result from a move away from the “oil-era priorities of roads and
car ownership”, and a reduction in the stress and anxiety of city life.
As a concept, it’s not new – Melbourne has developed 20-minute neighborhoods with schools, parks
and other amenities within a 20-minute walk, bike ride or public transport commute. Detroit’s
20-minute city is based on its defunct streetcar grid. Copenhagen in Denmark and Utrecht in the
Netherlands have both introduced “hyper proximity” to meet the needs of city dwellers.
In the urban realm, there are increasing attempts to stitch more greenspaces into existing
infrastructure. New York’s Highline is the obvious success story, so too is Seoul’s conversion
of an extant motorway overpass into a pedestrian “sky garden” and Auckland’s “pink cycleway”.
Hamburg’s HafenCity, the largest urban redevelopment project in Europe, represents the wholesale
renovation of a heritage port area through carefully integrated old and new buildings, with
particular care paid to carefully orchestrated public spaces and an exceptional piece of
architecture, the Elbphilharmonie, designed by Herzog & de Meuron.
In cities where we trade space is traded for opportunity, the question is how to maximize the
living experience. For us, as product designers, one of the first steps is to amplify the
functional and aesthetic beauty of the interior experience – to provide easy for people to
celebrate home and to provide more opportunities to personalize intimate space within the
greater bustling metropolis.
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