The cities of tomorrow

Alina writes*

Cities have become the hubs of human settlement, development, and economic growth over the last two centuries. Globally, urban spaces occupy 1-3% of terrestrial land, yet in 2018, cities accommodated 55% of the world’s population. The percentage is expected to rise to 68% by 2050. Additionally, urban based-economic activities generate an estimated 55%, 73%, and 85% of gross national product in low-, middle-, and high-income nations [pdf] respectively. From these statistics, it is evident that urban environments have become detrimental to natural environments, consuming 78% of the world’s energy and producing 60% of global greenhouse gases. It is critical to make urban landscapes environmentally sustainable in order to mitigate and prevent projected environmental catastrophes.

Eco-cities are a recent urban phenomenon entailing a city built from scratch with a fundamental focus on sustainability embedded in its design, operation, and management.

One example is the Songdo eco-city, which is actually a district within Incheon, South Korea. At its heart, Songdo strives to have a substantially smaller carbon footprint than traditional cities and to be highly energy and resource efficient. Sustainable elements include, but not limited to:

These sustainable aspects sound great on paper. However, it is worth evaluating the extent to which an eco-city is more sustainable than a traditional city.

A major shortcoming of Songdo and other eco-cities is that building an entire city or urban district from scratch is incredibly challenging. It requires a large chunk of empty land which is suitable for urban development and hefty upfront investment costs. Songdo’s capital cost was worth $40 billion making it one of the most expensive private developments in the world.

Additionally, the majority of the cities in the world are already built, meaning they have locked-in unsustainable infrastructure, and are unlikely to be torn down and rebuilt sustainably. Thus, it could perhaps be more beneficial to optimise existing cities by implementing sustainable elements into them rather than creating eco-cities from scratch.

Bottom line: Songdo could be the blueprint of future eco-cities; however, it is still just a pilot version. Eco-cities have considerable potential to solve urban environmental problems, but most cities – which are traditional and non-sustainably designed – will continue to operate unsustainably due to infrastructural lock-ins.

* Please help my Environmental Economics students by commenting on unclear analysis, alternative perspectives, better data sources, or maybe just saying something nice :).

Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

2 thoughts on “The cities of tomorrow”

  1. Nice article, it always interesting to see examples of how governments take on sustainability and climate action. It seems like the city of Songdo has done quite a good job planning wise, which makes sense with all that capital. It is very interesting that they managed to built a city completely from scratch on reclaimed land (it seems from looking at maps) with sustainability as the main idea behind it. Do you know the current occupancy rate of the city? is it as successful as they make it look, and do you know if people enjoy living there?

    A ‘fun’ example of a project with a similar vision of building an eco-city from scratch, but gone wrong, is a housing development in Chengdu, China. This is an article describing how it would be dating from 2012,, and this is a recent article from 2020,

  2. I would add the point that designing cities from scratch is a terrible idea, even if they are super much pro-environment. There are examples of ‘garden cities’ coming the 19th-20th centuries utopian thoughts of letting humans meet nature together which have pretty much failed. Singapore is a big outlier! The second movement was just about building cities from scratch in the rise of modernist thought. Well, Brazilia, Canberra, and several abandoned Chinese cities (as well as the typical ‘American grid’ show why this idea is doomed.

    Building new eco-friendly cities seems to fall exactly in between the two categories outlined above. Thus, the solution should be not ‘exogenous’ but endogenous, coming from within a city. (Re) building new districts to make them more energy-sustainable might work though

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