Cities of the future


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Two-thirds of the world’s population may live in cities in 20-years’ time and technology is radically changing our working practices, lifestyles, communication and transport. How will this shape our cities and how they develop?

In the past the purpose of cities and towns was clear: a place for commerce, trade, to meet and socialise. This informed the design, layout and function of the built environment.

There are many more ways of doing those things now and that presents a challenge for how cities evolve. The demands made of the built environment from a digital savvy generation could be very different from what they are now.

“Everyone buying homes in the future will be digital natives, they will have grown up with the internet and smartphones and social media and that has an impact on their expectation about how and where they live,” says Amardeep Gill, partner in the public sector commercial department at Trowers & Hamlins.

"The extent of that will be played out in the years to come.”

What will the digital generation prioritise – connectivity over car parking? Well-being over workspace?

Technology is changing how we work and shop, the impact of which can already be seen in city centres across the country; office space is increasingly ‘agile’ fitting more in less, co-working space is growing and on the high street traditional retail is struggling.

Homes are changing too with new concepts such as co-living and the rise of build to rent. Technology is making our homes ‘smart’ allowing occupiers to control and monitor appliances, heating and lighting.

The way people get around is changing too with the emergence of services like Uber, shared taxis and cars and, in the not too distant future, driverless vehicles. The Department of Transport has stated it wants fully autonomous vehicle on UK roads by 2021.

It means the incentives for not owning a car are growing, particularly in urban areas. The implications are less on-street parking and car parks which opens up a wealth of possibility as to how that space might be used and what the streetscape might look like.

5G will also play a big part in shaping our cities. Current 4G networks are limited. Speed and drop off are the common complaints but 5G could put fibre-optic WiFi speeds in an individual’s pocket and Birmingham is going to be the first city to test it.

The implications aren’t just limited to fast, more efficient googling when on the go but it opens the door some fundamental changes in how we live and work – and by that token how the built environment will look.

Gill explains: “5G will create liberated networks which will allow people to access information and data far more quickly than they currently can, it will allow businesses and individuals greater speed and a greater choice in how they conduct themselves and go about their day to day business.”

The real estate industry has an important role to play in not only developing for the next generation but in adapting the existing urban environment to meet new demands.

Perhaps the biggest challenge is in determining what those demands will be as technology advances fast, much faster than it takes to design and develop buildings.

“It’s entirely right that we ask what a city is for and we try and design things around that - part of the solution is to build more design flexibly so that buildings are much easier to convert as demands evolve,” says Christopher Plumley, partner in the real estate department, Trowers & Hamlins.

A good example is the multi-storey car park which could become redundant if the trend away from car ownership gathers pace. However, clever design allows them to be more easily repurposed for other uses in the future.

Accommodating flexible design also requires broader thinking from local authorities in planning and use allocation.

“When councils ask developers to come forward with development proposals, they tend to be specific about the type of use they are asking for - if you ask for a specific use you will get a specific use. This means procured schemes have to have that forward thinking built into the evaluation criteria,” explains Plumley.

There is also an argument for Government intervention on longer-term projects. Public investment allows more patient capital to invest large sums to enable development that may take 10-15 years to come to fruition. At the point of procurement, there needs to be certainty that what is being built is going to still be in demand and fit for use.

The public and private sector can also come together to shape the urban landscape, as they have done in the past.

Tonia Secker, partner and head of housing and regeneration at Trowers & Hamlins says: "London in the nineties was a grungy, horrible city and what happened was a benign autocracy of people working together using a kind of nudge theory in order to get people to a particular place.”

Coffee culture is an example born partly out of demand and partly from a vision for how the public and private sector wanted space to be used.

The most important thing is, perhaps, to see technology as the enabler to delivering the city of the future rather than leading it which will require the best of the Government’s and property industry’s creative thinking and innovation.

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