Changes in the urban environment over the next decade will be driven by a global evolution in the transportation, fuel, and building materials industries, a sustainability expert said.
Speaking ahead of his keynote address at Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week, Gerard Evenden, a senior executive partner and head of studio at Foster+Partners, said that shifts in these three factors could bring about significant changes as cities continue to grow in size and population.
"The advent of autonomous driving is very close now and the whole way people will be transported around cities is going to change," Evenden said.
"That leads to a whole series of opportunities in terms of how you plan cities, which have been dominated by the car for a long time. That domination has led to open streets, but very little environmental consideration."
United Nations (UN) studies predict that an additional 2.5 billion people could be living in cities by 2050, thanks to continued urbanisation and population growth, of which 90% could be be concentrated in cities in Asia and Africa.
According to a press statement by the organisers of Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week, the urban built environment contributes approximately 70% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
Evenden said a combination of cleaner fuels and the introduction of more electric powered transport modes, especially public-oriented options, would result in cleaner cities with healthier populations.
A reduced focus on cars, along with other transport changes, would also influence the shape of urban infrastructure, allowing a renewed focus on how buildings relate one to another.
Without the constraint of planning for large roads and multiple vehicle access ways, architects would also have more freedom to address other issues, such as creating the right density levels, designing the right amount of space between buildings, and exploring how buildings orient themselves. The impact of this, especially in hot climates, could be significant.
"In bigger spaces, you're forced to have too much sunlight," Evenden explained.
"In smaller spaces, we can control light and shade more, so you can get a much more human city and a much more human environment than you can if you're driven by transportation."
A final influential factor is likely to be the fabric of the buildings themselves, as there is a global trend looking for new materials and more efficient ways of building, he continued: "The older techniques of building are, in my view, beginning to die.
"Pre-fabrication and the need for more efficient buildings, with more air tightness, is going to lead to a better quality of build, which in turn is going to have a massive effect on the environment. Anything that happens in the building industry, anything that happens with the development of cities, is going to affect the environment."
As a proof of concept for what a more sustainable future urban environment could look like, Evenden referenced Abu Dhabi’s Masdar City (pictured), having led the project’s design team when it was first developed a decade ago.
Evenden said he believed the development illustrates an architectural response to the sustainability issues that were, back then, beginning to enter design discussions, but are now rapidly becoming a reality: "Looking back, you can see what we managed to achieve with driverless vehicles, with the spaces between buildings, the pedestrian environment that we created, the cleaner air, and the shaded spaces.
"You can see how ahead of its time it was, and it's only now, the world is beginning to catch up."
Estimates from Architecture2030, a non-profit organisations, reveal than more than eight million hectares of new and refurbished buildings are likely to rise in global urban areas, with more than 10% of this activity expected in Africa and the Middle East.
"There's now a turning point for the Middle East, which is to look at what the legacy buildings are," said Evenden.
"What are the buildings that are going be there in 100 years, or 200 years, and how do you begin to up the quality of what you're building? Certainly, environmental technologies are absolutely fundamental to sustain yourself in the future.
"There are many buildings being built, which are effectively dinosaurs, in terms of the integration of technology. Are those going to retain the economic values they need to in the future?"