To build the cities of the future, we need an integrated approach to urban design. Here’s why


It’s a bit of an understatement to say that a city is a complicated entity.

There are so many constituent parts to our urban contexts – history and culture, infrastructure and investment, tradition and technology, all rolled into one.

So, when it comes to designing the cities of the future, we have to take a perspective that embraces and encompasses all this complexity.

To build urban spaces that meet our goals for sustainability, efficiency and quality of life, we’ll require an integrated approach.

We’ll have to look holistically at the needs of people, the aims of the city, and, of course, the tech that makes it all work. In this blog post, I’m going to explain why.

Mobility for a growing population

Global cities like London are facing some pressing challenges. Chief among these is population growth, which results in growing pressures on public space, on urban infrastructure and in pressures to deliver better and more sustainable infrastructure and services – including mobility.

Therefore, we need to adopt more innovative and integrated approaches to release this pressure on infrastructure and space while still meeting people’s needs.  In order to do that and in relation to urban mobility, the first thing we need to do is to decrease people’s need to travel, by better shaping our built environments and designing more self-sufficient neighbourhoods. (I’ll explain more on this later).

And when we have to travel, the government wants to encourage people to travel in an active way: walking or cycling.

This links into an important public health agenda: not only does it help to reduce the amount of air pollution in our urban areas, but also increases the activity levels of our citizens (leading to improved health). Consequently, our cities have to be designed and built with active mobility in mind.

And then there’s another consideration around efficiency and productivity.

When it comes to moving large numbers of people very quickly, will CAVs ever be as effective as rail infrastructure services (e.g. underground, overground, DLR, etc.)? I personally don’t think so.  If we put all the passengers that the underground moves at once into CAVs on the roads, the levels of congestion would be unbearable, and so would be the productivity losses because of time loss in city trips.

In this sense, we can’t blindly place CAVs or the latest technology at the centre of our future urban designs.

City design needs to be citizen centric. We need to reflect first on the needs of people and on the challenges cities face, to set out the goals and aspirations we want to achieve through urban design. And of course, we need to harness the latest advancements in technology to address citizens’ needs and to meet cities’ goals. Technology is the means, not the end.

 We need to think about how we would like the cities of tomorrow to be, and what lifestyles we’d like them to support, and use these as a framework for our plans.

Setting intentions and goals for our future cities

When we don’t set our goals for the future design of our cities, technology can come in and create some unintended consequences.

This has already happened in London. Ride-hailing services providing single occupancy journeys have increased the use of private taxis for short journeys.

This has been beneficial for many consumers, as the service is cheaper than it has ever been.

But it’s not such great news for the city, since the number of vehicles on the road has increased and this has led to increased congestion – one of the challenges cities are desperately working against. In this case, technology is working against the city’s goals – and that’s why we can’t start by focussing on the tech alone.

Instead, we should think about why people move around the city and reflect on what we can do to decrease their need to travel.

People often move because they are travelling from one single-use area – say a residential area where they live – to another – e.g. a business district where they work.

When we build single use areas that only serve one purpose and one group of people, we are generating more demand for mobility – because people constantly need to move outside of their neighbourhood to fulfil their needs.

A better urban design involves more self-sufficient neighbourhoods that contain a wide range of the different services people need – workspaces, leisure facilities, shops – in a single urban centre/area whose distances are walking and cycling friendly. 

These self-sufficient neighbourhoods developed around transport hubs lead to the polycentric city concept, where densities and uses are distributed spatially in pyramids of intensification around transport hubs.

This diversity of the polycentric city, calls for a differentiated approach when providing mobility solutions, services and infrastructure as what would work for one specific area/centre in the city, may not work for another one with slightly different physical and functional characteristics.

And CAVs will certainly be part of the integrated, tailored and diverse mobility solution/offer that polycentric cities need.

The role of CAVs in a poly-centric city

London is an example of an ‘imperfect’ polycentric hub, since it’s a city formed from lots of different villages which grew together over time.

Some have consolidated into what is known as Inner London – the area in the city with the highest densities and intensity of uses and others are part of what is called Outer London, characterised by lower densities and less diversity of uses (mainly residential).

The higher densities and intensity of uses of Inner London promote proximity and favour walking and cycling. Higher densities also facilitate investment in transport infrastructure. This allows us to travel rapidly and flexibly in all directions. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case in Outer London, where the lower densities make investment in transport infrastructure difficult to justify and where distances are larger due to lower densities and less diversity of uses. Many Outer London communities are more than 20 minutes away from their closest transport hub and hence, end up talking their private cars. This is the behaviour cities need to address urgently in their goal of reducing congestion and single vehicle occupancy.

And CAVs can play a crucial role in increasing the accessibility levels of areas in the city that are currently not so well served by public transport (eg. Outer London). The idea is for CAVs to complement the existing public/rail transport offer by offering on-demand shared mobility services, from the proximity of people’s homes to their closest transport hub, where they could take another more efficient transport mode –eg. the underground – to complete their journey.

This vision of the future city needs to be designed for the people inhabiting the city. CAVs – and technology more widely – facilitate the delivery of good design, which is expected to bring value to the city and its citizens.

CAVs can be an invaluable layer to make the system work.

People-focussed urban planning

CAVs have the potential to bring considerable opportunities to cities and commuters.

As they transport people and goods, they have the potential to drive a decrease in congestion, reduction in journey times, optimisation of resources, and an increase in safety.

But this doesn’t mean they should be the driving force behind city design.

People, and their needs, are at the heart of our cities. A holistic approach is the only way to meet these diverse and complex needs.

Technology is a part of this – an important part – but it’s not the be-all and end-all.

After all, CAVs aren’t the citizens of the future. People are.

For this reason, we need human-centric, people-focused urban planning and design.