City planners strive to create efficient spaces as urban populations swell around the world


In 2008, for the first time in history, more than half of humanity was living in urban areas. Perhaps the most remarkable observation about this trend is the speed at which it has happened: as recently as 1900 urban areas accounted for 13% of the global population. Towns and cities are seen as the crucibles of opportunity for many rural dwellers. The UN estimates that by 2030 urban areas will host 60% of the world’s population – up from 54.5% in 2016 – with the pace of urban growth especially rapid across Africa and parts of Asia. Urban areas are home to more than 470m people in Africa, accounting for 40% of the continent’s population, up from 14% in the middle of the 20th century.

Growing Pains

In 2016 there were 512 cities around the world with at least 1m inhabitants, more than 100 of which were in China. By 2030 this number is set to rise to 660, with around 40 being categorised as mega-cities home to more than 10m inhabitants, including Bogotá, Bangkok, Dar es Salaam and Ho Chi Minh City. All cities, even those in prosperous and stable countries, face challenges, from providing adequate housing, sanitation, transport and energy, to combating pollution and inequality. These issues are often magnified in emerging countries, where limited resources and weak institutions can struggle to cope with eventualities such as waves of migrants or the effects of climate change. Nonetheless, opportunities abound for authorities and the construction industry to create urban areas that are sustainable, dynamic, healthy and safe.

Building Innovations

The construction sector is not generally considered a frontrunner in embracing innovation. The basic techniques of constructing brick and timber buildings date back centuries and have tended not to evolve dramatically. However, this tendency is changing, spearheaded by the advent of lighter, stronger and more flexible materials, along with innovative techniques such as modular construction and 3D printing. While large projects are increasingly complex, industry players can use tools like building information modelling (BIM), robotics and the internet of things to ease their undertaking. These can improve efficiency and bring down costs, while also enhancing quality and sustainability, which will be important considerations as many urban areas need to be resilient against earthquakes and extreme weather, such as tropical storms, flash floods and heatwaves.

Tech & Project Management

The process by which buildings are constructed and woven into wider infrastructure is of the utmost importance, with projects becoming increasingly complex and challenging to deliver. According to estimates from the IHS Herold Global Projects Database, large infrastructure projects cost on average 80% over the original budget and run more than 20 months late. Many are also delivered with defects, suggesting project management teams have failed to cope with rising complexity and external risks.

BIM is increasingly at the forefront of streamlining construction and infrastructure schemes. It combines 3D-modelling software with layers of data on every detail along a project’s timeline, enabling architects and engineers to rigorously test and analyse designs. BIM has been widely adopted across Europe, the US, South Korea, Singapore and the Gulf. In the UK the government requires all centrally procured contracts to achieve BIM Level 2. Take-up has been slower in emerging markets, but in 2017 Dubai became the first public authority to mandate the use of BIM for most large-scale building projects. Neighbouring emirate Abu Dhabi also uses BIM, employing it for the $3bn Midfield Terminal Building by Abu Dhabi Airports Company.

Smart Cities

The miniaturisation of sensors and the evolution of the internet means that information on almost all aspects of urban life – from air and water quality, to the movement of people and objects, weather, road and rail traffic, and energy generation and consumption – can be measured in real time. By linking houses, public buildings, factories, vehicles, power stations, traffic signals and street lighting, cities can be smart and responsive to the needs of residents. Developments in smart metering, solar photovoltaic technology and battery storage are leading to more local energy generation, which should facilitate the shift to cleaner, more efficient and quieter electric vehicles.

In the face of a rapidly urbanising population, the concept of smart cities is being developed in numerous African nations, including Kenya’s Konza Technological City, 60 km outside of Nairobi and extending over 2020 ha of land. Dubbed “Silicon Savannah”, the project is slated to see a combined $15.5bn in investment. Due for completion after 2030, it is expected to create 100,000 jobs and generate $1bn annually, according to the Konza Development Authority.


For other emerging markets, however, urban planning and smart infrastructure may seem far removed from the reality of urban sprawl, traffic congestion, air pollution, flooding and sanitation problems. Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, illustrates these challenges. Following six decades of military rule and international isolation, the city lacks an effective public transport system and suffers from chronic congestion. Housing construction has been a key growth driver in Yangon since reforms began in 2011, but developers have focused on the upper-tier segments due to the paucity of accommodation and Myanmar’s position as a frontier market in a dynamic region. In 2013 rents in central areas soared above those in Bangkok and even parts of Manhattan. However, this resulted in an oversupply of high-end units and not enough affordable housing for average families.

Similarly, rapid urbanisation and the adoption of smart networks has been challenging for the majority of Africa. At 4.5%, the continent has the world’s highest urban growth rate, and by 2050 over half of the population is set to be living in cities. Inadequate planning has seen informal settlements proliferate, as is the case in Lagos, Africa’s most populous city. A report from the African Development Bank, the OECD and the UN Development Programme in 2016 called for reforms to make the most of the “urbanisation dividend”, and for African countries to spend the equivalent of 5-7% of GDP per year on infrastructure. The report stated twothirds of the investment needed in urban infrastructure through to 2050 has yet to be made, suggesting substantial opportunities lie ahead. Africa’s future hinges on the ability to efficiently manage and develop city landscapes, and the capacity to turn major centres into engines for sustainable growth.

Curbing Sprawl

Sprawl is a fairly recent and undesirable phenomenon that refers not only to low-density suburbs, but also to the development of sterile apartment blocks, which have sprouted up in large numbers. Some of the principles for solving sprawl and building sustainable cities that are likely to be taken up as city authorities work to manage their expanding populations include the preservation of natural ecologies, historical sites and architecture as a way to imbue urban communities with a sense of identity. The benefits of creating opportunities for mixed-use infrastructure as well as mixed-income communities to prevent monolithic neighbourhoods divided by wealth is also likely to shape urban planning in cities.

In terms of urban transport, investment in high-quality and affordable mass transit systems, and a focus on matching city density with transport capacity, is key to keeping cities moving. The increasing take-up of smart infrastructure will aid this, while the convergence of streets to allow for multiple modes of transport on a single path may likewise become popular if it enhances the potential for mass transit systems to gain traction in previously car-dominated areas. In addition, an emphasis on walkability and bicycle access to reduce road congestion is being seen as important for the health of the environment and urban dwellers alike.

The model of urban planning that extended from modernism and its vision of the city as a machine has proved extremely popular throughout the past half century. However, there is now a growing realisation around the globe that if urban areas are to be lively, safe, healthy and truly sustainable, planners will need to rethink and develop a different form and complexion.


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The Report: Abu Dhabi 2019

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