In 2008, for the first time in history, more than half of humanity was living in urban areas. Perhaps the most remarkable observation is the speed at which this 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 1950.

In 2016 there were 512 cities in the world with at least 1m inhabitants, more than 100 of which were in China. By 2030 this number is set to increase to 660, with around 40 being mega-cities with more than 10m inhabitants, including Bogota, 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. Not surprisingly, these issues are magnified in developing and emerging countries whose limited resources and weak institutions can struggle to cope with waves of migrants, while also dealing with the effects of climate change. Nonetheless, opportunities abound for municipal 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 front runner in embracing innovation. The basic techniques of constructing brick and timber buildings date back centuries and, often for sound economic or aesthetic reasons, they have tended not to evolve drastically. However, the trend has started to reverse, 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 such as building information modelling (BIM), robotics and the internet of things. These can improve efficiency and bring down costs while enhancing quality and sustainability, which will be increasingly important considerations when many urban areas are growing rapidly and need to be resilient against earthquakes and extreme weather, such as tropical storms, flash floods and heatwaves.

Technology & 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. The IHS Herold Global Projects Database estimates that some productivity has declined since the early 2000s, with large infrastructure projects on average costing 80% over budget and running more than 20 months late. Many are also delivered with defects, which suggests project management teams have failed to cope with rising complexity and external risks.

Technology can play a role in developing more streamlined construction and infrastructure schemes, and in recent years BIM has been at the forefront. It combines 3D-modelling software with layers of data on every detail along the project’s timeline, providing architects and engineers with a relatively simple way of rigorously testing and analysing 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 unsurprisingly been slower in emerging markets, but in 2017 Dubai became the first public authority to mandate the use of BIM for most large-scale projects. The neighbouring emirate of Abu Dhabi also uses BIM, notably on 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 is leading to more local energy generation, which will facilitate the shift to cleaner, more efficient and quieter electric vehicles.

Qatar has embraced the smart city concept as it prepares to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Lusail. On the outskirts of Doha, the city is being developed with smart technology, incorporating sustainability measures to enhance residents’ quality of life. “Lusail City was the first in Qatar to endorse the Global Sustainability Assessment System principles and to rate all buildings according to their sustainability and performance,” Nabeel Mohammed Al Buenain, group CEO of real estate developer Qatari Diar, told OBG. The city will offer residents and visitors integrated smart transport and communications services, overseen by a central management facility. Meanwhile, in the renovated Msherireb area of Doha, several services offer a smart experience. “These include navigation, people counting, help desks, online payments, CCTV, fire alarms and infrastructure network applications,” Ahmad Mohamed Al Kuwari, CEO of IT firm MEEZA, told OBG.

In the face of a rapidly urbanising population, the concept of smart cities is also 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 as the “Silicon Savanna”, the project is part of Vision 2030, the country’s national development strategy, for a total $15.5bn of investment. Due for completion after 2030, the project is expected to create 100,000 jobs and generate $1bn annually, according to the Konza Development Authority.

Another example is the Eko Atlantic project in Nigeria, bordering Lagos’ Bar Beach coastline and spanning 10 sq km. Though the pace of works has been slowed by the domestic economic climate, the project is expected to host a range of amenities upon completion – including high-end housing – that will accommodate up to 250,000 people and attract 150,000 daily commuters.

The New Administrative Capital, Egypt’s new capital unveiled in 2016, is also working to integrate smart networks. Expected for delivery by 2022, the city is located 50 km from Cairo and will extend over 700 sq km. It aims to help alleviate congestion, provide homes to 5m people and host some of the main public institutions. More recently, another smart city was announced in Aswan, in Egypt’s western desert, in late 2017, to help accommodate the city’s growing population. The development will extend over 1620 ha and will include housing, recreational facilities and green areas.

Challenged Urbanisation

Smart cities are now firmly on the radar across the world, but older metropolises are also embracing digital technology to improve service delivery and quality of life. Buenos Aires, for example, has quantified its infrastructure and developed an application – the HANA platform – to speed up administrative processes. The city of 16m inhabitants has 372,625 trees, 91,000 street lights, 50,700 pavements, 30,000 storm drains and 27,000 roads. Previously, certifying maintenance and repair work was very time-consuming and tedious, requiring thousands of sheets of paper to be printed and filed.

However, for other cities in emerging markets, talk of big data for urban planning and smart infrastructure may seem far 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. “During the last decades the expansion of the city was not followed by the modernisation of its infrastructure, and this is putting pressure on city management and public services,” U Phyo Min Thein, chief minister of the Regional Government of Yangon, told OBG.

Misaligned Driver

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 such 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, across Africa, grappling with rapid urbanisation and adopting smart networks has been challenging. At 4.5%, the continent has the world’s highest urban growth rate, and by 2050 more than half of the population is set to be living in cities, representing an important demographic shift. While developing some of the main urban centres has seen progress, infrastructure development lags behind, on the back of slow structural transformation, a historical dependence on natural resources and weak levels of industrialisation.

Subsequent inadequate urban planning and under-investment in infrastructure has seen informal settlements proliferate, as is the case in Lagos, Africa’s most populous city. With over 21m people and growing at around 3.2% per year, Lagos has experienced unprecedented rates of urbanisation, leading to the development of slums. However, as the government aims to turn the city into the “Dubai of Africa”, settlements are gradually being cleared, as was the case in 2016 for Ilubirin and Otodo-Gbame, bordering the waterfront. Despite challenges brought by population growth and the lack of accommodating infrastructure, the city acts as an engine for economic growth, accounting for over 35% of Nigeria’s GDP and 62.3% of non-oil GDP in 2010, according to the UN Economic Commission for Africa.

Growth Potential

This is a testament to the potential cities have as drivers of transformation and economic growth. In addition to developing infrastructure, promoting economic efficiency of cities, improving urban density and ensuring social inclusion, the success of urban centres will depend on their ability to create employment for the continent’s ever-growing young populations. With more than half of the population under the age of 18.5, and 19% being 15-24 years old, the potential for growth is vast. According to a report produced by the African Development Bank, the OECD and the UN Development Programme in 2016, “two-thirds of the investments in urban infrastructure to 2050 have yet to be made.” The report also calls for policy reforms to make the most of the “urbanisation dividend”, and for African countries to spend 5-7% of GDP per year on infrastructure. The future of Africa certainly hinges on the ability to efficiently manage and develop the city landscape and its capacity to turn major centres into engines for sustainable growth.

Master Plans

Such experiences show that creating a sustainable city requires more than a dynamic construction sector. In Myanmar’s case, the municipal authorities are developing a master plan drawing on lessons from other regional cities, but progress could be constrained by a lack of skills, weak institutions, legal uncertainty and limited financial resources. There are also plans for the Yangon New City Project, a 12, 140-ha development to alleviate congestion and informal settlement problems. The project is supported by multilateral partners and is expected to make extensive use of public-private partnerships. However, sustained work is required to strengthen the tax system, alongside attempts to replicate international best practices in harnessing private finance to improve public services.

Curbing Sprawl

In devising plans for the sustainable development of Yangon, Abidjan, São Paulo, or smart cities on the outskirts of Cairo and Jeddah, a main challenge is sprawl. Architects and urban planners have come to recognise a key distinction between expansion and sprawl: cities have expanded throughout history and will continue to do so, but sprawl is a fairly recent and undesirable phenomenon. It refers not only to low-density suburbs, but also to forests of sterile apartment blocks, which have sprouted in large numbers.

In her seminal text, The Death and Life of Great of car traffic separates city dwellers from each other and the natural environment. This, she claims, leaves cities that lack the cross-fertilisation and interactions that allow humanity to thrive. Furthermore, private cars have brought traffic congestion and a resultant loss in productivity, stress, mental illness, non-communicable diseases stemming from inactivity and other health conditions linked to air pollution.

Jan Gehl, an urban architect, writes about the importance of providing safe places to walk or cycle and enjoy outdoor spaces. Others refer to the “Goldilocks density”, at which buildings are densely populated enough to provide retail and services to vibrant main streets, but are not so tall that people are removed from the street-scape. Buildings of six or seven storeys allow the sun to penetrate to street level, with the ground floors often filled with cafes that spill out onto the street. Yet, such buildings can accommodate many people: traditional Parisian districts house up to 26,000 people per sq km and Barcelona’s Eixample district reaches 36,000.

European cities have the structure, institutions, wealth and incentives to maintain historic urban areas and plan new similar ones, but these ideas are taking root in many emerging economies. Enrique Peñalosa, Bogota’s mayor, saw the importance of upgrading public transport to benefit all citizens. The city’s Bus Rapid Transit system has proven a great success, being faster, cheaper and easier than cars. Between 1998 and 2001, 900 new parks and squares were established, and a network of separated cycle lanes led to a surge in two-wheeled transport. Furthermore, La Ciclovía – a tradition of closing large numbers of roads to traffic on Sunday mornings – has proven popular throughout the world, reducing air pollution and spawning opportunities for walking, cycling, jogging and relaxing.

With a population of around 21m, Mexico City is the largest urban area in the Western Hemisphere. It has no plan to create a new smart city but has harnessed small, localised measures and an active private sector to manage its urban development problems within its geographical limits. The city’s scale and traffic congestion problems have played a role in creating mixed-use neighbourhoods where people increasingly live, work and spend their leisure time, rather than commuting to the central business district. “Around 90% of all new residential developments in Mexico City have a mixed-use component. Because of space constraints, the future is undoubtedly vertical,” Alejandro Ballesteros, CEO of high-end developer Grupo Copri, told OBG.

Furthermore, given its economic importance, proximity to the US and its young, innovative population, the city is increasingly adopting smart technologies. LEED certifications, for example, have been required for all substantial developments since 2010, in line with much of the developed world in terms of sustainability. In addition, the huge liquidity created in the market since the 2011 introduction of FIBRAS (Mexican real estate investment trusts) has led to high-end construction projects that have driven more innovative urban design.

Looking Ahead

Some principals for solving sprawl and building sustainable cities are likely to be adopted in many places around the world in the coming years, including the preservation of natural ecologies, historical sites, and agriculture to imbue urban communities with a sense of identity; the creation of more opportunities for mixed-use infrastructure and mixed-income communities to prevent monolithic neighbourhoods divided by wealth; an emphasis on walkability and bicycle access to reduce road congestion; the convergence of streets into one to allow for multiple modes of transport on a single path; investment in high-quality and affordable mass transit systems; and a focus on matching city density with transport capacity.

The urban planning model that emerged from modernism – with a vision of the city as a machine – has proven popular throughout the past half century. However, if urban areas are to be lively, safe, healthy and truly sustainable, they will need to take a different form.