From glow-in-the-dark trees and high-rise farming, what can we expect from the green cities of the future?

words by Jonathan Bell

The Green City is a modern Camelot, an aspirational vision of how best to live in a world of increasing uncertainty. From a purely practical point of view, a well-planned, well-run city is the most spacious and energy-efficient way of living yet devised by humankind. Yet all too often the legacy of centuries of evolution and change make city living cramped, dirty and inefficient.

So how will we get to the great green cities of tomorrow? Sustainability can’t be achieved through ticking off a checklist; a green city requires a solid structure, a strong ethos and a guiding vision. All too often we’ve focused on the latter at the expense of the former. Utopias are traditionally modelled on the clean slate approach, rendering a ready-made metropolis on virgin land with all the kinks ironed out. Reality is tougher. It has to be retro-fitted and rewired. Citizens have to be cajoled into new behaviours, rewarded for taking the most energy efficient path and steered away from wasteful behaviour.

No modern metropolis wants to be seen as inefficient. Our collective awareness of the impact of climate change might still seem abstract on a global scale, but at street level the virtues of clean air, efficient public transport networks, the role of business in the community, fair housing policies, expansive public spaces and committed public servants are obvious to all.

The earliest green utopias demanded strict, inviolable planning to keep pollution and other undesirables at bay. The Garden City, Ebenezer Howard’s Victorian-era ‘slumless, smokeless city’, was planned around greenery, open space, public transport and a galaxy of zoned districts. Howard’s vision was fastidious, with greenery just another ordering device. Today we understand the ad hoc character of the city, the importance of disorder, delight and discovery; communities can’t be created overnight.

There are two ways of defining the modern green city. The literal approach is to build a paradise of tree-lined boulevards, leaf-shaded parkways, lawns and fountains, preferably studded with elaborate architectural monuments to sustainability. The practical approach isn’t nearly as seductive, for it involves grubbing about in the city’s engine room, joining the dots of a whole host of systems, from garbage collection to smart meters, congestion zones to delivery shops.

These five cities are all taking different routes to a green future, and each could learn much from the others in our interconnected world.

Singapore is the archetypal example of a city greening itself via highly visual innovation. The past decade has seen the city initiate a billion-dollar infrastructure project, including new mass transit and parks on reclaimed land. The highest profile symbols of the new Singapore are the Gardens by the Bay, a 250-acre public park divided into three individual ‘bays’.

The largest, the Bay South Garden, contains the enormous Flower Dome greenhouse, a megastructure designed by the London-based practice Chris Wilkinson Architects to house a dry, Mediterranean-like garden (quite unlike Singapore’s tropical climate). Together with another greenhouse, the Cloud Forest, the garden is also dominated by a grove of towering high tech ‘Supertrees’, elaborately designed structures that not only contain planting and lighting, but help circulate the air in this tropical city. The Gardens by the Bay are a monument to high tech, high energy urbanism, cloaking innovation in high profile futurism. A ‘Supertree’ wouldn’t suit every city, but they fit right in with Singapore’s megastructure-filled skyline.


Belgium’s fourth city, Ghent, has set itself the task of becoming carbon neutral by 2050. 35 years is a very reasonable time-span to effect a complete culture shift, but the ancient city is already roaring ahead with measures to cut down on C02 emissions, raising subsidies and loans for energy-efficiency improving home improvements, mapping the best spots in the city for solar panels and doubling its use of renewable energy by the end of this decade. A model example of the incremental approach to town management, Ghent’s Climate Plan illustrates the sheer scope of the challenge facing the modern city, as well as the myriad ways in which small efficiencies can add up to a greater good.


London is also a collection of small strategies under an overarching umbrella. In some respects, the capital is a follower, not a leader, perhaps given its sheer scale (on track to become the first Europe megacity, with a population reaching 10 million by the 2030s). But when the city thinks big, the rest of the world tends to take notice.

For example, the capital didn’t have the world’s first bike sharing scheme, but it is one of the largest, just as the Congestion Charge, introduced back in 2003, remains one of the biggest and most influential of its kind. In recent years, the city has roared ahead with high profile innovations like hybrid buses, a growing network of electric charging points and the forthcoming London version of the Autolib electric hire scheme. Although the sheer scale of the capital means that the various boroughs often have differing targets and tactics to reduce waste and raise recycling levels, London’s green credentials are on the rise.

Other initiatives range from the Bankside Urban Forest to the vast Cycle Superhighway and Low Emission Zone. The city will also soon get its own equivalent of New York’s High Line urban park soon in the form of The Garden Bridge, an ambitious new Thames crossing that promises to transform the experience of walking across the river through a verdant, romantic landscape, when it opens in 2018.


Portland has a well-deserved reputation as America’s most liberal city, despite its soaring housing market and the inevitable pressures that spring from gentrification. On the surface, Portland has a crunchy, organic feel, accentuated by the many independent businesses and general counter-cultural feel of its bike-filled streets. Behind the scenes there are also lots of dry but worthy city ordinances, stipulating everything from energy use to zoning requirements.

What boosts Portland up in the rankings is the literal greenness of its urban setting; with around 280 parks covering some 10,000 acres, linked by a greenway trail that dates back nearly a century. Portland’s ‘green’ status is something of a self-fulfilling prophecy; its regular appearance on top ten lists and in articles like this one ensure its future sustainable status is assured, luring like-minded people to live and work within its verdant surroundings.


Radical approaches to urban planning are becoming rare in Europe, but Oslo hopes to make history by being the first city to ban private cars from its centre, a new law which will come into effect into 2019. The following year, the Spanish capital Madrid hopes to follow suit, and both cities plan to bolster public transport to off-set the potential loss of convenience to commuters.

The big winner is of course air quality, a readily measurable indication that has direct implications on public health. Norway is one of the world’s biggest market for electric cars, thanks to generous government subsidies. Tesla’s Model S has been Norway’s best-selling car – not just electric car – several times, and around a fifth of all new cars are electric, many of which are charged using clean energy.

The green city of the future is clearly a composite of many factors, nudged ahead by legislation and incentives, spurred on by inspirational projects and ultimately driven by individuals who feel that the city is the best place to live a low-energy life.


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