By 2050 the world’s population is expected to reach 9.8 billion. Nearly 70 percent of this booming population—6.7 billion people— is projected to live in urban areas. We asked experts at the architectural and urban planning firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) how they would design a city of the future, educated by lessons of the past and anticipating challenges of the future. Their vision is articulated on five scales, from surrounding ecosystems to building interiors, and follows 10 key principles:

Designing to scale: Urban hubs

Principles of

City Design

In a densely developed hub, sustainable land use within and outside its borders helps people thrive by providing water, food,

and recreation. High-capacity transit reduces emissions and speeds commute times.


The future city is designed around

natural features and forces, protecting wildlife habitat and

natural resources. Based on a unified vision for the region, the city is compact and dense to limit impacts on the ecosystem.

Rainwater cleansing

In lieu of gutters, bioswales (absorbent rain gardens)

and pools collect and filter rainwater for reuse.


Protecting upland water systems and rigorous collection and cleansing of stormwater improve water quality. Wetland restoration and sponge-city measures revive habitats and protect against flooding and sea-level rise.

Social transit

Regional high-speed rail stations become centres of business and social activities.


Green roofs

Solar panels and roof gardens are common atop buildings, encouraging sustainable energy and small-scale farming.

In the city of the future, energy is 100 percent renewable. Enough power is produced within

or close to the city for

it to be self-sufficient.

Area buildings share energy resources, generating as much energy as they consume.

Urban farms and gardens

New communities and developments take advantage of advanced hydroponic technology for urban farming.


Sponge city

Waste becomes

a resource to produce energy or alternative material. Landfills and abandoned industrial areas are gradually converted to other purposes after soil remediation. Wastewater is treated for irrigation or human consumption.

According to SOM’s design, all parks and infrastructure allow water to percolate through soil to recharge the water table. Such “sponge city” measures are already being tested in Shanghai.

Designing to scale: SMART BUILDINGS


Wind turbine

Buildings incorporate natural elements and are largely modular, leading to faster production with less waste. Spaces can quickly transform to meet changing housing, industrial, or business needs.

Sustainability practices are mandated across the life cycle of a product, from food production to delivery and disposal. Global standards are established for organic farming and animal treatment; most produce is locally sourced.

Sky gardens

Interspersed green spaces promote natural airflow

in buildings while providing shade and social areas.



Traveling in the city of the future is more affordable, safe, and convenient because of automated technology and high-speed rail. Fewer personal automobiles are on the road and more pedestrian space is available.

Solar walls and windows

Solar panels incorporated into all surfaces of the building’s facade during construction capture the sun’s energy.



The low glow

Low-rise buildings allow

more light and air to reach

the ground, promoting

health and well-being.

In the densely populated and diverse city of the future, historical heritage is preserved and celebrated.

Recreation, arts, and entertainment can be shared globally through virtual and augmented reality.

Green streets

Water filtration, environ­mental monitoring, and native landscaping are part of the streetscape.



The city of the future is designed for accessibility and safety as more people populate urban areas. Residents have healthier lives with more streamlined access to nature, services, and automated technology.

Designing to scale: social interiors

Shared spaces and amenities increase human interaction and allow for smaller and micro-size homes. Community-wide activities aim to foster a sense of belonging and social equality.


Buildings are constructed more efficiently and include technology that can improve the quality of natural resources such as water, soil, and air. Infrastructure is designed for pedestrian access with limited roads for cars.

Room to breathe

With fewer cars outside and more plants inside, air quality is improved and airborne particulates are reduced.

Intergenerational housing

Small and family-size units, as well as easy access to services and transit, welcome a range of ages in one building.


The economy of the future city must work in tandem with policies that safeguard ecological sustainability. People adapt to more flexible working hours as artificial intelligence and automation become more widespread.

Recycling and reuse

Used items—those that aren’t already biodegradable—are more easily reused or recycled in dense communities.

A future city for all

Future cities are fully accessible to the disabled, giving all residents unfettered access to goods and services.

Designing to scale:

self-contained neighborhoods

Neighborhoods are designed to meet

most daily needs within a 10-minute walk. Varied housing types draw mixed-income communities; people of all economic

strata can live close to work.

Drone commuting

Remotely programmed

drones become large and powerful enough to transport people within the city.

Flexible buildings

Modular interiors can be “hot swapped” for other uses in response to new economic conditions or innovations.

Clean energy

Lighter and cheaper bladeless wind turbines on building rooftops provide supplementary energy.

Wetland restoration

The world has lost

one-third of its wetlands since 1970. Future cities preserve and restore all that remain.

Strategic landscaping

Only local plant species are used in a gardening style known as xeriscaping, which requires little or no irrigation.

Underground farming

Soil-free hydroponic farms grow produce under high-­efficiency LED lights, directly beneath homes and offices.

Designing to scale: Resilient regions

Future cities are composed of a series of urban hubs: dense developments connected by high-speed rail. The regional ecology dictates where and how hubs grow; city centers move inland, away from rising seas.

Scaled transit

The region is connected by local rail, bus lines, and high-speed trains capable of reaching 600 miles an hour.

Gone local

Sustainable agriculture is developed close to city hubs to limit transport.

Connected employment

Compact city centers connected by high-speed rail knit together employment hubs and reduce urban sprawl.

Biomorphic Urbanism

Half wild

In line with biologist E.O. Wilson’s Half-Earth Project, 50 percent of the ecosystem and its waters are protected.

From regions to rooms, SOM’s designs flow from one idea: development and infrastructure complement and are shaped by ecology—letting nature regenerate and support rapidly growing urban populations.


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