In the fairly near future, unsustainably large populations, increased urbanization, resource constraints and the threat of snowballing climate change will cause cities to take on a shape we can hardly imagine today.

Cities take decades to grow and develop into their final form. Once this has been achieved, it is very difficult and expensive to make any sweeping changes to their configuration. London today would look very different today if it hadn’t been for the Great Fire of 1666, while Detroit has recently demolished over 10,000 structures in the name of urban renewal. Without such drastic actions taking place, the built environment of 2020 will seem much the same as that of today, unless we’re talking about new cities planned from the ground up, such as Brasilia and reportedly carbon neutral Xiongan in China.

These changes are coming, though, however incrementally. What specific form they’ll take is a matter of speculation, but this is always fun and sometimes quite illuminating.

A New Model for Urban Transport

One of the greatest sources of frustration and wastes of time in city life is simply getting from point A to point B. New York famously has the same average traffic speed today as it did before the introduction of the Ford Model T.

There is no simple solution to this problem. Subways are lauded for their efficiency but loathed for the level of comfort they provide, and are horrendously expensive to construct. At the other end of the scale, private cars and taxis are convenient, but each additional one decreases the efficiency of all the rest. Other solutions often have to make compromises between different requirements, which mean they fail to really satisfy any of them. Buses, for instance, have to run frequently to attract passengers, but this also means that they often travel mostly empty and actually have a comparatively high carbon cost per passenger-mile.

Whether this situation is eventually resolved through flying cars, hoverboards, Elon Musk’s underground tunnels or simply increased adoption of telecommuting using virtual reality, we may expect to see a greater consolidation of bulk public transport and individual vehicles to cover the final mile or three. The gadgets shown on The Electric Rider may soon be as common as pigeons, once dedicated road space is set aside for them.

Urban Gardens and Green Walls

Plants in the built environment have a number of advantages: they reduce air pollution, reduce the ambient temperature and can even be used to purify water through phytofiltration. Not only that, they’re also pretty and relaxing to be around.

One way to take advantage of this is to add a growing medium and irrigation system to building walls – this looks fantastic, saves on cooling and heating costs and doesn’t require any square footage to be set aside. Another option is to establish more traditional, horizontal green spaces, even within the most densely utilized parts of a city. Havana is probably the best contemporary example of this (if not particularly futuristic in other ways). Residents grow vegetables and other plants on nearly every spare plot of land within the city, often using organic methods and supplying a huge proportion of the local food requirements.

Other Improvements

Solar powered LED streetlights can already be found in Los Angeles and several other cities. As photovoltaic panels and batteries keep getting cheaper and more efficient, we may well see entire roofscapes devoted to electricity generation. Intra-city logistics may become simplified by using drones and underground pneumatic tubes for deliveries, while psychology will increasingly influence the design of buildings and utilities. Instead of just trying our best to navigate the concrete jungle, we may soon be interacting with cities that digitally anticipate our needs.

A few of these coming changes will certainly affect at least some people negatively. The best we can hope for is perhaps that environmental concerns will, for once, weigh more heavily with local officials than short-term convenience.