Sunday, 8 January 2012

Songdo: is this the city of the future?

If present trends continue the world population will be 9.2 billion by 2050 and 70% of this number will be in an urban area; so making new cities environmentally friendly and pleasant places to live is a high priority and the techniques pioneered can be applied to existing ones.  See Focus article by Charles Arthur (Jan, p.55).

22,000 people are already living in Songdo, an offshore city being constructed 35 miles west of Seoul in South Korea. By the planned completion date, 2015, there should be 65,000 people living on a 2.5 square mile island site. There will be a 100 acre Central Park within the city. About 20 experimental cities are being designed and constructed in China and India, largely with western finance and engineering. Songdo is financed to the tune of several billions of dollars by Gale International and Morgan Stanley Real Estate, while Cisco is largely responsible for designing and installing an intelligent network for monitoring and control.

In a sense the inhabitants are participating in an experiment for a new way of life which could allow the planet’s population and the global economy to continue growing without destroying the biosphere, giving each individual a better quality of life.

Roads, pavements and buildings will be packed with sensors and cameras to gather data, e.g. the weight of pedestrian traffic will be measured by transducers in the pavements and people’s pattern of energy use in heating, lighting, computer operation and cooking will be monitored in real time. Such data will be collected at a central hub.

Songdo and cities like it are being planned to minimise or optimise:

  1. Water consumption: landscaping and roof gardens will reduce drain off and  grey water from washing up, baths and washing machines will  be used for irrigation.
  2. Power generation: this will be carefully matched to demand using data from the hub and continually updated weather forecasts. Alternative energy will be used where possible.
  3. Energy wastage: buildings will be well insulated and the intelligent matching of demand to supply will itself avoid power dissipation.
  4. Transport: traffic flows will be optimised by using hub data to control LED traffic signals; mass transit systems and access to rail networks and airports will be needed.
  5. Materials wastage: trash disposal will be through a city-wide pressure-driven network of pipes. This will avoid the need for refuse collection lorries.
  6. Microclimate: the roof gardens and Central Park will help keep the air moist.
  7. Green space: the Central Park will occupy about the same proportion of Songdo as the Central Park in New York does of that city. 
  8. Agriculture: I’m not sure about Songdo in particular but some cities at least will be using permaculture to supply local produce. This is already happening in existing towns.
  9. Leisure: art, drama, music and sport must be facilitated for both participants and spectators. E.g. the Incheon Arts Center.
  10. Medicine: a state of the art Songdo International City Hospital is planned.

There are two related aspects of life which could easily get overlooked but which could do a lot to make a city a desirable place for long term residence: silence and privacy. This is a real challenge for architects, landscapers and acoustic engineers. How do you allow people in adjacent apartments to make a reasonable amount of noise without disturbing neighbours? And how do you provide pleasant public spaces or communal areas where it is possible to sit down and think, reflect, read or write without being distracted or feeling threatened?

In the short term these building projects should generate jobs and get the world economy moving in a sustainable way. In every country there would be opportunities to specialise in a range of skills or products or services needed; and the world economy could grow in GDP without ruining the planet.

What happens when most of the world is living in well designed and pleasant cities? Will there be more green areas for breaks, holidays and exploration? I don’t think this would be enough. Maybe, for a while, the huge marine environment would satisfy those with a need to explore. But in the longer term I believe we have to get serious about the rest of the universe.

See also posts on


 transition towns & C40 cities