BBC Future

Plugging tomorrow’s cities into greener power sources

About the author

A London-based architect who is director of AStudio, a practice which promotes sustainable technology.

  • Polluting power
    Cities are growing, and their added population is using more and more polluting fossil fuels to create the energy these urban communities need. (Copyright: Getty Images)
  • Rising sun
    Solar power remains largely untapped; the Earth receives in one hour as much energy from the Sun as the human race consumes in a year. (Copyright: Getty Images)
  • African enthusiasm
    In Kenya, use of solar technology has increased massively; here, a woman charges a solar lamp in the village of Chumbi, near Nairobi. (Copyright: AFP/Getty Images)
  • Natural light
    The processes powering bioluminescent organisms such as the sea sparkle are being integrated into industrial lighting by researchers. (Copyright: Science Photo Library)
  • Luminous greenery
    IGEM, at England’s Cambridge University, researched the concept of glowing trees as street lamps, with the light created with the help of bacteria. (Copyright: Cambridge IGEM)
  • Nature's insulation
    In Barcelona, researchers at the Universitat Politecnica de Catalunya (UPC) have created bioconcrete which can support insulating moss and lichens. (Copyright: UPC/Escofat)
  • Bridge of tomorrow
    The Zaragoza Expo 2008 Pavilion Bridge in Spain was designed with ventilated panels that would cool the interior during hot weather. (Copyright: FG+SG Fotografia de Arquitectura)
Cities are growing at a frightening rate, and using more and more energy created from polluting fuels. In the second expert viewpoint in our Building Tomorrow series, architect Richard Hyams says urban environments can help create the energy we need.

Earth has a current population of 7.1 billion; and births outnumber deaths by three to one. The human population will rise to 10 billion by the year 2050, and 75% of us will live in cities. This means the population of our cities will double in a few decades.

To accommodate this, cities must adapt and grow, or smaller towns will increase in size that demands a change in economic centres and infrastructure (or, more likely, a mix of the two). The infrastructure required to accommodate this growth must be encouraged by our governments today – but what should these policies be?

Our behaviour will have to change. Our evolution as a race has developed slowly over many centuries. The year 2050 is only a few decades away. The level of change required over such a short period demands that we must now think about how we are living, what resources we are using and, most importantly, our everyday habits.

Today we expect that when we plug in an appliance – whether it is a smartphone or kettle – power is readily available. Most of us don’t question where this comes from or how long it’s likely to last. In order to provide this power the most developed countries rely on importing a large percentage of fossil fuels. Combine this pollution-heavy energy creation with our consumer lifestyle and we have a power time bomb on our hands.

With the average energy use in developed countries at least doubling the global average (sometimes up to six times higher) the sheer scale of the resources needed requires a new set of solutions. Take solar energy – in 2002, it was calculated that the Earth received as much energy from the Sun in one hour than our entire energy use in a single year.

Why do we face a future energy crisis? We have developed our energy strategy on the use of fossil fuels rather than harnessing the natural energy around us. But there are challenges here. The energy doesn’t fall where we need it, nor does it occur at the times we require it. So a more diverse set of solutions needs to be developed. That is where our built environment can help.

Before we solve the energy needs we should first correct our behaviour, as this will have the most dramatic impact in solving the issue. To do this we need to link the value of energy to our use of it. We will then understand the relationship between our actions and the cost of production. When we ride a bicycle, the speed we travel is directly proportional to the effort we put into the pedals. If we were to understand the relationship between creating energy and how much we use to live – just like we know how much energy we need to pedal – we would behave in a different manner.

The way to achieve this is to decentralise the power plants, create it locally, more densely and at a smaller scale, and make us all part of its creation. This is already happening – in Denmark, half of the power is produced in local plants, and in the Netherlands the figure is 40%.

Developing countries have also embraced the idea of decentralised energy creation as a matter of need, not choice. Kenya has the more photovoltaic cells per capita than any other country (their energy use per capita, meanwhile, is a quarter of the global average). This level of technology use is out of sync with their development but demonstrates a very clear relationship between the individual and their understanding of their own power use.

So how can our future cities help? The fabric we create our cities with needs to be dynamic to tune into the environments in which we live, and we need to use the waste we produce to better effect. Natural resources such as tidal flow, solar power and air movement also need to be used more efficiently.

Whilst it is impossible to describe the future, we can see trends that enable us to predict it. We know that the greatest development in modern life is the digital revolution, where communication through smartphones and the internet has already become second nature. We also know that for more of us the city is the backdrop for everyday life. The spaces in the city need to change to meet new working patterns – taking into account that we often now meet in coffee shops and via video conferencing rather than in big office buildings.

Currently our built form is measured for its cost on the environment. This is fundamentally wrong. The fabric we create should help make our spaces more comfortable and efficient. Building skins should change their performance based upon light and temperature differences, like plants reacting to sunlight. The materials we use to create our buildings, like our energy creation, is still firmly based in the Victorian times and heavily influenced by the results of the industrial revolution.

Today’s materials should draw on more natural resources. Organic matter, soils and algae will form part of our buildings in the future. We are already working on projects which incorporate algae and other natural products to enable zero carbon biofuel creation or fertilisers for treating the eroding topsoil. Researchers at Barcelona’s Universitat Politecnica de Catalunya (UPC), for instance, have come up with ways of promoting growth of moss and lichen on biological concrete, which helps insulate the building and also takes carbon out of the atmosphere.

We have to use the building fabric to help us harness the power the Earth provides naturally. Bioluminous structures to light the streets or building skins that feed off the waste we create. For instance, one project my studio is working on involves building algae tanks into a school roof to absorb CO2 and produce fertiliser for the school grounds. Ideas such as these reduce the energy load, decentralising our energy production. 

With this, we will begin to understand our energy demand in relationship to its supply as it will be a visible part of the new city. If this is achieved then we will be able to reduce the reliance on imported energy and fossil fuels, in turn creating a better, healthier environment. 

For more in our Building Tomorrow series, click here. If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on Future, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.