Although they may all look very different, the cities of the future share a new way of doing things, from sustainable buildings to walkable streets to energy-efficient infrastructure. While some are not yet complete – or even built – these five locations showcase the cutting edge of urban planning, both in developing new parts of an existing metropolitan area and building entirely new towns. By 2050, it is forecast that 70% of the world’s population will live in cities. These endeavours may help determine the way we will live then, and in decades beyond.

Songdo, South Korea
Constructed 60km south of Seoul on land reclaimed from the Yellow Sea, Songdo is the world’s leading example of an aerotropolis, a city that has been built around the airport as opposed to the hub being consigned to the outskirts of town. Connected to Incheon International Airport by the 12km-long Incheon Bridge, Songdo is just an 80-minute flight from Shanghai and an hour and a half flight from Tokyo; it is designed to be a gateway to the rest of Asia for international corporations and their employees. At more than 50% complete, Songdo is on track to be one of the greenest cities in the world, with more than 40% of the city devoted to parkland, including the 100-acre Central Park. Songdo will also use radically less water and electricity than a traditional city of the same size and emit two-thirds less greenhouse gases. The UN recently announced that its Global Climate Fund will be based in a tower block built specifically for international agencies, and 500 employees and their families will move to Songdo, starting this year. The distance any resident has to walk or bike to a store, business or school has been carefully calculated, so that cars are not needed. By the time the city is finished in 2017, it will have 65,000 residents and 300,000 daily commuters, mainly from Incheon and Seoul.

While the general economic turndown affected South Korea’s entire housing market, sales are starting to recover, with 5% of Songdo housing set aside for expat and non-Korean purchasers, said Mary Lou DiNardo, a spokeswoman for the Songdo International Business District. “There are charming garden residences, sleek low-rise loft spaces in Songdo’s Canal Walk and state-of-the-art high-rise apartments and penthouses with views of the Yellow Sea and the Incheon Bridge,” DiNardo explained. All properties are sold as condominiums, and typically have three bedrooms, as is common in the Korean culture where one is for the parents, one for the kids and one for the grandparents. An apartment in the high-end towers Central Park I and II cost 373,000 and 386,000 Korean won per square foot respectively. Lofts along Canal Walk are around 700sqft to 1,000sqft and cost around 227,000 won per square foot.

Masdar City, United Arab Emirates
This gleaming example of sustainable urban living just 17km east of Abu Dhabi is currently more university and business campus than metropolis, but when Masdar City is complete in 2025, it will be home to 40,000 residents and 50,000 commuters. The city’s master plan, designed by the architects Foster + Partners, put roads underground (and bans cars that use petrol), allowing for very narrow pedestrian streets that capture and funnel the breezes, aided and shaded by thick city walls, a technique Arab builders have used for centuries. The city’s modern elements come in the renewable energy and clean tech sources being developed at the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, which currently houses 250 students on campus. The city is completely powered by renewable energy sources such as solar, and the buildings are being constructed with recycled materials, including steel and aluminium. Energy and potable water demands have been reduced by more than 50%, using a quarter of the energy of a conventional city the same size. “We are addressing social, economic and environmental sustainability and also making sure it’s affordable,” said Omar Zaafrani, communications manager for Masdar City.

The building that houses both the Masdar and International Renewable Energy Agency headquarters will have stores and restaurants in addition to office space, powered by 1,000sqm of photovoltaic panels. While no residential buildings beyond dormitories have been built, they are in the works. “There are various residential plots around the city, and over the coming years they will be tendered out to global architects,” Zaafrani explained. The city’s economic free zone – with zero taxes, import tariffs or restrictions on foreign hires – is set up to specifically attract clean energy and tech companies, clustering them together in incubator office buildings. “The number one target is people who work in Abu Dhabi and around the UAE,” Zaafrani said. “We are trying to make sure as we build up the city, there will be demand for both commercial and residential spaces.” Currently, a four-bedroom villa in central Abu Dhabi rents for around 200,000 dirhams a year, while a two-bedroom flat in Reem Island rents for around 100,000 dirhams. Over the next two years, 45,000 new flats and houses will come available.

Former Expo Site, Shanghai
Rather than building an entirely new city (although China is doing that too, by the dozens), Shanghai is taking the area that housed the 2010 Shanghai World Expo on the Pudong and Puxi sides of the Huangpu River and turning it into a city-within-a-city. While the Expo originally displaced 18,000 families, it was themed around urban sustainability and efficiency, and the city invested heavily in the site’s infrastructure so it could be redeveloped after the fair was over and the pavilions dismantled. Parks, green space, water features and cultural institutions – such as the large red China Pavilion, now a museum – were left to be incorporated into mixed-use projects containing apartments, hotels, offices, shopping malls and restaurants. By 2016, two hotels and some office and retail space will be completed, and in May 2013 the 50,000sqm Green Valley project broke ground. Near the China Pavilion, the project will form the central axis of the overall site with sustainable commercial space, restaurants and offices, all linked by open courtyards, gardens and other green spaces. 

The Shanghai housing market is rising quickly, and recently the government reacted to fears of a bubble by directing banks to stop giving mortgages to people buying their third home. The median house price in the city centre is currently 42,500 renminbi per square metre, and a new-build, two-bed flat in Pudong can start at 8 million renminbi. A one-bedroom city centre flat rents for about 6,000 renminbi per month, and a three-bed in the centre rents for 14,500 renminbi.

Victoria, British Columbia
This Canadian city across the Puget Sound from Seattle, Washington, has created an urban experiment within its borders with the Dockside Green development on the city’s harbourfront. The three neighbourhood master plan is based on the tenets of New Urbanism, with its focus on density, community and sustainability. Dockside Wharf has been completed, and Dockside Commons and Dockside Village are not yet under construction. Streets are walkable, housing is diverse and energy efficient, and residential and commercial spaces are densely packed but close to nature trails and ponds. The three developments and 26 buildings, designed by Perkins + Will Architects, are LEED platinum certified and built on a former industrial site. Strong eco-credentials include the fact that the buildings use 55% less than water than traditional condos and were constructed using low VOC paint and eco-friendly materials such as bamboo flooring and carpets made from recycled material.

This phase of the development is currently sold out, with most buyers attracted by the fact that the eco-friendly, walkable area that already feels like a true community. About 30% of buyers are from other areas of Canada seeking a milder climate, and roughly 20% are first-time buyers who work in the area. “The rest are young families and couples, retirees and investors,” said Lorraine Wilson, a media relations consultant for Vancity, the credit union developing the area. Almost 90% of housing stock is one- and two-bedroom residences with an average cost of 500 Canadian dollars per square foot, and a two-bedroom flat rents for 2,000 Canadian dollars a month.

Sherford, Devon
Nearly 10 years after the creation of Poundbury, a Dorset county town built to high-density, mixed-use principles similar to New Urbanism, Prince Charles and the Prince’s Foundation for Building Community also became involved in the master planning of Sherford, a new market town in Devon that was approved in 2007 but stalled until May 2013, when the UK government announced a £32 million loan to kick-start the construction. Located on the outskirts of Plymouth, Sherford will have typical Georgian-style architecture, but very high-tech, energy efficient buildings, four schools, a health centre, a sports centre, a church, a town hall and a library, plus wildlife corridors to replace the land and hedgerows that are being removed. A 500-acre park will contain two wind turbines that will power the town. When completed, the town will have 5,500 homes and house 12,000 residents, plus 83,000sqm of retail and office space. A completion date for the project has not yet been set.

Sherford will provide affordable and market rate flats and houses, along with social housing. House prices in and near Plymouth have remained relatively steady the past year. Currently the average house price in Plymouth is £158,000 and the average price of a  flat is £117,000.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the name of the Global Climate Fund. This has been fixed.