Design, functionality and sustainability are taking on new meaning as critical elements of the world’s, including SA’s, future cities.

In 2008, for the first time in history, over half of the global population could be found living in cities. This new era of urbanisation is dramatically shaping the cities and countries being occupied, offering new opportunities and creating new challenges as the future of the planet is being redefined. As humans start living in closer and closer proximity to each other, individuals will evolve, having to change the way they engage, interact and survive as a collective.

Living patterns are becoming increasingly urbanised at an unprecedented rate – design, functionality and sustainability are taking on new meaning as critical elements of the world’s future cities, including here in South Africa.

“Given that growth is likely to continue along the current trajectory – which will see an urban population of 6.3 billion by 2050 (66% of the world’s projected population) – and that over 60% of the land projected to be included in urban areas by 2030 has yet to be developed, governments are engaging with ‘architects’ of these future cities as a priority,” says Daniel van der Merwe, Architect at PPC. “This is because our concept and use of ‘space’ needs to be fundamentally redefined and shaped to support the needs of future generations. To ensure sustainability, this change has to start now.”

A growing awareness of the need for sustainability is prompting responsive building and design, which bodes well for cities of the future. “Buildings are being recognised and appreciated as ‘entities’ themselves, and are thus being seen as active participants in urban environments,” notes Daniel. “As such, contemporary buildings are now being required to fulfil multiple functions including generating their own electricity and/or producing food, so as to enable social development and broaden economic empowerment.”

In response to vital socio-economic demands, key focus areas for future cities include transport, real estate and thinking around mobility – specifically developing the current “live-work-play” trend so as to expand engagement with urban spaces.

“Greater urbanisation requires greater active citizenship and engagement,” says Zahira Asmal, founder of the urban-focused publishing company, The City. “This means that we need to question ownership of our cities: Do they belong to mayors, or do they belong to all who live in them – cutting across perceived barriers of race, class and gender and, most potently, former Apartheid planning?”

The need to re-examine the use of space within existing cities will further impact on future spatial development as better and healthier environments are sought after. “Under-utilised spaces such as rooftops can become productive spaces for recreation and for food production,” explains Daniel. “It thus follows that architecture and design are critical catalysts in terms of how empowerment can be facilitated through cities – the drivers of our economies.”

With the growth rate of Johannesburg approximately double that of the country itself, there has never been a better time for public and private sector players to engage around these issues.