Future for city dwellers not pleasant – unless you’re rich

This article first appeared in Property Report Southeast Asia, issue of October 2010.

The changing face of urban living

As the world’s population grows and more people live in cities, developers and architects are facing tough challenges. By Alasdair Forbes

Spreading across the top of Signapore's iconic Marina Bay Sands casino's wing is a large park. With predictioons that urban life in the future could become a battle for food and water, will it one day be used for growing vegetables?

ARCHITECTS in Asia these days are under increasing pressure from sophisticated developers and buyers to provide more than building plans. They are now becoming lifestyle designers.

It used to be that they would design an apartment block for people to live in it – that was all. Then gyms were added, then hairdressers, spas, shops and a variety of other amenities. All of this “software” needs careful integration into plans

Gadgetry, too, sells apartments. Nothing could be cooler than switching on your aircon using your iPhone while travelling home from work. “I have an intelligent apartment,” is a fine way to one-up one’s friends.

One trend that is gathering pace is “social areas”, where inhabitants of a tower block or condo building can meet and socialise. Another is quite the opposite: increased privacy, for example exclusive private elevators for those who do not want to meet or socialise.

But these are, in the grand scheme of things, fluff. The factors that are most likely to change the way people live in cities are not social areas or gadgetry or brief trends but much more powerful forces: population growth and its impact on the environment.

According to the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA), roughly 50 percent of the world’s population now live in cities, and the world’s population – and the percentage living in cities – are both rising. UNDESA predicts that, 20 years from now, the global human population will have grown to 8.4 billion (6.9 billion currently) and almost 60 percent will be living in cities.

In Southeast Asia, the proportion of the population living in cities will grow from 48 percent today to 62 percent by 2030, it says.

O.B. Wetzell, Director of Thailand-based green consultancy Sustainable Return believes the real figures are much higher: he predicts 70 percent living in cities by 2012.

There will be dramatic changes, he warns, driven by four exigencies: Getting from place to place efficiently – effective public transport, bicycles, and walkways; lowering consumption of everything, especially gasoline, electricity, water, plastic and processed food; recycling everything possible, especially water, heat, existing buildings and waste; and local production of energy, food, clean air, clean water and livelihoods.

Malaysian architect Ken Yeang, feted by many in the region as Southeast Asia's and one of the world's leaders in eco-architectrure is responsible for the Editt Tower (standing for Ecological Design in The Tropics). The builkding will incorporate 3,800 sqm of gardens spiralling continuously up the 26-storey tower. Image copyright 2010 T.R. Hamzah & Yeang Sdn Bhd

Suburbs will stop expanding and will probably shrink; they take up too much valuable farmland and increasingly scarce and expensive fuel will make the cost of commuting prohibitive. People will increasingly live very close to their work – in the city.

But it’s not all bad news. If you are wealthy, Wetzell says, urban life in the future will be very comfortable. He predicts that tomorrow’s cities will have the following amenities for the wealthy ?lite:

“There will be larger blocks of condos and apartments with more and more general services such as business centres, medical facilities, salons, gyms, sports centers, personal trainers, child-care, shops, food purveyors, security, and transport.

“There will be centralised utilities such as roof-top hydroponic gardens, solar charging stations for lighting and battery operated devices, water harvesting and recycling facilities, centralized solar hot water heating, centralized air scrubbing and oxygenation, and possibly solar-powered air-conditioning

“Connectivity to local shops, stores, schools, airports, theatres and urban cultural delights will be much improved.

“Within the condos there will be more and more web-based communications, ‘smarter’ and more efficient appliances, herb, sprout and vegetable gardens, and sleek, clean-looking, ergonomic furnishings and storage systems that require almost no maintenance.”

Such a condo building may look like the design for the Editt Tower in Singapore, by Malaysian architect Ken Yeang, who is f?ted by many in the region as Southeast Asia’s and one of the world’s leaders in eco-architecture.

If it is ever built, the Editt Tower (Editt stands for Ecological Design In The Tropics) will incorporate 3,800 sq m of gardens spiralling continuously up the 26-storey tower. That’s half of the gross usable area. The tower will catch enough rain to supply 55 percent of its needs; sewage will be turned into compost; photovoltaics will supply almost 40 percent of power needs; and a combination of fans and “wind walls” that direct breezes into the interior will cut the use of air-conditioning.

But the Editt Tower exists on paper only and, in the short term at least, it seems there will be continuing resistance to greener design. The fact is, green buildings are generally more expensive to build and green technology is more expensive to install.

However, Chana Sumpalang, a partner in Bangkok architects A49, says that in recent years the more sophisticated developers have come to recognise that making buildings green helps sell apartments, especially at the upper end of the market.

The green aspects, he says, can give a building “a unique character”. Buyers want to do their bit for the Earth or, at the very least, be able to tell their friends that they live in a trendy new eco-friendly building.

He notes that a green agenda can in some cases actually save costs. This is particularly the case when it comes to deciding on construction materials. “Using local materials rather than imported ones reduces the carbon footprint of the transport involved – and they are usually cheaper,” he points out.

But he admits that not all green decisions are so easy to push through. Water, for example, has not yet become so dear that people want to pay much (or anything at all) for it to be recycled, and no one yet wants to give up the swimming pool, the whirlpool bath or the big romantic bathtub for two. All of these use up large amounts of water that evaporates in the sun or is poured untreated into the drains.

But things will change and, for the less wealthy, not for the better. Wetzell believes that urban life for the poor will be increasingly unpleasant, with growing pollution of air, water and food, crowded and uncomfortable low-income public transport, and growing queues for necessities such as food and water, which will continually fall in quality but rise in price. Cities will also get hotter, and getting relief from the heat will become increasingly expensive.

He makes some specific predictions. “Assuming that capitalism with a dose of humanitarianism will find some ways to design and build solutions to the above drawbacks, we will see the following amenities for low income housing:

“Clusters of living quarters around central common areas with shared kitchens, bath houses, play rooms, child-care and necessity stores; rooms rented out by the eight-hour shift with cubbies for private belongings; and warehouses and deserted factories revamped into modest multifamily living quarters with shared common facilities, shared garden facilities, and some centralized utilities.”

Some cities in Asia are already working to stave off this grim future. One indicator is the number of buildings that have Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification. LEED was launched 12 years ago in the US, providing benchmarks for green buildings. In the States and Canada, 28 cities now require LEED certification for some or all new buildings, and in some cases for renovations as well.

In Asia there is no compulsion to be LEED certified but Singapore has hundreds of buildings that have received accreditation. Kuala Lumpur has dozens. And Bangkok? “Two or three,” says Chana.

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