By 2050 the world’s population will be almost 10 billion people. As the population grows, so will mega-cities around the world. How will architects and urban planners look to shape the cities of the future? 

Thanks to psychological studies, we’re starting to learn more about the impacts that certain environments can have on the brain and which environments work better for us. 

Research by Colin Ellard, an environmental psychologist and neuroscientist at the University of Waterloo has shown that boring cityspaces increase sadness, addiction and disease-related stress. So, what can architects and urban planners do that would positively impact the people who call these cities home?

Design with green space in mind 

Sterile concrete jungles and unimaginative office towers cause higher levels of stress, but studies have shown that adding more green space or woodlands can help to offset the stress of city living. For example, Vancouver, which has consistently been rated as one of the most popular cities to live in, has building policies in their downtown core that are geared towards ensuring the residents can see the mountains, forest and ocean. 

A UK study also found that “Populations that are exposed to the greenest environments also have lowest levels of health inequality related to income deprivation. Physical environments that promote good health might be important to reduce socioeconomic health inequalities.

Clearly adding more green spaces positively impacts both the people living in the cities, and the overall economic health of the cities as well. Green space is something that needs to be top of mind for Toronto developments, and is something we are actively thinking about at Key, not only for the benefit our owner-residents, but also for positive environmental-impact

Consider the unintended consequences of the changes 

Adding more green space is key, but there can be unintended consequences. City and urban planners need to analyse the consequences of the changes before making them. Take the High Line in New York City for example, it’s beloved by tourists and has become a symbol for adaptive reuse in an urban setting when an unused rail track was turned into a 1.45 mile long elevated park. It became a cultural phenomenon which also sent rents skyrocketing in the surrounding buildings, this in turn created a lack of economic diversity and challenges around meeting the needs of the people who lived in the neighbourhood. 

What could have been done differently to help the residents of the area? A few ideas have been suggested, perhaps tax revenue streams directed towards subsidies, or the construction of smaller units to draw buyers with varying incomes. These are all things that urban planners should be thinking about before making recommendations for change.

Honour the cultural nuances in the built environment 

Originally, architecture was shaped by the climate of a particular region; depending on what materials were available and the cultural values of the location. As the world became more connected, so did our architectural styles. 

Working alongside local residents and involving the community not only after, but also during construction has shown to have positive impacts on communities.  This is something we’ve already started to do, working with our early-adopters to build and shape the communities they dream of being a part of. 

This is more than simply involving them in the planning, but also using locally made materials and sourcing and hiring from within the community, Michael Murphy, co-founder and executive director of Boston-based MASS Design Group, spoke at the American Institute of Architects conference in 2017 with the idea of the human handprint, “What if in every building we make, we ask not just what its environmental footprint was, but what the human handprint was of those who made it?”.  

Reconfigure infrastructure on the outskirts 

Instead of focusing on city centres, Layla McCay, Director of the Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health, suggests turning the idea on its head. Turn your attention to the outskirts, which are more accessible than cities and reconfigure the infrastructure to create hyper-local neighbourhoods that residents identify with as much as the greater metropolis. This has been done in Tokyo with great success, leading to an urban area that has both a micro and macro identity. 

Typically cities point inwards with all transit leading to a central location. In Tokyo, by decentralizing amenities and developing a neighbourhood’s personal identity, they have been able to foster opportunity, belonging and neighborliness, which are all integral to mental health

The world will look much different in 2050 than it does in 2020, and at the end of the day, if we want to build cities and neighbourhoods of the future we have to be ready to change what we’ve been doing, Robin King, Director of Knowledge Capture & Collaboration at the WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities, says it’s about creating mixed-income, mixed-use, and mixed-generation buildings and neighborhoods

These are neighbourhoods that will be both inside and outside of city centres and will include a combination of stand-alone houses, townhouses, and apartments with co-living and co-equity options available, amenities and green space. It’s time that cities and governments  start thinking about these future neighbourhoods with zoning and building codes that can be adjusted for mixed uses.