The future of our cities: architecture in a time of accelerating change.

January 31, 2022: Perspectives
Graeme Finlay

Graeme Finlay


Vast changes across sustainability, technology and culture need to be understood now to ensure urban planning is properly future-proofed, writes Principal Graeme Finlay.


We are in a period of extraordinary change. I am sure that few would argue with that statement - but do we really understand the speed of change and its implication for the buildings and cities we are designing today?

Right now, Government, businesses and communities are trying to keep pace with monumental shifts driven by technological, social and environmental change. Add to this the pandemic and how Covid-19 has changed the way we work, and we have a melting pot of mega trends impacting our buildings and cities into the future.

A future focus is vital during the design and inception phases of new projects if we are to anticipate what society will expect from our buildings and cities tomorrow. Assuming they should look and perform like they do today will not be a recipe for success.

One of the greatest shifts we are already experiencing, is the pathway to carbon zero. In the last few years (mostly the last six months), countries representing over 80% of the world’s GDP have committed to going carbon zero – most by 2050. The impact of this should not be underestimated. This means rethinking our transport systems, our energy generation systems, reimagining the way we manufacture products, produce our food and, critically for us as designers, the way we design and construct our buildings and cities.

“Suddenly, 30 years seems like a very short amount of time to transform city scale infrastructure, not to mention public mindset”.

As architects, it may take five or 10 years for the some of the buildings we’re planning today to be realised. As urban designers it might take 15 or 20 years. By then, we will be well on our way to carbon neutrality and the expectations from developers, property investors and those who use the buildings will have fundamentally changed. So, our job in 2022 must involve future-proofing our designs to ensure we are anticipating societal change and future-proofing the value of the investment.

When we look at the impact on property finance, it is clear that we can soon expect that projects without strong green credentials and mandates will struggle to attract investors, funding and tenants. Already, banks are offering reduced interest mortgages for Homestar rated houses. At a commercial scale, they are limiting their lending to non-Green Star rated buildings. And at an organisational level, they are reviewing their overall lending in relation to the carbon impact of their loan portfolio. These are things that will increasingly have an enormous influence on decision making across the entire industry.

By 2025, all New Zealand government agencies and many private businesses are planning to be carbon neutral and will be purchasing carbon offsets for inefficient energy use. It is not hard to guess the effect this could have on tenancy decisions and the uptake of renewable energy systems such as building mounted photovoltaic panels.

Electric vehicles are a good case study. Within a decade, the petrol car will feel antiquated with automated, electric, cycle and public transport becoming dominant. Urban infrastructure will need to change rapidly to accommodate this, which is likely to occur more quickly than you’d expect.

Mass timber construction is undergoing a perception shift and we are beginning to see an accelerated adoption similar to what we are seeing with electric vehicles. Structural timber has been called the ‘material of our future’, as it can not only provide a substitute for our most carbon intensive construction elements such as steel and concrete, but also absorb carbon from the atmosphere.

When it comes to technology, the impacts we have seen on the built environment in the last 20 years are only the tip of the iceberg. Robotics, automation, building management systems, renewable energy generation, and the ‘internet of things’ will form a network of smarter and more efficient buildings across our cities.

Technology has changed, and will continue to change, our relationship with CBDs. The reality is that we can now live and work wherever – a concept that Covid-19 has fast-tracked. Therefore, the need to bring everybody into the highest and most expensive real estate in any country will be questioned. ‘Hybrid working’ is becoming mainstream, to the point where we are seeing new residential developments incorporate their own co-working suites in response to this changing balance of how we live and work.

As a result, urban planners, architects and developers need to be aware of trends like ‘youthification’ where the young people remain most connected with the CBDs, while others trend toward the suburbs and increasingly the regions, with businesses and places of work being more widely distributed. The design of urban centres may therefore need to compete even more fiercely to attract people to them. With that, the Central Business District may become a redundant term, making way for the ‘Central Experience District’.

Another aspect which will influence the future of cities across the Pacific is the indigenous voice, which we can anticipate becoming visible in every political decision and policy change. Working with indigenous people in a co-design format gives our cities greater identity, depth and character, leading to better outcomes.

Take Christchurch for example, it was once one of the most colonial cities in New Zealand, but since the earthquakes there has been a steady increase of Ngāi Tahu stories being told through architecture and the regeneration of the city. Equally, in the $16 billion North East Link Project in Melbourne (a 25-kilometre new urban corridor project), ‘Connection to Country’ was one of three pillars of the Kulin Nation’s indigenous worldview that underpinned the design. It is the first project of its scale and type globally to centre Indigenous knowledge. And while there is a still a way to go, deeper indigenous engagement and co-design is rightly becoming a very visible part of the way forward.

This is just a glimpse of our cities futures and the challenges and opportunities ahead. Critically, given the length of the development process, we must embrace the reality that, for urban infrastructure, the future is already here. Only by embracing this accelerating change can we truly protect our built and natural environments and adequately future-proof for what’s to come.