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“Unsustainable” cities need radical rethink

Cities (like Singapore) are expanding across the globe Keystone

A Swiss-Singaporean team is tackling the global problem of burgeoning populations cramming into over-crowded conurbations with a multi-disciplinary research project.

Zurich’s Federal Institute of Technology (ETHZ) has launched a collaboration with two universities in Singapore in an effort to produce a template for the modern sustainable city.

Many of today’s cities are reaching breaking point in terms of pollution and sheer numbers of people, according to ETHZ professor for architecture Gerhard Schmitt.

“Cities provide living space for more than half of the world’s population, and this rate is set to rise. They produce half of the economic output but also half of the pollution,” Schmitt told

“This leads us to the conclusion that cities are no longer sustainable no matter where they are. We know the more they expand the more quality falls. There is a limit of size.”

The Future Cities Laboratory will draw on an array of global talent to coordinate research in three main areas: sustainable building technology using new materials and architectural methods, finding sustainable supplies of water, energy and transport and the interaction of populations and addressing planning solutions to urban-rural conflicts.

Science City experiment

The problem of transforming cities into better living areas has inspired and perplexed generations of architects. For example, Swiss born Le Corbusier developed theories of multi-storey, open plan buildings during the early 20th century.

But Schmitt believes modern computer technology, combined with greater collaboration between academic disciplines and countries, gives modern practitioners an added edge.

“We have never known as much about cities and sociology, energy and other aspects as today,” said Schmitt. “We have also never been able to bring those things together as much as today with the help of complex simulation tools.”

The project has drawn on a vast bank of data from ETHZ’s recently constructed Science City research complex on the outskirts of Zurich. Researchers have tested many ideas and techniques at the campus and are now ready to roll them out to other countries.

One size does not fit all

ETHZ already has a close relationship with Singapore in a number of projects. The city-state has evolved rapidly in the past few decades and is situated at the heart of one of the fastest growing regions on the planet.

The Future Cities Laboratory will not only look at modern planning and construction methods, but also wants to tackle social problems prevalent in cities – such as integrating different ethnic groups and defusing conflicts between “haves” and “have-nots”.

Schmitt believes Zurich and Singapore – as efficient, safe, well governed cities – could also be held up as role models in many aspects of modern urban development.

For example, growing cities – especially in Africa and Asia – could learn from Switzerland’s democratic system or Singapore’s ethnic integration model as they search for ways to house blossoming populations.

“These are not one-size-fits-all models, but hopefully we can export some of the methods and develop local instruments to implement them,” Schmitt said.

“In the next 25 years more than a billion people will move into cities that don’t exist yet,” he added. “The city should be the main economic value creation, cultural and educational hub that provides high quality living space.”

Matthew Allen,

The Future Cities Laboratory is a collaboration between ETHZ, The National University of Singapore and Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University.

It is a multi-disciplinary project that combines expertise in many areas, including architecture, environmental sciences, sociology, civil, mechanical and geomatic engineering.

ETHZ already has an internal Network City and Landscape platform that can assess the viability and consequences of urban planning projects.

ETHZ is already advising many countries on urban expansion projects, from Mexico City to Shanghai, Ahmedabad in India and Addis Ababa in Ethiopia.

In Ethiopia, the support has extended to helping teach the next generation of architects and the creation of new energy efficient towns.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR