Gentler, greener, quieter – welcome to the city of the future

Chris Moss
·13-min read
Things are changing, and a city is now rated on its greenness - Getty
Things are changing, and a city is now rated on its greenness - Getty

Travellers love cities. Metropolises powered the Grand Tour, the Interrail era and the no-frills flight age. Half a day in a museum is the tourism experience par excellence. City restaurants get the bulk of Michelin stars and attract the most innovative chefs. City hotels get the most stars, the biggest suites, the most glamorous guests.

The pandemic put a block on urban adventures. That was bad enough. But then the armchair Nostradamus began to announce that the end of the city was nigh. No sooner had London’s Waterloo and City line stopped running at the start of the first lockdown than the crystal balls came out. Forecasters were predicting that commuting as we know and loathe it had ended; theatres and galleries would never recover; homeworking would turn once great metropolises into ghost towns; all the Prets would have to close.

I don’t think so. Sure, real changes had an impact on some of the cities travellers love most. Paris’s bookshops were forced to beg for charity. Buenos Aires’ empty cafés struggled to survive; some steakhouses shut their doors for good. The fashion boutiques of Milan had last season’s garbs in their window displays; designers went virtual, buyers stayed home. But, at the same time Venice had a spell without overtourism, and its canals were cleaner. There was room on Tokyo’s trains and New York’s subway. Cleaner air and blue skies everywhere allowed us all a breather and a break from routine. 

Some of the changes wrought by Covid-19 will be permanent. Some will pass and be forgotten. But the pandemic is accelerating so many trends that it’s definitely going to change the shape and feel of our metropolises. While there are those who will lament the passing of just about anything, there is also room for hope and optimism. Indeed, the pandemic has given us a peek at how things might look in 2030, 2040 and beyond. The future city will have its Louvres, its cobbled lanes, and its storied old bars; but it could also be cleaner, greener, safer, quieter, more walkable and welcoming to all.

A cyclist in Copenhagen - Getty
A cyclist in Copenhagen - Getty

A green, sustainable city

When Brasilia was built in the 1950s, urban planners were besotted with concrete. Our own Garden Cities were more known from their roundabouts than their landscaped verges. Tourists used to buy postcards of motorway flyovers and joined tours to see Spaghetti Junction when it opened in 1972.

But things are changing, and a city is now rated on its greenness. Covid-19 has made a lot of people fall (back) in love with green spaces and re-evaluate the importance of city parks, urban farms and vertical gardens. Copenhagen, already a favourite with travellers, recently unveiled plans for a “parkipelago” of floating parks. In the UK, Edinburgh comes top for green space, while Phytology, a mini-nature reserve in London’s Bethnal Green, shows how cities can be rewilded. New York, which already has 28,000 acres of green space, is getting a few more thanks to Little Island – a floating park on the Hudson scheduled to open in spring 2021.

Copenhagen, already a favourite with travellers, recently unveiled plans for a “parkipelago” of floating parks
Copenhagen, already a favourite with travellers, recently unveiled plans for a “parkipelago” of floating parks

Harriet Bulkeley, professor of geography at Durham University, links the greening of cities to the climate emergency. “A few cities have been trying to bring the nature and climate agendas together, and it seems Covid-19 might accelerate that trend. We have learnt more about the nature we have in our cities already, as well as what working with nature can do for us in the future.” 

New urban developments, she says, “need to be not only net zero but nature positive, working with other urban land and building owners in the city to create new spaces for nature and people to enjoy the benefits it brings”.

Durham University is leading the Naturvation project (naturvation.eu), which collects examples of nature-based solutions in cities around the world. Winnipeg’s riverside development, the greening of Tianjin and Sofia’s city forest are singled out as forward-looking projects.

Sofia - Getty
Sofia - Getty

Micromobility will transform the metropolises

Urban transport is in flux as it hasn’t been since the 1900s, when cars were first mass-produced. As well as the electric-vehicle revolution we have seen major cities adopt dedicated bus lanes and platforms. 

In La Paz, Bolivia, a 10-line cable-car has transformed people’s experience of getting around the previously congested capital. It has become a tourist attraction in its own right. Dramatic photos snapped from above the high-altitude bowl-shaped city are an Instagram favourite.

La Paz - Getty
La Paz - Getty

Shared spaces advance the cause of pedestrianisation. Bike lanes, dockless scooters, hoverboards, electric unicycles and e-bikes – which have taken off in cities in China as well as Europe – provide “micromobility”: a term used for small vehicles with a weight not exceeding 350kg and a maximum speed of 45km/h. Prague, Munich, Budapest, Bangkok and Auckland are just some of the cities where e-scooter tours have proved popular. 

“Covid-19 has essentially forced us to redesign our lives in general and our mobility in particular,” says Dr Manos Chaniotakis, a lecturer in transport modelling and machine learning at University College London.  

Slow everything 

Hot on the heels of “slow food”, “slow parenting”, “slow fashion” and “slow gardening”, some are heralding the dawn of the “slow city”. Orvieto in Italy is the headquarters of Cittaslow, an organisation that lists 268 cities in its network, including Llangollen, Hartberg in Austria and Songbai in China; the founders champion Slow Tourism, in which visitors don’t merely enjoy or consume, but “contribute” and “participate” in crafts, gardening, cooking and other community activities. 

Orvieto  - Getty
Orvieto - Getty

Paul Tranter is co-author, with Rodney Tolley, of the just-published Slow Cities: Conquering Our Speed Addiction for Health and Sustainability (slowcitiesmanifesto.com). He defines a slow city as “one in which two synergistic strategies are employed: slowing the speed of motorised transport, for example using 20mph zones, and encouraging a shift to the ‘slower’ modes of walking, cycling and public transport.

“Tourists and residents alike now hear the tweeting of birds in camellias and the sounds of human voices.”

Anyone who has trudged around a US suburb knows what a zombie town feels like. Compare that to idling around backstreets in Rome or Beijing’s last hutongs. “Due to Covid-19, people saw slow cities with their own eyes, heard it with their own ears and breathed it with their own lungs,” says Tranter.  

Building in health and well-being

We still embrace the Victorian dichotomy of town and country: the former is for fun, hedonism and socialising; the latter for fresh air and exercise. But a new book, Designing Future Cities for Wellbeing, suggests that urban architecture and design are increasingly responding to a call for an approach that takes into consideration people’s health.  

One of the book’s editors, Christopher Boyko, points to airports that offer retreat, rest and healthy-food spaces: “Singapore’s Changi and Kuala Lumpur airport have butterfly gardens and tropical rainforest, respectively; Schiphol in Amsterdam has a meditation centre and park. Abu Dhabi, Mexico City and Perth airports have pods for sleeping; LaGuardia in New York has personal, enclosed workspaces by Jabbrrbox.”

Changi Airport - Getty
Changi Airport - Getty

Overtourism presents a challenge, he says. City governments often sacrifice the well-being of the general population to bring in tourist dollars. 

“To combat this, tourist cities need to be more adept at dealing with the influx or intensity of tourists, and provide ‘spillover spaces’ for respite.”

Tourist-friendly technology

From QR codes to Instagram to booking a slot in a socially distanced gallery, travellers can’t escape from technology. Lots of people rely on their smartphones for browsing, booking, planning and fine-tuning every detail of a holiday. We complain to airlines on Twitter. Some hotels provide apps to control air-con or our final bills.

In Amsterdam, data gathered via a visitor app have been used to measure overtourism hotspots and social media and search engines employed to suggest changing of plans, coming back later or, in the red-light district, behaving with respect for others. During lockdown, tour firms have tried to tempt grounded wanderlusts with online tours. Virtual Reality was often cited as the best way to simulate the experience of travelling while stuck at home. But, according to Glasgow University’s Dr Neil McDonnell, we’re looking into the wrong pair of goggles.

VR headsets will soon be obsolete - Getty
VR headsets will soon be obsolete - Getty

“Augmented Reality will soon eclipse VR devices. They will be something you wear but don’t have to carry in your pocket. The data will be processed in the cloud and will continuously be backed up and improved.

“But AR will enhance travel rather than replace it. We’ll be able to wear glasses or contact lenses and be able to dress the world in data where it belongs. There’ll be no need to sit down and check your emails on a screen.”

He envisages gizmos that provide us with the option to have a remote expert on demand: “We’ll have virtual tour guides and we’ll rate them, so people will be able to do their tour with the best one. It might be the best guide to the Musée d’Orsay lives in Kathmandu.”

Digital interfaces open up the possibility of “curating” your experience of a place. In 2019, the Louvre trialled headsets that allowed art-lovers to get behind the glass protecting the Mona Lisa and study Leonardo’s brushstrokes.

You could, in theory, one day edit out other tourists out of your experience, or even your children – who might be happier interacting with a boring “grown-up” city like Rome via a game. 

Visitors to the Louvre in the summer - Reuters
Visitors to the Louvre in the summer - Reuters

A city for all

Cities are designed largely by, and for, men. This is not only evident in “phallic” skyscrapers and unlit back alleys, but in pubs used exclusively by men or couples, while parents, guardians and children are, at best, a second thought. 

Women’s tourism was booming before lockdown, especially solo travel. Some UK firms now offer holidays with all-female guides. Women-only hotels and taxi firms are appearing, but women, and families, are still often made to feel unwelcome – by dated urban design.   

“My top three irritations would be public transport that you can’t access with a buggy or pram, the lack of clean and safe lavatories, and the constant unwanted attention, which often shades into harassment, from men,” says Leslie Kern, author of Feminist City, recently published by Verso. “Even in the 21st century, the ‘man-made’ city finds ways to remind women that they don’t really belong.”

Some cities are more progressive, and have redesigned public lavatories and transit to meet their needs. Kern writes that Vienna, which has been honouring women in its plazas and parks for decades, has “adopted a gender mainstreaming approach”: designing spaces with women equally in mind. 

Buenos Aires’s youngest barrio, Puerto Madero, has streets named after female heroes. There have been calls for more statues of women in New York, Edinburgh and London. 

Kern says the Danish capital is (once again) at the head of the pack.

“I’ve never experienced street harassment or felt unsafe in Copenhagen.   We need to build a more inclusive public space that is welcoming for all, 

“I’m hopeful that the pandemic has pushed us to reconsider who and what public space is for and I’d love to see us embrace a vision of the city where we prioritise care work – and all of those ‘key workers’ we suddenly recognise – at the foundation of urban design.” 

Thoughts from the travel industry

Car-free centres

Ted Wake, joint MD of Kirker Holidays (kirkerholidays.com):

“I visited Perugia last year. Like many Umbrian hill towns, trying to drive in the city centre is like circling Dante’s ‘Inferno’, in part thanks to very strict car-free zones – Zona a Traffico Limitato – which prohibit all cars from the city centre for much of the week, sending those foolish enough to arrive by petrol engine around the houses.  “The upside is that the historic centre is blissfully traffic-free and you can enjoy an al fresco cappuccino without the aroma of passing exhausts – plus with high-speed rail connections now linking the city to Milan, Bologna, Rome and Florence (as well as its own small airport) there is no reason to have a car here.  “If you do want to explore the surrounding countryside, pick up an Umbria Green Card, which gives you access to a fleet of electric vehicles around the region, with their own dedicated charging stations. Electrics and hybrids are not only exempt from the ZTL but enjoy free parking!”

Perugia - Getty
Perugia - Getty

Access for all 

James Mundy of InsideJapan Tours (insidejapantours.com):

“Japan and Tokyo in particular are very accessible for people with mobility issues. With an ageing population the government understands the importance of making its cities and tourist sites accessible for all. Japan has modernised some of its older attractions and has even built and disguised lifts at ancient temples for wheelchair bound customers.  “Transport is a delight to use with elevators and staff all geared to help when needed and calling ahead to stations to inform them that assistance may be needed. All hotels have at least one accessible room. If you are wondering what those dotted lines on Japanese pavements are across Japan, they are for the visually impaired. Tokyo offers access all areas.”   

E-tuktuks and pink rickshaws  

Sam Clark of Experience Travel Group (experiencetravelgroup.com):

“Asian cities are at the forefront of initiatives to combat air pollution and fossil-fuel emissions, having some of the most serious associated issues. Examples range from the ‘smart cities’ initiative in India, with e-tuktuks replacing the old two-cylinder gas belchers in Jaipur, to Thimphu in Bhutan replacing diesel taxis with EVs. “In Jaipur there is a company called the Pink City Rickshaw company, which is an organisation set up to provide safe and fun tours for visitors to Jaipur’s famous sites, provided exclusively by woman from low-income households. This has the triple benefit of ensuring tourism income goes directly to the families who need it most, that woman can be safe and empowered to work and that single female travellers can feel safe.”

A solar powered tuktuk - Getty
A solar powered tuktuk - Getty

Silicon and spice

Amrit Singh, MD of Transindus (transindus.com):

“The city of Kochi (also known as Cochin) is a historical trade hub and popular tourist destination in the south-western state of Kerala; it was the first to develop projects for its waste and water management, and to develop a technology hub outside of Bangalore, India’s Silicon Valley. It continues with its Cochin Smart Mission to build a more centralised ICT-enabled healthcare sector. This e-health service will include facilities like a digital database of medical records. This system will ensure that healthcare becomes more affordable”

All the companies mentioned are members of Aito, the Association of Independent Tour Operators. For more information, see aito.com