The Future of Urban Innovations

Final Blog Post

future city

When I began this blog for Urban Geography, I was convinced that it was going to be a black and white comparison of Urban Innovations between Europe and America.  Each post had me investigating the individual innovations and examples that existed around the world. On the surface it seems like Europe is investing more taking more risks in urban innovations, but this is not necessarily true. I would like to use this last blog post to discuss some take always from the investigation and where I want the future of the city to in regards to creative urban design.

First, one theme that I did not investigate fully was the role of the government in funding these new designs. While each innovate was meant for the city that did not necessarily mean that the city provided funding. For example, in some cities bike share programs were funded by advertising sales and in others private companies funded the systems. I believe that in order for urban designs that lead cities toward carbon neutrality and sustainable practices need to be partially or fully funded by the government. Green roofs are an ideal example of how funding could benefit the entire city by reducing the urban heat island effect and purifying the air. I am not pretending to be an economist or urban planner is the slightest, but in order for the projects I have explored to function they need further research specific to individual cities. Once this research is preformed, cities will understand how a commitment to sustainable urban innovations can provide the city enormous benefits.

Additionally, I believe the future of innovative urban design lies in competition. The shipping container student housing in Amsterdam was the product of a design competition. An abstract urban issue would be explained and the parameters for the solution would be left open.  This method would allow people of differing backgrounds the ability to apply their skills and creativity to make a niche solution. And niche solutions are what cities need today to fill in gaps that massive urban programs and infrastructure cannot provide.

The future of delivery?

The future of delivery?

We have skeletons of cities and every building and street is an opportunity for an innovation. Just today I heard about drones being used to deliver packages under ten pounds within a city and towns. This idea seems extremely futuristic, but is only 5 years down the road from Amazon! If nothing, this blog and every Google alert I have received this term has helped me realize that the urban design is highly dynamic and complex. No two cities are the same and no urban design is the same. I love seeing cities commit themselves to sustainable practices, but more can always be done. As we travel further into the age of information and technology the solutions that I have explored will most likely be redesigned and simplified. Innovative urban design is the hope that I have for cities to adopt cradle-to-cradle practices, C02 neutrality, and climate proof designs. I hope you enjoy my term blog briefly exploring this new field.


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(urban design competition)

Urban Seating

For this post I would like to explore an innovation that does not seem as innovative perhaps, but definitely is highly creative! Chairs and urban seating. Going off a different urban design theme of returning the city to the citizens urban design is highly specialized toward individual cities. I decided to explore this topic because it is a smaller scale design protect that focuses more on design itself. Most of the designers of these chairs see their furniture as more than functional but livable. This post will show numerous examples of city furniture around the world that is centered design at work.


Guerilla Furniture

Guerilla Furniture

Similar to graffiti putting its foot down in the city, designer Oliver Show decided to do the same. The project named “street furniture” converted parts of the city into seating with inexpensive yellow piping. While the form of art is guerrilla it demonstrates the concept of how cites are for people but are not designed for people.


Sliding Benches

These benches are movable so that the user can change how many seats they would like to sit with. An individual no longer has to feel guilty about taking up an entire park bench by their self. The bench is one of the most static forms of urban furniture and this design by Mutlu Kilncer has radically changed that permanency.


Another bench design that is static but quirky is the rolling bench. A bench with a handle allows the user to roll a wet side of the bench over to a dry one. A great idea for a day with flash showers.


Creative benches are cool and fun to look at but my favorite type of urban seating is a movable kind. Designer Mark Reilgman installed these little blue boxes on the front steps of Brooklyn’s Borough Hall in 2007. Perfect for sitting or a small table these seats make building steps highly accessible for people to use in many ways.

deck chairs

Deck Chairs in London’s Hyde Park

The last type of chair urban innovation I would like to discuss is what the Atlantic cities blog coined “the power of the movable chair”. People like to move their seats before sitting in them in cities because “Chairs enlarge choice: to move into the sun, out of it, to make room for groups, move away from them. If you know you can move if you want to, you feel more comfortable staying put.” – noted by William Whyte a mentor for the Project of Public Spaces in NYC and a researcher on city dynamics for many years for the New York Planning Commission. Is the most innovative chair design giving people more freedom to move chairs in public places? The Battery Conservancy in NYC believed so because they sponsored a $10,000  competition for a movable chair. The winning design will be implemented in 2014 in the Battery park.

chair comp


Trusting citizens to respect the commons is the first step toward all cities wanting to install movable chairs in parks and shared spaces. Furniture as functional art gives freedom to sit and enjoy the cities in multiple ways – not just facing forward.




Urban Design Competitions

The previous four posts have all been about urban designs that have been created and put into use in cities in various ways. This post is going to focus more on how these creative ideas came to be and how cities can encourage and incentivize more original inventive thinking. Urban design competitions are one important way that cities can encourage niche solutions. In Europe, design competitions, especially in the Netherlands, are a common method for urban solutions. In this post I will discuss two types of competitions that the US has accepted fully. Also, I propose that America needs to commit itself to the risk that is competition in order to find the best and most creative solution for urban problems.


Student Competition

One highly prestigious design competition is the Gerald D. Hines student urban design competition. Now in its 12th year, the “ideas” competition winning student team receives $50,000 and finalist teams $10,000. The competition is sponsored by the real estate firm Hines, one of the largest real estate firms in the world. Each year the company gives a different prompt for students teams to solve. The purpose of the competition is “devise a comprehensive development program for a real, large-scale site” in order to raise awareness and “interest among young people in creating better communities, improving development patterns, and increasing awareness of the need for multidisciplinary solutions to development and design challenges” according to the competitions website.

City Government Competitions? 

Screen Shot 2014-03-13 at 12.24.49 PM

One of the greatest steps toward governments in America sponsoring Urban design competitions occurred in 2013. The  U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) sponsored a competition called rebuild by design or #rebuildbydesign. The objective of the competition is to creative a multi scale innovative solution to the many issues created by Hurricane Sandy from “large-scale green infrastructure to small-scale residential resiliency retrofits”. HUD will provide funding through the Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery program and with other funds public and private. One year after the competition was proposed the top ten projects were announced and the winner will be named in this very month! See the NYU website below for more information on the stages of the competition. One of the most interesting aspects of this competition compared to the smaller Gerald Hines competition is the commitment to implement these solutions. HUD secretary Shaun Donovan, who also chairs the rebuilding Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force believes that this competition will help people think beyond borders because “Natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy do not respect state or local borders, and we too must know no boundaries—both literally and figuratively—as we think about our plans for the future.”


These are only two brief examples of designs competitions in America. Some fears of design competitions is once the ideas have a winner will they be funded. Is too much money spent for ideas and not on building? Will different regional areas be able to find a way to fund climate-proof designs like the rebuild by design competition? I believe that design competitions are the best method to combine differing types of knowledge and technological advancements. If urban areas propose and fund a competition for a specific urban problem they will have numerous solutions to work with not just a top-down government solution.



About the Competition


Carmona, Matthew. Public places, urban spaces: the dimensions of urban design. Oxford: Architectural Press, 2003. Print.




Green Roofs


The United States is highly behind in the urban innovation of green roofs. Green Roofs are on 10% of all roofs in Germany are are highly prevalent in European cities. The American cities would benefit from green roof technology because they reduce energy costs and the “heat island effect”. This effect occurs when heat cannot escape a city due to buildings, lack of vegetation, and dark pavement. Before discussing why the US should install green roofs on urban buildings I would like to discuss what exactly is a green roof and how it works.

Green roofs are vegetated roof covers. Two types of green roofs exist: intensive and extensive. Intensive roofs are more like green ways because they are similar to elevated parks. A foot or more of growing medium is needed in this type. These roofs are meant to support trees and benches and have the structural support to do so. On the other hand extensive roofs are not for the purpose of human use. They are much lighter and require little maintenance once installed. Extensive roofs support native plants and the primary purpose is the insulation of the building. The diagram below explains what belongs in the different layers of an extensive green roof. The growing medium is not dirt because soil would have issue with high wind speeds at the top of buildings. A growing medium is often porous volcanic type rocks that are beneficial for plant growth.

green roof

Top 5 Reason For Green Roofs

  1. Less air pollution and green house gas is produced due to less heating and cooling
  2. They bring a habitat back to urban areas and are atheistically pleasing
  3. They insulate buildings
  4. Reduce and slow storm water runoff
  5. Easy to install on new and existing buildings

Additionally, green roofs have a longer life than regular roofs. People may be dissuaded from install extensive green roofs due to their high cost. Green roofs start at $8 per square foot and regular built roofs are around $1.25. This great difference in price may seem excessive but energy saving costs mitigate the cost.

Chicago City Hall

One serious commitment to green roofs technology in America, occurred in the city of Chicago in 2001. A team of architects, engineers, and ecologist worked together to create a green roof for City Hall. City Hall is an extremely prominent and recognizable building in Chicago. As an “urban experiment” three different types of green roofs were installed on the building to test varying systems and vegetation: extensive, intensive, and a mix of the two. This experiment is one example of the type of research that America needs to complete before installing green roofs in differing urban settings.

chi city hall

City Hall Experiment


Barren roofs a an opportunity for sustainable urban design. Superficially green roofs are aesthetically pleasing but they are a stepping stone toward a energy efficient C02 neutral city. Over its life time a green roof could save $200,00 in energy and other costs according to a University of Michigan study reported by the Environmental protection agency. The innovative urban design of green roofs are an addition to the built environment of the city that will improve quality of life for its citizens.



Urban Greenways

high line

Overgrown Railway

More than just the Highline in NYC, Urban Greenways are bringing life back to the city. Instead of deconstructing purposeless elevated railroads they are being converted into walkways and running trails. In a true grassroots fashion, the reclamation of railroad tracks has been pursued by everyone from local governments to individual families.

NYC Highline

Starting in 1999 with the formation of the non-profit Friends of the Highline, Joshua David and Richard Hammond proposed a reclamation of the tracks that ran through their neighborhood in Chelsea as a public open space and park. Late in 2004, the city of New York committed $50 million dollars to the project. The Highline has a walkway running down the middle and on the side lie wild plants and grasses similar or identical to the plants that overtook the rundown railroad in the first place as shown in the image above. The NYC Highline was inspired by the Promenade Plantée in Paris; a 2.9 mile greenway that was constructed in 1993 on a former elevated railway. Since the Promenade was built on viaduct the arches were converted into specialty shops, galleries, and restaurants.


Promenade Plantée, Paris


As far as urban innovations go, urban greenways have been embraced and implemented in cities around the world. One concern that has not been extremely studied is the possibility of gentrification in neighborhoods near the new construction. For example, in Indianapolis a study was conducted and found that rail to trail construction equity was shifting because of new urbanization occurring near the trails. The study was also concerned that greenway management would change from non-profit conversationalist persons to urban developers.

Atlanta BeltLine:

Taking the idea of a greenway many steps further is the city of Atlanta, Georgia. BeltLine by 2030 plans to be 22 miles of connections of greenway that create a way to decrease congestion while making it easier for 45 towns to be connected to Atlanta. 5,600 units of public housing, 1,300 acres of parks, public art, 33 miles of multi-use trails, and rail transit into Atlanta are all parts of the ambitious plan that is BeltWay. The commitment to this plan will be crucial to its success in the next 15 years. Will it function like it is planned to? Only time will tell.

Rendering of the Southeast corridor of the BeltWay

Rendering of the Southeast corridor of the BeltWay

Greenways are one innovative urban design that America has fully embraced and put into use within the past 20 years. While I believe this has occurred because of the ease of converting infrastructure, greenways are giving the city back to the people in a small way. I fear of gentrification, like rent becoming too high in areas near greenways, but I believe that government restrictions can be put in place before construction of new sections occurs. Investment is greenways is a good idea but must be carefully designed for the specific area it occupies to keep the culture of the area and not displace people.

Are city bikes a good idea?

NYC City Bike

NYC City Bike

Another aspect of sustainable urban design is the goal of zero emissions. In this post we will look at the trend of bike share programs. Is this an effective use of minimal city space? Are people treating bikes with respect? Are the bikes being used by tourists or city inhabitants? Is this a sustainable design at all? Is age a restricting factor to the appeal of smart bikes?


About 535 bike share programs exist in cities around the world. The motivation behind this innovative concept is encouraging biking so people do not have to use energy inefficient forms of transportation or do not have to own a bike. Most bike share programs exist in cities or university where a young population exists. In the United States, 66% of bikers are 45 years of age or younger and this age rage is relatively consistent throughout the world. In general, in the United States biking is less common than in Europe where more bike share programs exist. However, in recent years more Americans are biking and the demand for bikes is rising. The purpose of bike sharing is to reduce the use of automobiles to reduce emissions and congestions as well as giving pedestrians more freedom to move around the city.

“In the National Survey on Transportation and the Environment 2000, the Bureau of Transportation Statistics states that there are now more than 80 million U.S. residents who bicycle” – Journal of Public Transportation Report, 2004

Smartphone apps are available to see if a station has bikes available.


Profitability/ Demand: 

No smart biking program has made a profit yet. The Journal of Public Transport has more hope for bike share programs for cities in the US because they believe that usage charges could be implemented as well as a yearly fee. Many bike share programs around the world function due to subsidies from the local government or private bike share companies use of sale of advertising space, like City Bike in New York City. Another fear about for cities considering a bike share program is the question of who will cover the cost. In Montreal, Bixi the company behind the bike share program had to declare bankruptcy and was absolved by the city. The Mayor of Montreal Denis Coderre still has faith in the program and believes that bike sharing is a good idea for the city.


NextBike advertising in Germany



Bike share programs do not require users to have helmets. Additionally, if tourists are using a bike sharing program they may be unaccustomed to the traffic patterns of the city and the dangers that exist. These fears may dissuade some people from using bike share programs. Also, another way that bike share programs may not function as well in the United States is that city streets are not designed to accommodate for bikes. Without bike lanes and implied right of way rules for bikers it is uncertain that bike sharing will have the type of popularity it needs to sustain itself.


“Get people who don’t know about NYC traffic are using the bikes. I’m surprised there has not been a major lawsuit or action” – Local New Yorker, Olivia O’Hagan

A month of city bikes

Click me! This graphic shows the use of shared bikes for one month in NYC. It demonstrates how bikes need to be distributed evenly so bikes do not collect in an area without demand at the end of the day leaving a shortage the next day in more popular areas. 

Like other innovative urban designs, bike share programs do not come without glitches and trial and error. I believe a commitment to bikes would be highly beneficial to cities. Bike lanes would be necessary to ensure safety of bikers. I would like to see bike share experiments in large US universities and cities so that the system can be analyzed and perfected.

So grab your helmet and see the city in a new way!


Shipping Container Cities

Approximately 17 million shipping containers currently exist on our planet. 17 million metal boxes are either circulating around the globe filled with tradable goods or are sitting fallow slowly rusting away. These intermodal containers are multi-use especially today for reasons that may not be very obvious. Shipping containers are now being converted into living spaces. What was once simply a rectangular transportation device is now given the potential as a building block. This is an exciting an innovative idea to handle issues such as lack of urban living spaces and finding an alternative use for shipping containers.



One great example of this sustainable design at work is in Amsterdam. In 2004, over 6,000 students were on a waiting list for residency at the University of Amsterdam. To solve this issue a developer proposed to build student housing out of shipping containers. In the Amsterdam method of design, a development competition had to be held to see if any other designs were more affordable or sustainable than the idea the company Tempohousing proposed. Called Keetwonen, over 1,000 containers were placed on site as temporary housing for students. These units were rapidly installed at a rate of 25 units per day. Each unit was 8ft wide and 40ft long, but this small size was ignored due to extra amenities included such as a personal bathroom and small kitchenette. Unfortunately, Keetwonen did not make its project fully sustainable by having containers specially constructed for this project. However, Keetwonen is a wonderful example of how urban areas can be used to benefit more people in smaller spaces.

shipping containers


Is cargo container design simply a green trendy idea? New York city doesn’t seem to think so. New York City’s Office of Emergency Management sees shipping containers as a viable option to create a shelter in case of natural disaster. Called the “FEMA trailer of the future” the OEM has already secured $1mil to create prototypes of the design. The premise behind this planning is that if another Sandy-like natural disaster strikes, New Yorkers will feel comfort that they will have an option for long-term temporary housing if they are forced to be evacuated post-disaster. Again, a urban design challenge was proposed to develop the idea that New York is calling Sea Box. A piece of the housing recovery solution, Sea Box is an innovative design that if successful in NYC could be used across the country.

sea box

Shipping container micro cities are popping up globally to combat housing shortages, homeless populations, and even mini stores. Because of the option of stacking and converting these steel boxes, cargo containers are becoming an attractive option in many urban environments. European cities have been more forward thinking in bringing shipping containers into a city, but the US has not ignored the option. A small metal box or a sustainable home?