The world needs new, green cities – fast. But how? Meet the urban pioneers who build hi-tech cities to order.
Most property developers are cookie-cutter guys. They look the same, talk the same, and build the same kind of homes and neighbourhoods. Not Stan Gale. The New Yorker is bigger than average – 6ft 2in with an exhausted tangle of black hair elevating his height further. He thinks bigger, too. His firm, Gale International, does not just build and sell houses, flats, offices, or factories. He does all that and throws in roads, railways, parks, lakes, canals, theatres, country clubs, golf courses – you name it. He is the world’s first new-cities builder.
Gale has built an entire hi-tech city from scratch. At 5.7 square kilometres, with 9 million square metres of buildings developed at a cost of USD 40 billion and a population of more than 200,000, it is the largest privately funded, single real-estate venture in history. It’s called Songdo, 60 kilometres south-west of Seoul, South Korea. You may not recognise the name, but you will have seen it and enjoyed it. It’s where the video for Psy’s global hit ‘Gangnam Style’ was shot.
Gale International and the Korean steel giant Posco spent USD 1.4 billion buying the land. Gale and his local partners have raised around USD 30 billion to complete the greenest new city on the planet. All the buildings are constructed from the latest energy-saving glass and steel and come with solar panels. Inside, all homes and offices have master switches to power down air conditioning, heating, and electrical appliances, except fridges, freezers, and security systems, when they are empty. Anything that can be recycled is. All water is re-collected for irrigation, cooling, and washing.
With the help of US tech giant Cisco, Gale has plumbed every square inch of the city, even residents’ cars, with Wi-Fi, fibre optics, and TelePresence screens that offer video communication almost as good as face-to-face meetings. Residents using TelePresence barely need to leave their homes and can work, exercise, grocery shop, and even meet their children’s teachers while sitting on the sofa. That frees up time and reduces congestion and pollution.
Songdo struggled, at first, to attract residents. Some were worried by all the surveillance tech. Others wanted a little more grit. It is a little bit too perfect. But bit by bit, numbers have grown. “The population of Songdo IBD [international business district] has grown to 50,000 residents, while greater Songdo has ballooned to over 200,000 people all in the last 4–5 years,” Gale tells me as he shows me round Songdo, on his bicycle, pedalling and talking at a furious pace.
Gale used to be an oddball dismissed as “Mr Ikea who builds flat-pack cities”. But like every good visionary, he was ahead of the curve. Since he started Songdo a decade ago, the building of new cities has become a vast growth sector. China, Latin America, Africa, and India are urbanising at record rates. McKinsey Global Institute, the leading new cities consultancy, predicts that more than 100 new cities will emerge in the next decade alone.
China needs several hundred new Songdo-sized cities to cope with an urban population that will reach a billion by 2030. India needs 300 to house transplanted farm workers. Africa requires at least 50. The economic benefit of new city building worldwide will be “300 times that of Britain’s industrial revolution”, McKinsey calculates.
“Urbanisation is a new industry,” Gale says. “It costs tens of billions of dollars to build a new city. That’s some pretty significant business. We want to build at least 20 Songdos ourselves. The G20 – Gale 20!” He has already made a sale: Meixi Lake, an urban centre for 200,000 people near Changsha in Hunan province in China, has been masterplanned by Gale and his architect partners, Kohn Pedersen Fox. Gale has sold the design to the municipal government and a Chinese developer, Franshion, is now building it.
But Gale has competition. Big competition. The US tech giants that gave us the smartphone, the smart home, and the smart car now want to create the smart city – and, with it, they hope, smarter, happier humans. Sergei Brin and Larry Page of Alphabet, Google’s parent company, are developing Quayside, a waterfront district within the 800-acre area of Port Lands, Toronto. The multi-billion-dollar joint venture with the city and private-sector investors is a real-life laboratory to test smart technologies that Alphabet hopes will make urban life easier.
The project aims to reduce or even banish congestion by building a traffic-sensing network that will collect data from smartphones, in-car sensors, and cameras to direct vehicles on the fastest routes to their destination. It has also set its sights on solving the housing crisis that blights many cities by using new construction methods and materials, plus flexible building designs that will make it possible to convert residential buildings into commercial ones and back again as the city develops. Other ideas include a thermal energy grid that will be carbon-neutral, delivery robots, and heated bike paths and pavements to melt snow.
Developers have been creating purpose-built, hi-tech cities for years. Most turn out to be visions of a future that never arrives. Take Masdar City, on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi city. Ten years ago, it was hailed as “the world’s first zero-impact city”, with no emissions, no waste, and no cars. The United Arab Emirates government predicted it would accommodate up to 50,000 residents and 40,000 daily commuters by 2018.
Then came the global financial crisis, and things got real. Today, a mere 5 per cent of the city is built. Its backers have publicly acknowledged that they didn’t anticipate that advances in electric-car technologies would make their visionary transport system almost instantly passé.
So, what will Songdo or Googletown be when they are finished? “New City 1.0,” Gale says confidently. “The place where we begin to find a new method of creating cities. Urbanisation is a fact; we can’t stop it. But it could stop us. Our carbon footprint is terrifying. We have to discover a new urban paradigm because the alternative is: ‘We’re screwed!’”
Over the next 20 years, more than 2 billion people will migrate to cities. With the growing number of urban dwellers come many challenges: congestion, pollution and a shortage of housing and recreation options, to name a few. So how will our transportation infrastructures keep up? Where will everybody live? Will there be enough jobs for everyone? In our ‘Future Cities’ series, we explore what type of innovations are helping cities to become more sustainable – and liveable.