How would you design a “city of the future”? Susan Goldberg, the editor in chief of National Geographic magazine, posed this very question to me last year after we met at a sustainability conference in Hong Kong. The prompt was familiar, and yet intriguingly open-ended. Our team of urban designers at SOM is focused every day on the challenges that cities will face in the future — from population growth to climate change — but our work is typically driven by the constraints of a project brief. Rarely are we given free rein to imagine a city from scratch.
The prospect of contributing our ideas to such an influential magazine was equally intriguing. Like so many others, I grew up an avid reader of National Geographic. It provided a seemingly endless stream of fascinating places, people, history, and exploration, which I simply could not absorb enough of as a young person. Reading the magazine stoked my interest in the larger world, an awareness which is necessary to become a successful urban designer in this rapidly evolving and increasingly connected society.
Under Ms. Goldberg’s leadership, National Geographic has been shifting its focus to address key issues that are fundamentally changing our world. These include pollution, waste, food scarcity, global warming, habitat loss, and many others — concerns that we as urban designers address in many of our projects. As population growth and urbanization threaten to alter our planet’s ability to sustain itself, the magazine’s editors decided to devote their entire April 2019 issue to cities and the future challenges they face.
For SOM, a global design practice working in eleven offices around the world, a project like the Future City allowed us to tap into the broad range of expertise within our firm — linking together multiple contributors and ideas around architecture, structures, urbanism, and ecology. We also saw it as an opportunity to visualize many of the concepts that our…