City Utopia: Designing the Future of our Urban Environment

Future State: City Utopia, presented by Audi at Semi Permanent Sydney 2022
Future State: City Utopia, presented by Audi at Semi Permanent Sydney 2022

The global population is predicted to increase by 25% over the next three decades, which translates to double the buildings we have on the planet right now. This equates to building a city the size of New York every 30 days for the next 30 years. So, what should these cities look like?

As part of Semi Permanent Sydney’s Future State sessions, we brought together a group of creative innovators, in partnership with Audi’s new e-tron GT, to share urban design ideas to help create vibrant, safe, resilient and sustainable cities that better serve residents, business, culture and the city environment.
According to Australian film director, Damon Gameau, before we can plan for the future, we have to understand where we are right now. Although his new film, Regenerating Australia, is a hopeful expansion on the solutions explored in 2040, he has some sobering reminders. Australia is a country of broken boundaries and we’re no longer living safely or sustainably. 
Future State: City Utopia, presented by Audi at Semi Permanent Sydney 2022
  • Australia has warmed 1.4 degrees compared to rest of the world’s 1.1 degrees. 

  • We are a leader in global wildlife extinction and species loss due to land changes.

  • Australia ranks number one of OECD countries for land clearing. We remove a patch of bushland or forest the size of the MCG every 86 seconds in this country, decimating habitats and emitting tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere.

  • Each Australian uses 34 tonnes of materials (minerals, timber, fossil fuels etc) every year, compared with Sri Lankans who use 3.4 tonnes per person per year.

  • Each person in Australia uses 130kg of plastic per year, recycling less than 12%. 

Future State: City Utopia, presented by Audi at Semi Permanent Sydney 2022
Damon Gameau

Regenerative Thinking

To reach sustainability, we need to enact regenerative processes to heal and repair the damage we’ve done. Architects, planners and thinkers need to think about our cities regeneratively and how we bring vitality and renewed growth to our ecosystem and our social systems. It needs to be part of our design thinking. 

“It’s not enough just to be sustainable. We’ve gone way beyond that, we’ve breached too many boundaries to get to a sustainable level. We now have to enact a regenerative process. We’ve got to regenerate to get to sustainability.”

Damon Gameau 

Regenerative thinking is shifting away from an extractive mindset towards a more circular and regenerative one. For example, in 2021 alone, we sent 57 million tonnes of e-waste to landfill, so how about we start mining the landfill first before we start mining the lands? 
  • Greening – by planting more trees and increasing the canopy by 40% in our cities, we can lower the temperature by five degrees. Planting is essential.

  • Water – capturing water is critical. China is creating ‘Sponge Cities’, building porous walkways and footpaths that capture water and store it in huge water tanks under the cities. 

  • Materials – steel and concrete contribute to 12% of emissions, so what are the materials of the future? Wood, bamboo, hemp can all capture and store carbon in our buildings.

  • Eco corridors – reintroducing wildlife and nature to wild our cities. The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, is talking about making London the first.‘National Park City’, planting four urban forests throughout London. 

  • Shared services – we’re using double what the earth can regenerate every year, so we need to think about shared services and reusing plastic in the design of our cities. 

Future State: City Utopia, presented by Audi at Semi Permanent Sydney 2022
Chris Fox

Creativity for Inclusivity

For artist and architect Chris Fox, site understanding, material engagement and cultural collaboration are core. We must look back to look forward and truly understand a site’s history to create meaningful cultural placemaking outcomes. Chris’ Interloop installation at Wynyard Station tells the story of 80 years’ of commutes by turning the original 1930s escalator treads into a vast twisting accordion-shaped sculpture — a dynamic distillation of countless journeys, both past and future. 
Similarly, urban artwork Rozelle Interchange, echoes past, present and future ecologies with twisting and interweaving shapes providing a framework for nature to eventually take over. Part of the West Connex development, the three monolithic ventilation towers – a fairly ghoulish piece of infrastructure – are transformed into a habitat for urban biodiversity, puncturing people’s awareness and using creativity to make sustainability interesting and inclusive. 
Future State: City Utopia, presented by Audi at Semi Permanent Sydney 2022
Chris Fox’s ‘Interloop’ installation at Wynyard Station, Sydney.

Diversity is the Holy Grail

When Wiradjuri woman and Councillor Yvonne Weldon thinks about diversity,  she thinks about her people – hundreds of tribes and clans who have practised their traditions for 65,000 years, yet continue to be ignored. 

The one size fits all approach isn’t working. We’re not encouraging our diversity of people to be a community of people. We need to get back to the basics and invite the oldest living culture to a seat at the table.”

Councillor Yvonne Weldon

Yvonne, who was the first aboriginal candidate to stand for Lord Mayor of Sydney and the first aboriginal Councillor in the city in its 180-year history, has gone from protesting on the steps of Town Hall to having an office inside it. She has a vision for a greener, vibrant and humming city, brimming with opportunity, where different views are heard and people can connect. But our cultural centres are under pressure and in danger of becoming intense monocultures, where difference is pushed to the margins. She would like to see the housing crisis addressed(waiting time for housing is currently between five and ten years), increasing the supply of community housing so that critical local services such as teachers, nurses and social workers can continue to afford to live where they work. 
Future State: City Utopia, presented by Audi at Semi Permanent Sydney 2022
Yvonne Weldon

Diversity is about agency. So often First Nations experts aren’t engaged or paid to be engaged in the strategic thinking of a place. We need diverse leaders. Today, the people who control the money bags and make the decisions aren’t diverse and they can’t talk for all of us.”

Chris Fox 

The desire to listen to and learn from diverse voices, particularly Indigenous groups around Australia was proven to Damon time and again during his four months on the road interviewing for Regenerating Australia.

“Even the most conservative farmers were talking about wanting to understand the knowledge systems that are embedded in this landscape that have been cultivated over a millennia. It’s like, in this time where we have had such degradation, why wouldn’t we consult with those people that get it, who know this land better than anyone? I thought that was really heartening, actually.”

Damon Gameau

Future State: City Utopia, presented by Audi at Semi Permanent Sydney 2022
Burwood Brickworks, a project by Right Angle

Greening our Cities

The importance of diversity goes beyond people and voices, to diversity of species. When it comes to greening cities around Australia, we don’t want to fall into the monoculture trap. We don’t just want to plant a tree, we want to have huge diversity of different species to create new habitats for pollinators. Almonds, cherries, chocolate, peaches, coffee wouldn’t exist without pollinators. We need to follow the example of Belgium, France and the Netherlands, who are transforming patches of wasteland and old tennis courts into micro forests to attract pollinators. 
Ecological benefits aside, studies in Chicago and Canada have shown the huge psychological benefits of green space, where planting greenery throughout lower socio economic areas has shown reductions in crime and violence. Increasing happiness, reducing stress and helping to generate a sense of meaning to life, green spaces not only cool the temperature, they also cool the mood. 
Barrie Barton of urban innovation studio Right Angle believes that greening our cities needs a better language to communicate its true value beyond the carbon story to help people understand greening’s critical role in our mental, social and physical health. 

Sometimes cracks let the light in. If Covid showed us anything it’s the direct correlation between quality of environment and quality of health, where people in less fortunate communities were more likely to die. So often it comes down to brutality of environment, where less green space leads to higher stress and the built environment is actually responsible for degrading people’s mental health. The essence of sustainability is to restore, zero carbon emissions is no longer enough. We need great language and compelling ideas about why it’s so important and diversity and creative thinking will play a big role in communicating these ideas.”

Barrie Barton

Future State: City Utopia, presented by Audi at Semi Permanent Sydney 2022
Barrie Barton
Barrie’s experience travelling the world to better understand and and help improve cities has led him to believe that cities behave like nature. A principle of nature and physics is the Second Law of Thermodynamics: in an energy system, if you do not invest more energy in it, it will fall apart. Just as the most beautiful, verdant, lively places in the world, such as jungles and barrier reefs are hugely complex energy systems, so too are cities and they need to be wild and full of diversity, otherwise they will be flat and undernourished. 

“We’re animals with biological and psychological needs. If I ask all of you guys to shut your eyes and imagine your happy place, none of you are going to call out a place with loads of mental and screens. There will probably be sun, fresh air and materiality. That’s what drives us and that’s what starting to driving our design, away from technology and modernity, towards nature, diversity and mental wellbeing.” 

Barrie Barton

Future State: City Utopia, presented by Audi at Semi Permanent Sydney 2022
Panellists discussing the future of our urban environment as part of Future State: City Utopia at Semi Permanent Sydney 2022.

The Future of Mobility

How we live is also impacted by the way in which we move, and an interesting subject within the Future State session was that of vehicle electrification. As we make strides to improve the air quality of our dense urban environments, electric vehicles, such as Audi’s latest e-tron GT model, help to reduce air pollutants since they do not run on diesel or gasoline, the causes of a range of health issues. But more than that, EVs help to reduce pollution from brake and tyres through the use of regenerative braking, which restores braking energy back to the car’s battery to power the car.
At Semi Permanent Sydney, we were proud to partner with Audi to showcase its new model, the e-tron GT, an exacting combination of form and function and, as Audi’s head of design, Marc Lichte, describes it: the most beautiful car he has ever designed. The e-tron GT sets new standards for high-performance, luxury motoring with its leading-edge all-electric drive. With an electric motor on each axle driving all four wheels, the revolutionary quattro all-wheel drive enters an exciting new era, taking the 350kW of power (up to 390kW in boost mode) and 630Nm of torque and transferring it to the road for unrivalled grip in all conditions. The acceleration is nothing short of spectacular, racing from standstill to 100km/h in just 4.1 seconds. Add to this its perfect 50:50 weight distribution, a low centre of gravity and adaptive air suspension, and handling is nothing short of razor-sharp.
City Utopia: Designing The Future Of Our Urban Environment By Camilla Belton  May 31st  ·  10 min read

Where to from here?

Our natural default state is diversity, it’s where we thrive, but we’ve formed monocultures in direct opposition to what life is. Our challenge now is how we co-exist with diversity, as we struggle to deal with all the different tribes in the information age. We need conversations around how to overcome segregation and regain a shared sense of value and universality. So, how do we come together and reach a consensus on the most important challenges of our time? 
Yvonne Weldon’s proposal for Urban Billabongs could hold the answer. A series of shallow lagoons that trace old City of Sydney creeks and waterways to form a modern ‘Songline’ through the city, they respect First Nations culture and history, while providing safe access to water for everyone to enjoy as summers get hotter. Residents and visitors can travel along the Songline by foot, bike, or public transport, immersing themselves in the city along the way, they are places for people to meet, play and cool off. 

Water has always been, and will always be, an integral part of country, for cultural, social and economic reasons.By creating sites that place connection with water and with Country at their core, we can respect Aboriginal history and heritage. I’m committed to making sure everyone, especially those who are marginalised in the halls of power, are included in this great city, and connection to local people and community will hopefully lead to inherent sustainability.”

Councillor Yvonne Weldon