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How to build the city of the future, according to Ikea’s innovation lab

‘The Ideal City’ collects the most successful urban ideas from around the world, to serve as a sort of cookbook of best practices for city leaders.

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By the end of the century, if cities continue to grow at current rates, the world’s urban space may expand by 618,000 square miles—the equivalent of building another city the size of Manhattan nearly every day for the next 78-plus years.

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[Photo: courtesy Space10]
A new book called The Ideal City, from Space10, Ikea’s Copenhagen-based innovation lab, takes inspiration from 53 current cities to consider how future cities might evolve to grow sustainably. “We have an unprecedented opportunity to rethink the way we design our cities to create a better, safer, healthier, and a more inspiring everyday life for the people living there, while boosting the local economy and also tackling the accelerating climate crisis head-on,” says Simon Caspersen, communications director at Space10.

Beta [Photo: Ossip Van Duivenbode/courtesy Space10]
“It almost sounds like a ‘too good to be true’ proposition,” he says. “If it was that simple, wouldn’t all cities already be doing this? What we realized is that our cities are planned, designed, and developed in silos, so we wanted to take a holistic approach by gathering world-leading thinkers, architects, designers, researchers, entrepreneurs, city planners, and community leaders around the same table. In doing so, we can draw patterns in the chaos and combine it with real projects from around the world to showcase that all these ideas explored in the book are doable today.”

Case Design [Photo: Ariel Huber/courtesy Space10]
The book looks at dozens of examples of urban innovation. In an abandoned subway station in London, a heat pump captures extra heat from a nearby train line and pipes it to nearby homes in the winter. In another part of the city, a cohousing building for seniors is designed to fight loneliness. In Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, an office building covered in planters grows food. In Harbin, China, a recently built park was designed to act like a sponge for stormwater. In Lavale, India, a school for girls from low-income families was built from materials reclaimed from demolished buildings to keep costs low. In Copenhagen, a playground makes use of an empty rooftop.

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JAJA Architects [Photo: Rasmus Hjortshoj/courtesy Space10]
Not all of the designs would make sense in every city. The book, Caspersen says, is meant to be more like a cookbook that city planners and designers can use to browse through the world’s collective creativity. The team suggests that an “ideal” city has five core principles: It’s resourceful, meaning that it’s both ecologically and economically sustainable, and built on the idea of a circular economy. It’s accessible, meaning that it’s built for diversity, and housing is affordable. It’s shared, meaning it builds community and it’s designed to spark social interactions. It’s safe, meaning, among other things, that it’s protected from climate impacts and it provides safe food, water, shelter, and access to green space and healthcare. And it’s desirable, meaning that it’s a place where people want to be and spend time outside.

Atelier Masomi [Photo: Maurice Ascani/courtesy Space10]
All of this is achievable, Caspersen argues. “If 2020 showed us anything, it is that humanity has the capacity to respond—in solidarity, together—to our common challenges,” he says. “Cities are right at the heart of so many of these challenges we face, and therefore also at the heart of the solutions. We have the power to decide which direction we want to go in, and I put my faith in people. And we see so many hopeful examples out there. For instance, Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo was recently reelected by campaigning the idea of the ’15-minute city’ and just a few weeks ago announced that she’s turning one of the most famous avenues in the world, Champs-Élysées, into an ‘extraordinary garden’ that prioritizes people over cars. The more of these examples we can find and celebrate, those that work for both the people and the planet, the better we are equipped to make them travel.”

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."

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