Imagining the mega city of the future

By Laurie Shuster

At this year’s ASCE Convention, an all-virtual event, ASCE and Experimental will unveil the second world in the Future World Vision initiative: the Mega City.

Future World Vision, spearheaded by ASCE’s Industry Leaders Council, combines artificial intelligence and gaming technologies in a unique, immersive 3D experience. It invites engineers to engage in an in-depth examination of the most important trends shaping the globe and how those trends might play out over the next 10, 25, and 50 years. The first of these world concepts, Floating City, was introduced at last year’s convention.

The Mega City that will debut at this year’s event differs significantly from the Floating City in that it arises from the foundations of cities that already exist. The United Nations predicts that by 2050 some 2.5 billion more people — two of every three humans — will be living in cities across the globe, and the Mega City world serves as a first step in answering the questions: How will all these people be accommodated while maintaining the best possible quality of life? And how can civil engineers help bring that vision to life?

Experts Weigh In

The object of the Mega City is to provide a safe, economically viable, enjoyable place for up to 50 million residents to live and work. Food, shelter, utilities, transportation, health care, and all forms of infrastructure will be generated and provided within its boundaries by using and reusing resources in a sustainable and resilient way — a process known as a circular economy. Here is what some experts have to say about how the Mega City works:

WE ARE LOOSELY BASING the Mega City on a number of large cities globally, but we want it to be an American city. We broke our deeper explorations into districts to dig into the different ways that the urban and suburban landscapes, and the connections between them, evolve. (Those districts are the Historic Core, the Adaptive Corridor, the Regenerative Community, the Densified Suburbs, the Industrial and Technology Center, and the Energy and Agricultural Sector.) We saw a movement toward mixed-use development and considered how single-use structures could evolve to mixed-use functionality. Flexibility is a concept that kept coming back as we spoke to experts, whether that was in the electric grid or in the way we use streets or in the buildings themselves. And smart cities technologies are a huge component.

Patrick Meegan
Lead designer at Experimental, the designer of the immersive Future World Vision experience

THE SO-CALLED ECONOMICALLY disadvantaged residents in any city are typically some of the most hardworking, resourceful, creative, and imaginative members of a society. By providing all neighborhoods of the Mega City with access to clean water, fresh food, renewable energy, and the internet, the Mega City nourishes all its residents and businesses, enabling them all to thrive and contribute to the productivity, safety, and welfare of all of its citizens. The Mega City conceptualizes streets and highways as “travel corridors” that can adapt to ever-changing pedestrian and vehicle travel demands and patterns. Traffic management systems will make those evolutionary changes financially achievable and operationally safe. The advent of advanced driver-assist systems and self-driving vehicles are examples of technological innovations that will increase the capacity of roadways and parking facilities; both will require less distance between vehicles without compromising safety.

Eva Lerner-Lam, M.ASCE, F.ITE
Founder and president at Palisades Consulting Group Inc. and the co-chair of ASCE’s Transportation and Development Institute’s steering committee on Engineering Smart Mobility for Smart Cities

MEGA CITIES NOT ONLY will be built from recycled materials but will also use materials with lower — or even negative — carbon footprints. Carbon-storing materials, like mass timber and other engineered wood, will become more mainstream. We will also see the increased use and specification of other carbon-storing materials, such as rapidly grown agricultural biomass, like hemp, straw, and algae. Mega Cities will come to rely on the agricultural lands that surround them for food and biomaterial production. Living materials are another exciting new class of materials; they are created by imparting a biological functionality to otherwise inert building materials. In our work, we’ve shown that we can engineer a living building material that exhibits both biological (self-regenerating) and structural, load-bearing functions. To “grow” the material, we use microbes that consume rather than emit carbon dioxide. These microbes biomineralize and persist within a cement-free mortar. Such living materials could one day help us fight climate change; neutralize volatile organic compounds; serve as electronic, interactive surfaces; and promote human health by sensing and responding to toxins or viruses in the air.

Wil V. Srubar III, Ph.D., LEED AP, A.M.ASCE
Associate professor of civil, environmental, and architectural engineering and materials science and engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder

PERFORMANCE-BASED DESIGN is an essential defining element of designing and building at the scale of a Mega City, largely because of the in­adequacies of many existing codes and standards to imagine a future not directly extrapolated from current methods of production and fabrication. And despite the “mega” size of Mega Cities, decentralization and community focus is all-important for a sense of well-being and for the provision of public health services, parks, schools, and cultural facilities. A livable city will maximize the connection to nature, offer empowering choices and participation opportunities, and consider the unique needs of different populations. We could start with a few of the ideas for sustainable and resilient cities that I made city policy while serving as commissioner of the New York City Department of Design and Construction: Use landscape features to hold flood­waters; reduce microclimate effects with refractive materials and green roofs; and prioritize multilayered approaches to comprehensive waterside protections.

Feniosky A. Pena-Mora, Ph.D., P.E., M.ASCE
The Edwin Howard Armstrong Professor of Civil Engineering and Engineering Mechanics at Columbia University

This article first appeared in the October 2020 issue of Civil Engineering.

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  1. Very sad to not recognize the problem of the lower 1/3 of the world’s economic population.

    some of our U S presidents liked to talk about the shining city on a hill – but never addressed the valley below where most of the worlds migrants will first live in the future megacities.

  2. Such exciting new ideas. I have always said that engineers find an answer for everything the world challenges them with. They haven’t disappointed me yet. I am extremely proud of engineering community. They never cease to amaze me.
    Wife of one engineer and mother of two engineers

  3. Population trends will be away from large cities. Cities are currently heat islands that would continue as such even if their energy becomes completely renewable. The rise in temperatures will make these cities less desirable (a rise that will continue beyond the stabilization of global warming). Many cities will have the added burden of managing higher levels of water and storm surges. The pandemic has forced the wider culture to accept distance working. Many companies had already had distant designers, engineers, and lawyers among others. We have excellent retail infrastructure where shopping is no longer limited to location, nor entertainment. Rather then a trend towards larger cities, We will see an increase in growth among smaller communities and a decrease in many large cities.


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