Article | Future Cities

How dynamic environments are evolving into future conscious cities

Understanding cities that are grounded in history, connected with nature and continuously improving for its inhabitants.

July 14, 2023

The image shows the city Sydney skyline from Nielsen Park.

Purpose-driven businesses and communities are creating opportunities for people to evolve how they live, work and play. This latest movement raises the question of how society and communities can further lay the foundations of a conscious city to maximise the human experience.  

CBRE’s Property Management ESG Director, Natasha Mulcahy, together with Executive Director of Cities Revitalisation in Place for Transport New South Wales, Dr Caroline Butler-Bowden; CEO of the Living Future Institute of Australia, Laura Hamilton O’Hara; Virtual Heritage Jedi at Bilbie XR Labs, Brett Leavy; Regenerative Practice Lead at BVN Architects, Valerie Saavedra Lux; and Founder and Director of Left Bank Co., Michelle Tabet, explore how the diversity of environments in the real and virtual world can form future cities designed to give back to the people.   

Understanding the significance of conscious cities 

When asked to describe a conscious city, Dr Caroline Butler-Bowdon refers to data and knowledge as being incredibly important to make cities continuously improve.  

“At the core of a conscious city is a city that’s grounded in history and connected with nature, they have fundamental importance and are continuously improving, it’s how cities respond to disruptions,” she explains.   

How to build a conscious city 

The Living Building Institute has a Living Building Challenge that’s helping to create conscious cities by focusing on creating a future that is socially rich and ecologically restorative.  

“The vehicle that we use, and the leverage point is buildings. Buildings are something that people use everyday, they’re here to serve people and the work of people. The Living Building Challenge is a design framework and when thinking of the ecosystems of building standards, this challenge is the vanguard,” Hamilton-O’Hara says.  

What is possible if we do everything in a way that is positively impactful, everything from energy and water materials to equity, health and happiness?  

“This framework is about how can we create a building that actually makes the world a better place, not just a less bad place,” she says. 

Valerie Saavedra Lux has trialled a similar framework, the One Planet Living framework, and encourages people to ask how a building could give more than it takes. “Buildings are a catalyst for transformation; we’ve piloted this framework with schools with the notion of living happy and healthy lives within the means of the planet to be included into the design of the campus, the curriculum and how the school operates,” she explains. 

“This has a ripple effect on students implementing these practices back home.” 

Why future cities need to know their roots 

Brett Leavy’s passion is having cities know the history of what they’re essentially built upon - to enrich the land’s inhabitants of today with knowledge of those from a bygone era.  

“Let's visualise the past, let's really immerse ourselves in that space. What does that look like in our mind's eye? If we can make this stuff vividly, what we are seeing behind our eyes, we can then really visit and know the ancestors and take their wisdom forward,” he explains.   

Leavy has worked on several projects in order to do this, looking at reconstructing three-dimensional space to recognise and visualise the past and immerse people in spaces. 

“Take a pillar in the middle of a commercial building for example, that could be an entire screen, a window, a time machine into the past that puts the building in context of its traditional owners.”  

Experiencing the real conscious city 

Transport New South Wales’ Cities Revitalisation and Place program is about Sydneysiders seeing and experiencing impactful initiatives in their communities to help further connectedness.  

For example, the Streets to Shared Spaces concept was about reimagining public spaces. It was a springboard to doing things differently and led to the alfresco outdoor dining initiative which allows food and beverage businesses a greater ability to expand their footprint to outdoor spaces, giving their customers more opportunities to dine outdoors.   

“That was one project that has rolled out across New South Wales,” says Butler-Bowdon.  

“What was conceived from that is things like the Festival of Place, which is just where we work within wonderful people like the Sydney Dance Company.” 

How to utilise existing buildings 

BVN Architects have made clear progress in energy efficiency of existing commercial buildings. Valerie Saavedra Lux recognises the importance of creating flexible spaces that can provide more versatile uses.  

“With working from home becoming popular, office buildings don’t need so much office space anymore. Is there a way we can create something else in these spaces? With schools, they’re only used until three o'clock, so could they be used as community spaces for the rest of the time?”  

The opportunities for existing buildings are extensive, but she adds that at the moment, regulations are still hindering them from executing certain initiatives. 

Michelle Tabet explains her passion behind conscious spaces as well as the challenges in utilising existing buildings to create it.   

“It's a structural issue,” she says. “We've been working on notions of retrofitting for more mixed use because of those structural problems that were there before. And it's some work that will be released shortly.  

“It’s effectively looking at if I'm going to pour this amount of concrete, how should I be thinking about ceiling heights? Those issues that are very hard to retrofit, especially with ventilation and similar parameters. 

“I'm trying to think about the conscious decisions that we make today that will make people in 100 years, 200 years or 500 years think, ‘Oh wow, had they not done this, we'd actually be in a really different situation’.  

“I think the onus is on us to be good ancestors and to think properly about what foundations we want to set. And if we don't have any cultural space and people making things, then what's the point?”    

Future opportunities for conscious cities 

When queried on what opportunities there are within the CBD environments to make it more conscious, Hamilton-O'Hara places her emphasis squarely on the importance of avoiding ‘placelessness’.   

“We often build skyscrapers that could be anywhere in the world, they don’t reflect the culture, history, vibrancy or climate of the place it’s built. I think the real opportunity is building buildings that capture all these things, there’s a building in New Zealand that was built by the Tui Maori as a parliament and community place.” 

“They built it out of reparations from the Crown and used it to embody culture and tell stories about the past and the future.” 

This is the fundamental blueprint for creating a place of meaning.