How can engineers make cities better?

The future of our cities is changing. From the COVID-19 pandemic changing the way we work, to the climate crisis changing the way we live, cities now need to meet different needs in order to thrive in the future. But what role do engineers play in this change?

Improving sustainability

In order to fight the climate crisis, it’s vital that sustainability is the top priority when planning our cities (along with all other infrastructure projects of course). Net-zero-emission structures will play a huge part in this, and engineers must be at the forefront of driving the utilisation of these forward.

Net-zero-emissions structures are those where construction and operational emissions are counteracted by offsets or exports of on-site renewable energy. Modern methods of construction (MMC) is a great example of how we can move towards net zero buildings.

This is because modular builds in particular (along with other kinds of MMC) often incorporate more sustainable materials such as cross-laminated timber (rather than concrete). They also reduce construction emissions by requiring less time on site, cutting waste and encouraging recycling of parts.

Modular builds also have lower operational emissions as they are precision engineered in a factory to be super energy efficient. This means that they are cheaper to run and better for the planet.

In addition, refurbishing existing structures rather than embarking on new builds is crucial, as well as reusing old building materials. This will not only cut wastage and materials going to landfill but will slash the resources and emissions involved in creating new materials in the first place. 

In order to contribute positively to our cities, engineers should be seeking design solutions which incorporate more sustainable methods of building.


Increasing resilience

While building new infrastructure will always be an important priority, it’s certainly not the only one. Cities are typically already built up areas, with plenty of potential to transform, re-use and re-imagine existing spaces. Therefore, we should be placing more focus on the sustainability of our existing infrastructure and how it will see us through for many years to come.

With the climate emergency very much upon us, it’s important that we build with the future in mind. Changing weather patterns and mass extinction in the natural world have a direct knock-on effect for people and wildlife. Not only are a large number of people already lacking sufficient water, but the changing climate also increases the risk of climate shocks like droughts as well as the risk of outbreaks of new diseases.

In order to protect the people and wildlife already in harm’s way, we must change the discussion surrounding sustainability and move away from talking solely about net zero. Construction must take into account extreme heat and increasing floods, and new infrastructure must be built with resilience for the future in mind. 

If engineers are to improve our cities, they must think first about where we want them to head in the future.

Adding social value

Making our cities better isn’t just about making them better for the planet, it’s about making them better for people. This means taking a deep dive into how businesses would benefit from our cities being planned, how we can incorporate more green spaces to improve wellbeing, and how we can add social value to the residents who live there.

Engineers are on the frontline of improving our cities and there is so much potential for where we can take these in the future. It’s about assessing the needs of now and building with the needs of the future in mind.