vertical city, singapore
Urban Land

Sustainable Vertical Urbanism: The Future of Cities?


Sustainable Vertical Urbanism, a complete ecosystem in the sky that you never have to leave, accommodates population growth and protects the planet, but may have significant drawbacks for the people who call it home and their connection to the earth. Projects in China and Dubai illustrate the concept and its limitations.

Nanjing Himalayas Center, China, vertical cities
The ‘Nanjing Zendai Himalayas Center’ is a metropolis-scaled plan envisioned within the traditional Chinese ethos of ‘shanshui’: spiritual harmony between nature and humanity. Designed as a ring of undulating hill-shaped towers around a cluster of low buildings, with vertical louvres creating the impression of waterfalls. complex is estimated to be completed in 2017. Image from MAD Architects.

A Vision Of The Vertical Cities Of The Future

By Ben Schiller, Published in Fast Co.Exist

Cities will need to be denser and taller in the future. It’s the only way to accommodate a global population of 9 billion-plus people and increasing demand for urban living (70% of us could live in cities by 2050, according to some projections). The alternative is surely worse: More sprawl taking up what little green space is left.

The concept of a “vertical city,” as sketched out in a new book by architects Kenneth King and Kellogg Wong, is something more than a hyper-dense Gotham, though. Yes, there are a lot of towering buildings but also parks, schools, hospitals and restaurants at upper levels, as well. Essentially, it’s a vision of a complete ecosystem in the sky—a place you never have to leave if you don’t want to.

By the end of next year one-in-three of the world’s 100m+ skyscrapers will be in China, as its state-orchestrated urbanization drive prompts a megacity building bonanza. Construction of the world’s second-tallest building, the 632-metre tall Shanghai Tower, is due to be completed next year. Suzhou will soon boast the world’s third-tallest building, the 700m Zhongnan Centre. By 2020, China is set to be home to six of the world’s 10 tallest buildings, although none will top the globe’s current highest, the 828m Burj Khalifa in Dubai.  — The Guardian UK

STORY: Chinese Mega-Cities Contrasted with Calvino’s ‘Invisible Cities’

vertical cities, China, Shanghai
“Sustainable Vertical Urbanism” in the 632m Shanghai Tower (tallest building, left) under construction. Its “sky gardens” – around one-third of the site is green space – will showcase flora from around China, countering the predilection of developers to commercialize every square inch. Photograph: Imaginechina/Rex

Here is how King and Wong define the idea:

. . . high-capacity, high-efficiency ultra-tall buildings occupying a relatively small car-free, pedestrian-friendly parcel of land. Within this footprint are all the self-sustaining features of infrastructure, buildings, facilities, and services necessary for improving the living, working, cultural, entertainment, sports, recreation, and leisure qualities of life for residents.

The vertical city is split into multiple levels. Near the bottom is a “raised multilevel podium . . . reserved exclusively for pedestrians and bicycles,” they say. Below that, cars are “relegated to circulation and parking.” Above, a first level contains utilities and infrastructure like water, sewer, and power storage plants. Further up is the “street level” with entrances to all building including a “mall-like megabuilding.”

STORY: H. G. Wells on the Futurist Dystopia of Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis”

verticalcity, singapore
Fascinating or repulsive and certainly not for everyone, the Vertical City shown in concept here with Signapore. “By building Vertical Cities we can save energy, support our growing population and preserve our horizontal spaces for food production, nature and recreation.” — Kenneth King and Kellogg Wong

Further up still are sky lobbies with “bracing/bridge connections” that make up “village centers” for shopping, drinking, socializing, and exercise. The building is made up of multiple towers each as high as one mile. The surrounding space is for farmland, which produces food, and also acts as a “buffer between existing urban centers and future Vertical Cities.”

“We have to find the solution of how to move towards more density but to keep the human scale,” says Yosuke Hayano, principal partner of MAD Architects, a Beijing-based practice. “People are very sensitive to space.” MAD designs on a theory they call shan shui (“mountain water”), in reference to the way cities were strategically positioned in ancient China near rivers and mountains.  — The Guardian UK

Video on Burj Khalifa, by Guinness World Records. Towering 828-meters (27,160-feet) above the downtown Dubai, the Skidmore Owings & Merrill (SOM)-designed structure has been the world’s tallest building since its opening in 2010.

The buildings generate their own energy from renewables sources, use future materials like graphene and bioconcrete (which has fewer associated pollution than today’s concrete) and mechanical innovations like rope-less elevators that can go to limitless heights. It’s quite a vision.

STORY: BioMilano: Italian Eco-Vision Grows 26-Storey Vertical Forest

Cloud Citizen, Shenzhen, China
Shenzen’s Cloud Citizen would be a mini-city within a city – containing offices, parks, cultural facilities and homes with an ability to harvest rainwater, produce food and create power from the sun, wind and algae — a mini city within a city. Image from The Guardian.

Vertical City: A Solution to Sustainable Living is in both English and Chinese and includes a lot of detail about how future cities might work. It contains a chapter on the history of the concept, as well as interviews with several leading architects. King and Wong are raising funds on Kickstarter to complete publication (presumably because, at 600+ pages and with numerous illustrations, it was very expensive to produce).

See their campaign page here.

Ben Schiller is a New York-based staff writer for Co.Exist, and also contributes to the FT and Yale e360. He used to edit a European management magazine, and worked as a reporter in San Francisco, Prague and Brussels

Updated 24 February 2021

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. Pingback: French-Designed Flower Towers Planned for Casablanca

  2. Pingback: Arcosanti: Paolo Soleri’s Visionary Eco-City Prototype in Arizona

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.