Future Cities

If all design can be read as attempts to predict and shape the future, then no specialization looks further into the future than urban design. The timeframes common to the field are often so long—up to a hundred years or more—that they can at best provide a robust framework for future decisions. So how are projections made this far into the future?

The material here represents the initial stages of a research and design project in which we gathered as many sources as possible pertaining to predictions of the future. Cataloguing, cross-referencing and visualizing this archive has allowed us to speculate with regard to the future and our relationship to it.

In making sense of these competing visions of tomorrow and how they relate to cities, we have posed a series of questions:

What are the likely parameters of ecological, technological and social changes to come? What can past conjectures tell us about our present? Where will future design opportunities lie?

Over the past year, we have examined these questions through research, exhibitions, a seminar at Carnegie Mellon University, and speculative design work.

Projections: Research

Research flow diagram

Created by Carnegie Mellon School of Architecture faculty Rami el Samahy with research associates Adam Himes and Spencer Gregson. Generous support provided by Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar and Qatar Foundation. Additional production and exhibition assistance provided by Jonathan Hanahan and Kennan Rankin of over,under, inc.

Projections not only looks to the future of urban design and architecture, but also examines how recent technologies can be used to drive design research through an interrelated process with multiple feedback loops whereby several efforts are used to move the project forward.

Projections intelligently utilizes an everyday tool—the blog—to organize research so that it reveals trends and potential avenues for further investigation.

Similarly, the open source tool of Processing makes visible trends uncovered through research, temporally positioning each to make apparent the visions for and fears of the future as they developed through successive eras.

The blog creates an opportunity for open-source research via a college seminar that allows students to build upon existing avenues of research in potentially new directions.

The course also acts as a first pass at applying the themes developed via the blog to architectural and urban projects, thus leading the way to the eventual generation of design parameters based on a number of projected criteria to be applied in the development of future cities.

Projections visualization

Technological changes will have a profound effect on the way we will live, from the growing ubiquity of information technology, to the increased reliance on robotics, to the remarkable potentials of nanotechnology.

It is also evident that the future promises significant environmental and sociological change. While the extent of either’s impact remains unclear, it is impossible to deny that transformations will occur in both areas.

But will the cities of the future look like intensified version of the ones we live in today, or will these changes necessitate a more substantial morphological and programmatic evolution? There is no shortage of design opportunities as a response to either outcome. Whether the goal is to mitigate a worst-case scenario or adaptation to an inevitable situation, designers can – and should – continue to shape the places in which we live.

Projections: Exhibition

This exhibition was first presented at pinkcomma gallery in Boston and later at the WUHO gallery in Los Angeles. It utilized various media to create overlapping and continuous narratives. Print entries were organized in custom-designed repositories, each paired with laser-etched information graphics that documented the adjacencies of one topic to another. A digital interface displayed the archive as an overlapping series of patterns. The archive's content was converted to large-scale QR codes, encouraging viewers to scan at random with their smartphones, leave comments, and form their own assessments about the future of urban space.

Projections LA, 2011

Projections LA, 2011

Projections, 2011

Projections LA, 2011

Statistics theme header

Ways of Thinking in Projections LA

Projections LA, 2011

Student Work

In the fall of 2011, Rami el Samahy led a seminar entitled "The City of the Future / The Future of the City." Students were asked to imagine the future through a series of lenses: ecology, demography, infrastructure, technology, and history. Students were also asked to explore a particular topic in an incremental fashion over the course of the semester, in writing and drawing.

Below is a selection of student work.

Emily Puhnaty imagined a future wherein the lucky few lived in intricately designed subterranean lives of leisure while the less fortunate foraged on the planet's damaged surface.

Speculative project

Speculative project

Claire He foresaw cloning as a commonplace phenomenon not just on Earth, but in the entire solar system. She then designed a house for clones to share when they inhabited the same planet. She also envisioned a cemetery in this crowded new world that doubled as an outdoor public space, where the departed were remembered by genetically encoding their names on the leaves of the park's trees.

Speculative project

Speculative project

Speculative project

Steven Ko created the Urban Utopia Planning Association (or UUPA). UUPA is an organization devoted to the preservation of the human race and the entitlement of the highest quality of living. In this scenario, the Earth is heavily polluted, but waste is no longer a matter of nuisance but of opportunity. And UUPA is responsible for adapting the waste into fuels that now supply the luxuriant lifestyle of the citizens of Desbrispolis.

Speculative project

Speculative project

Kyle Woltersdorf explored notions of faith after the singularity, designing a networked city of worship that revolved around a central architectural element that blurred the line between human and machine.

Speculative project

Ying Lin developed Paranoia, a floating city that addresses people's need to retrain — or upgrade — themselves to keep up with the exponential speed of technological change. Part school, part resort, part factory, the city is found by boarding a triangle anywhere in the world, that will transport you to the mothership as it makes its way across the oceans.

Speculative project

Matthew Adler established a walk-through cafe, revisiting the existing typology so that it responds to and delivers the much-needed caffeine stimulus to a society on the go, obtainable and consumable in transit.

Speculative project

Michael Hadida designed the instructions that will be found in a ubiquitous, inexpensive, and mass-produced box of nanobots.

Speculative project

Elizabeth Buschmann constructed a war memorial to the unsung heroes of future wars: the drones. Although located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, the museum is available to virtual tourists from the privacy of their own homes.

Speculative project


In the summer of 2012, Rami el Samahy, Adam Himes, and Phillip Denny explored the design possibilities in a future desert conurbation, one perhaps very similar to Doha and its environs. After examining a variety of scales and conditions, they examined three distinct situations: the Linear Oasis, a hybrid vegetative and mechanized wall designed to address issues of desertification and urban sprawl; Sabkha City, a possible response to rising sea levels; and Petro-fit, a regionally-scaled investigation of possible uses for the infrastructures of oil and gas following their demise.

The relationship between some of Doha's most challenging issues is illustrated below. Doha's rapidly increasing population exacerbates a feedback loop of increasing water scarcity, desalination, and desertification. Each of the three projects below proposes a potential integrated solution to some or all of these issues for a future Doha.

Doha's problematic feedback loop

Linear Oasis

Original research and design by Rami el Samahy, Adam Himes, and Phillip Denny. Generous support provided by Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar and Qatar Foundation. Linear Oasis will be featured in the upcoming publication, Scenes and Speculations from an Emerging City.

The Linear Oasis is a hybrid botanical-mechanical infrastructure that provides integrated solutions to the problems of desertification, resource scarcity, and urban sprawl at a regional scale. It simultaneously serves as a barrier to sandstorms, a self-sustaining source of water and food, and a limit to urban growth. After the construction of its most basic infrastructure, the Linear Oasis can passively collect water from the atmosphere, subsequently supporting local agriculture, live-work settlement, and transit infrastructure.

Linear Oasis, phase 01

Linear Oasis, phase 01

The Linear Oasis is reminiscent of fractal geometry, using similar forms at multiple scales for a variety of effects. Operating at its largest scale, it is a wall spanning the breadth of Qatar, built perpendicular to the prevailing winds to shield the majority of Qatar’s population from sandstorms. However, these northerly winds are also one of Qatar’s greatest climatic assets; thus, the wall must be porous enough to admit cool breezes, but solid enough to break the momentum of sandstorms bearing down on the urban east.

Linear Oasis, national-scale plan

These winds present another opportunity: due to Qatar’s peninsular condition, breezes blow inland from the Gulf, carrying moisture with them. Mimicking the shell of the Namib Desert Beetle, the smallest components of the Linear Oasis system are intelligently shaped and nanotextured to collect this moisture from moving air. A surface of alternating hydrophobic and hydrophilic areas pulls moisture from the air at the nanoscopic level. This texture is echoed at the scale of a single building component, which when aggregated together form a surface of triangular facets oriented towards prevailing winds to optimize the water collection capabilities of the nanotexture. The orientation of the components is echoed in each of the building units that comprise the nationwide wall.

Namib Desert Beetle

Linear Oasis, components

Linear Oasis, components

Linear Oasis, components

Linear Oasis, components

These units take the form of inverted triangular pyramids. The prow of each faces due north, presenting a long face to prevailing winds in the north-northwest and a shorter face to summer winds in the northeast. The orientation of each face serves to redirect the winds without diffusing them. The inversion of the pyramid presents a larger surface area of water-collecting components into stronger winds at high elevations, while weaker winds nearer to ground level are allowed to blow through the wall towards settlements.

Most water collected from wall components flows down the face of each pyramid towards a central water tank integrated into the base of each unit, though some is redirected to plants integrated into the façade to clean dust from the air as winds blow past. The water tank feeds into a drip irrigation system that supports small-scale agriculture along the southern face of the wall. These plots are tended by live-in farmers who reside in modular housing units installed in the space frame structure on the southern face of the pyramid units. If a pyramid unit does not support agriculture, the water it collects could service other settlements.

Linear Oasis, unit plan

Linear Oasis, unit section

Linear Oasis, unit corner detail

Linear Oasis, elevation

Residents of the Linear Oasis are linked to each other, and their produce to urban centers, via a light rail transit line that runs along the top of the wall from al Khor in the east to Dukhan in the west. Stations could be placed along the wall to spur future growth away from existing urban areas. The wall could even expand to the south to support more agriculture, a more intense form of settlement, or to respond to the wall meeting an existing urban center. Transit along the Linear Oasis has the potential to tie into the proposed Doha Metro and GCC Rail systems. The integration of these transit lines suggests a third line between Education City and Dukhan that would in turn delineate an ideal area for future urban growth that is well-serviced by transit, protected from sandstorms, and securely supplied with food and water.

Linear Oasis, phase 01

Linear Oasis, phase 02

Linear Oasis, phase 03

Linear Oasis, phase 04

Linear Oasis, connection to proposed GCC rail

Linear Oasis, integration with settlement

Linear Oasis, spanning water