Special Report
A special report is content that is edited and produced by the special reports unit within The Irish Times Content Studio. It is supported by advertisers who may contribute to the report but do not have editorial control.

Global trends shaping the future of cities

Greener, healthier buildings and people-oriented design are transforming urban areas

Building for people 

The car is no longer the star for city planning. People-oriented design is becoming the dominant trend in urban design. This means building things at a human scale with narrower streets, with buildings located closer to the street and each other to facilitate human interaction. Cars are still accommodated but pedestrians and public transport come first. This involves a combination of pedestrianisation and radically reduced speed limits rather like those now in force in Dublin city centre.

Healthy buildings 

We may be preparing for an outdoor summer, but the Irish climate means we still spend most of our lives indoors. Indeed, according to the US National Human Activity Pattern Survey, Americans spend an average of 87 per cent of their time in enclosed buildings.

The impact of buildings and their design and structure has become a growing area of research and studies carried out by the Harvard Health Buildings Centre have found that participants who lived and worked in buildings with better ventilation and heating systems scored significantly higher on cognitive function tests. Exposure to daylight and better indoor lighting which mimics natural light, has been associated with better sleep quality.

And there’s payback for landlords too, according to research carried out by MIT’s Real Estate Innovation Lab. Effective rents at healthy buildings get between 4.4 per cent and 7.7 per cent more rent per square foot than their nearby peers that are not certified to the WELL or FITWEL healthy buildings standards.

According to JLL Ireland, a survey in Canada found that 74 per cent of owners and architects believe that new green or healthy buildings are worth more in asset value than new non-green buildings. The median level for that additional value was reported at 7 per cent.


Cities around the world are literally getting greener with many introducing new regulations to halt the erosion of valuable green space. In Toronto, all new buildings above a certain size must have a proportion of their roof space to be allocated for gardens or other greenery. The city also has a subsidy programme to incentivise owners of existing buildings to green their roofs.

In Ireland, we have seen the introduction of pollinator-friendly mowing practices for public green spaces and many private gardens. Munich has gone one step further in this return to nature and allows sheep to graze on one of its main city parks.

In Australia, where they have a problem we hope never to encounter – urban heat – the government has put in place a policy for the installation of green infrastructure including street trees, green roofs, vegetated surfaces and green walls to help cities adapt to increased heat.

Universal design and accessibility 

People with disabilities often encounter difficulties accessing public services and this puts them at a disadvantage when trying to use government websites, public transport and public buildings. City authorities around the world are now addressing this issue through the incorporation of universal design principles.

This is the design of buildings, products or environments to make them accessible to all people, regardless of age, disability or other factors. The city of Oslo has adopted a comprehensive plan for universal design which covers all transportation, communication, construction, public property, outdoor areas, and ICT within the remit of the city authority. In Brazil, the city of Sao Paulo is applying it to public service websites.

Compact cities 

The relocalisation of our cities is envisaged by the 15-minute city concept. Originally popularised by Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo during her 2020 election campaign, a 15-minute city comprises groups of 15-minute communities or walkable neighbourhoods.

“This is getting a lot of attention at the moment,” says Grant Thornton chief economist Andrew Webb. “Everything you need should be within a 15-minute walk or cycle. That includes doctors, hospitals, schools, shops, and other services and amenities. You get lots of different quarters and neighbourhoods with their own identities and vibrancy. People moved out from cities when the car became the star, and they could drive wherever they wanted. Now, partly driven by climate change, we have to ask how we remove the car. This is part of the move to being much more sustainable and creating walkability and liveability in neighbourhoods.”