What Will Cities in 2050 Look Like? | Unveiled

VOICE OVER: Peter DeGiglio
These are the cities of the future! Join us... to find out more!

In this video, Unveiled takes a trip into the future... to they year 2050! We're looking specifically at cities, to see how our urban centres are likely to change over time. Featuring solar punk and cyber punk possibilities, plus environmental challenges, and near-future tech that we should all be excited about!

What Will Cities in 2050 Look Like?

Large civilizations have existed for thousands of years, with many ancient cities like Athens or Rome still bustling to this day. But with the industrial revolution, an explosion in manufacturing jobs and urban migration has led to the advent of megacities like Tokyo and New York. What will these metropolises look like in another few decades?

This is Unveiled, and today we’re answering the extraordinary question; what will cities in 2050 look like?

The United Nations projects that by 2050, 68% of the world population will live in urban areas. Undoubtedly, the cities of 2050 will be bigger and denser, housing far more people than today. As more people migrate to cities looking for better living conditions and work opportunities, cities will continue to expand. Some major cities, like London, have a long history of consuming small towns in outlying areas, and this is only going to continue around the world.

Regardless of whether the future gets better or worse, the development of urban centers is going to be controlled by one thing: climate change. If climate change continues, we’re going to see explosive growth in cities as some places become uninhabitable due to extreme heat or flooding. Islands are particularly vulnerable to changing sea levels. Much of the Bahamas, for example, might be underwater by the end of the century if sea ice continues to melt. Estimates suggest over one billion people could be displaced by climate change by 2050, meaning they’ll become “climate refugees”. By and large, these people will find themselves in urban areas. Many major cities will find themselves underwater as well, however; huge, global cities like Bangkok, London, New Orleans, and even Shanghai will suffer severe and potentially permanent flooding. This will further increase the pressure on high-altitude, cooler cities to take people in. A city like La Paz, Bolivia’s capital and the highest-altitude capital in the world, might become a new, global metropolis because of its distance from the sea and mild temperatures. In fact, many of the world’s highest cities are in Bolivia and Peru thanks to the Andes Mountains, which could mean that the most influential cities in the future will be in South America. Though eventually all the sea ice will melt and the volume of water will stabilize, temperatures will keep soaring if nothing is done.

But climate catastrophe is not the only vision of the future. Solarpunk is an aesthetic in art and a subgenre of science-fiction that seeks to imagine a green utopia running on renewable energy. Far removed from the grime and neon of a cyberpunk future, or the desolate wasteland of the climate apocalypse, solarpunk uses advanced technology to hypothetically repair the problems ailing us at the moment – namely, pollution and environmental damage. It’s also not without basis; much of the technology envisioned by solarpunk artists and writers certainly exists. You can regreen urban spaces successfully; you can build gardens and grow fruit in cities; solar panels will someday be good enough to power the world. For decades, the technology that makes solar panels work, photovoltaic cells, has been simultaneously getting much better and much cheaper. Though the early 2020s have seen this reverse a little thanks to the global silicon shortage, the actual technology is still getting better each year. In fact, the price of PV cells dropped by 82% between 2010 and 2019. In mid-2020, 84% of the world’s energy was still coming from fossil fuels, but by their very nature, fossil fuels will run out. One day soon, the price and ease of installing solar panels will be so cost-effective that nothing will stop consumers from simply bypassing the middle-man energy suppliers completely and using solar panels themselves. Tiny panels could power entire houses in the near future, and efficient batteries mean that people don’t lose electricity when the sun decides not to come out one day. Solarpunk is a world of huge cities that exist in harmony with the environment, with public gardens, local produce, equitable distribution of housing and resources, and other utopian ideals. There’s no reason why this can’t be the future of humanity rather than the climate crisis, especially when much of the technology already exists.

However, it seems likely that sea levels will continue rising and many low-lying cities will find themselves submerged, even if we can eventually avoid and avert the complete destruction of the planet. A different kind of settlement might form in this more optimistic vision of climate disaster: floating cities. Floating cities are another staple of science-fiction and can take various forms. Often, they’re huge fleets of ships that have been repurposed so that they can be permanent homes for huge numbers of people. The Maldives, on the other hand, has pledged to build a floating city on a flexible grid that sits within a lagoon surrounded by barrier islands. Even more futuristic, some concepts look at the creation of artificial islands using land reclamation as the solution. However, artificial islands built this way are immensely expensive and you get very little real estate for the money and time it takes to construct one, which is why they’re not really a solution to rising sea levels. Ships, on the other hand, were mastered by humans centuries ago, and monumentally large ones already exist. Another landmark dystopian novel, Neal Stephenson’s “Snow Crash”, has a futuristic city exactly like that: the Raft, which is occupied by thousands of people and floats clockwise around the Pacific, past southeast Asia to Alaska and down the west coast of the US. Whether a floating city would be good or bad depends on the people running it; it’s no more or less likely to breed unpleasant living conditions than a regular city, and has every potential to be as green and clean as a solarpunk utopia. But it would always be immune from the effects of rising sea levels, and able to sail away from the unbearably hot parts of Earth.

Also present throughout science-fiction and increasingly in popular culture is the idea of the “metaverse”, a simulated world that many people, like Mark Zuckerberg, believe contains the future of humanity. If the future really is VR and someday everything will take place there, then maybe this is what the cities of the future will be: anything you can imagine and render in a virtual space. People locked into VR permanently might not even care what the real cities outside look like, as they sink further into a post-climate decay. This is a truly unsettling idea of the future, more than people relocating to higher ground or having to live on boats: humanity so disinterested in the wellbeing of the planet that we lock ourselves away in skyscrapers and decide we’re not going to think about what’s happening outside. Most people probably aren’t happy to simply let the environment collapse, however; a survey conducted in 2020 polled 80,000 people from forty different countries and found the vast majority did care about climate change and think it is a serious issue. We’re not ready to give up hope just yet, it seems.

There is a future that doesn’t take place on Earth at all, however – or in a computer simulation. We’re closer than we’ve ever been to returning to the moon and landing humans on Mars, and many speculate that permanent human settlements may exist on one or both of these celestial bodies by the middle of the century. Though human Mars landings have been suggested for about as long as moon landings, they haven’t yet come to fruition. Currently, it’s speculated that we’re going to put people on Mars by 2030. However, even in the 60s, it was projected that our arrival on Mars was imminent, so take this date with a grain of salt. Only time will tell if space agencies and private industries are capable of stumping up the cash to send humans on the long journey to the Red Planet. Because of this, it is unfortunately doubtful that we’ll see a Martian or lunar city by 2050 – though, we might well eventually. It’s likely that a human presence could be established through a permanent or semi-permanent science base, but it’s doubtful that anybody will be able to simply pack up their belongings and migrate to Mars to start a new life, romantic as the idea is. The moon is more likely: after all, it’s a lot cheaper and faster to get to the moon, and there are more opportunities for mining, meaning that for-profit companies will get involved. Finally, we could build cities in Earth orbit, but this would likely be even harder than building one on the moon; at least on the moon you don’t need to generate artificial gravity.

Ultimately, the future of human society rests on one thing: how effectively we’re able to stop or reverse climate change, if at all. It’s up to us whether the metropolis of the twenty-first century is a dystopia or a utopia. And that’s what cities could look like by 2050.