Urban redesign for sustainability

 By Amanda Saint

Sidewalk Labs is a New York-based company that is “reimagining cities from the internet up.” The company develops products and tools to make cities more sustainable and better places to live…

(Cover pic from

The biggest challenges Sidewalk Labs tackles relate to housing, transport, infrastructure, safety, costs of living, energy provision and more. These issues need urgent attention as the global urbanization rate is growing year on year.
According to a report just published by the United Nations, World Population Prospects: The 2017 Revision, by 2050 there will be 9.8 billion people in the world. By then the urbanization rate is expected to reach 70 percent. That’s almost 7 billion people who will be needing affordable housing, infrastructure, transport, entertainment and more in the world’s cities and towns.

The Sidewalk Labs

To create a working example of what a city of the future could look, Sidewalk Labs is working within a large district that it says “can serve as a living laboratory for urban technology.”

Sidewalk Labs will use LinkNYC WiFi-slinging kiosks to gather urban data (Edward Blake,

The organization has separated its research and experimentation into four distinct areas:
Build Lab – focused on housing affordability and new approaches to construction enabled by the digital revolution.
Care Lab – focused on addressing the health challenges faced by low-income city residents and using technology to integrate health care and connect patients to networks.
Semaphore Lab – focused on new traffic technologies to ease urban congestion.
Model Lab – focused on developing tools that will help urban communities to work together to decide the best ways to address issues such as affordability, sustainability and transportation needs.

In a recent blog, The benefits of turning housing construction into housing production, the Build Lab has revealed how it is looking at ways to address housing affordability. It advocates a complete update and overhaul of how cities manage construction, which hasn’t changed in five decades despite the technology advances that have transformed most industries.
The Build Lab is testing ways to standardize home building to cut costs and building time by using prefabricated, modular designs. It’s natural that 3-D printers have a big role to play — these devices cut costs and time needed to erect new buildings. The world’s first house was built using a 3D building printer in March 2017 and it cost less than $10,000 and was complete in 24 hours.

3D printed house rook 24 hours to build (Vocativ)

The Care Lab is investigating why the U.S., which is one of the biggest spenders on health care, is still one of the world’s unhealthiest nations. The researchers are taking a different approach to health care, looking at the social and environmental factors that play a big role in determining the health of people in developed economies, instead of focusing purely on medical factors. In their blog, The way to healthier cities goes beyond healthcare, they reveal that non-medical factors account for 60 percent of a person’s health outcomes.
The Semaphore Lab is investigating an adaptive traffic light system that uses computer vision and sensing technologies to detect pedestrians, cyclists, cars and transit vehicles. This data determines ways ease traffic flows at urban intersections and keep people safer. Their blog, Emerging traffic technologies promise to improve safety while moving everyone — not just drivers, looks at how city streets have changed dramatically over the years and how the tools used to manage these activities have yet to catch up.
So how does all this come together to redesign cities for sustainability?

Building a future city

By bringing urban design and technology together there is great potential for cutting the environmental impact of a rapidly growing urban population is huge.
New approaches to construction can dramatically reduce the use of raw materials, while transforming districts into hubs where people live, work and play can cut transport emissions from commutes.
Sidewalk Labs doesn’t claim to have the answers yet, but the organization is asking the questions that city planners, governments and everyday people need to consider to build sustainable cities that meet the needs of future generations.

READ MORE: Urban transformation in progress by RP Siegel

about the author
Amanda Saint
Journalist and content writer, specialised in engineering and technology with a focus on environmental sustainability, urbanisation and biotechnology.