Shift Towards Future Timber Cities


The parent company of Google – Alphabet – could be at the vanguard of a complete rethink of how the cities of the future are designed and constructed with plans to build an entire neighbourhood of Toronto using timber as the primary material for construction. It is an interesting proposition, especially in the modern climate of thought and design where we are faced with an ever-increasing need to look at new ways to build urban environments amidst growing populations and worrying climate change trends. One of the oldest materials for building on the planet could be the way forward for our future, and used within a ‘smart’ neighbourhood.

Sidewalk Labs (a subsidiary of Alphabet) has commissions Michael Green Architecture to design buildings that are flexible and mixed-use and use timber as the primary construction material. The 12-acre site will become the largest timber project on the planet. The idea is to use a sustainable material, with mass timber also providing a level of strength associated with steel, and cross-laminated timber panels that can help ease a situation where there are prefabricated structures being constructed. It would include 12 mass timber towers, with the tallest being a height of 30-floors. Within this would be a street-level interaction with an open-air covered walkway containing retail and communal spaces used to anchor the base of each tower.

It is a really interesting proposition, looking towards developments in wood technology that is as strong as steel but much, much lighter. What this means is that you have the potential for a low-cost material that provides a lightweight alternative to steel and maintains a high level of performance. As we search for new ways to be sustainable in everyday life, as well as cope with the demands of a changing climate and the worry of future generations and how they will be able to live in large urban environments, this could be a change for the better and allow for clever planning and urban design.

Using wood as a basis for future cities is an idea that has been gaining credibility in recent years. There will be around 10 billion people living on the planet by 2050 and it is important that we understand the issues that this will bring as soon as possible. Two-thirds of that number will be living in cities or urban environments by that date, which adds extra pressure to masterplanning, but also to the everyday minutiae of architecture and design of city structures and residential buildings.

It is clear that there will have to be many experiments and successful examples of timber buildings and neighbourhoods before it gains enough credibility to be seen as a real alternative for wide-scale use in major cities – especially for a public that would immediately fear the risk of fire in a structure made entirely out of wood. There have been scientific developments and techniques in planning, material construction, and architecture that can be used to minimise this risk however. It will be fascinating to see how the proposals go and whether timber cities truly are the future of urban Earth.