Five ‘green’ urban design innovations shaping our cities

  •   8 August 2017

The Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council’s (ASBEC) Urban Design Protocol for Australian Cities is a national reference for best practice urban design. Titled ‘Creating Places for People’, the guidelines delve into the five key elements for designing quality urban spaces, as specified by ASBEC.

Unsurprisingly, sustainability is one of these five pillars. According to the Protocol, a “sustainable” public space will be enduring and resilient, as well as aesthetically pleasing and practical. Sustainable spaces are those that can evolve and adapt over time with minimal impact on the environment, and that are designed to save resources like water, energy and materials.

However, good urban design is more than fostering environmental responsibility. Sustainable public design must also be integrated with the other four pillars of the Protocol: productivity, liveability, leadership and design excellence.



Below, we explore a number recent ‘green’ innovations that are changing cityscapes around the world, one pillar at a time.




Public benches are no longer just seats for weary travellers or locals waiting to meet a friend. In recent years, they have also begun to double as WiFi hotspots, data gatherers, and mobile device chargers.

Steora is one such multi-tasker. A smart bench developed with the ‘smart city’ in mind, Steora features a 4G mobile router and built-in sensors. Throughout the day, the bench gathers ‘public’ information, such as weather conditions, user numbers and component functionality, while delivering Internet access to nearby users.

The bench is also equipped with an independently developed wireless device charger and two smart USB connectors, allowing anyone to charge their mobile devices on the go, provided they are carrying their cables. The power required for these functions all comes from sunlight; the benches incorporate solar panels that carefully optimise energy consumption so that the bench never stops functioning.


smartbenches1-002Steora is available in Australia via CleanAir Energy. Source: CleanAir Energy

Constructed from durable and high-quality materials, the smart bench is resistant to vandalism. It is also bolted down and locked to prevent unauthorised openings.




Advertisements in cities often come in the form of huge billboards or printed posters – items that are essentially useless to people in urban spaces.

IBM has found a way to create ads that add practical and physical value to cities. By adding a simple curve to the metal sheets of outdoor ads, an advertisement is transformed into functional street furniture comprising a bench, a ramp, and a shelter.

“Ads with a purpose”, the tech giant calls it.



London-based designers Idrees Rasouli, Roshan Sirohia, Jason Cheah and Sebastiaan Wolzak have come up with a solution to overcome two of the most serious challenges of the 21st century: food production and rising sea levels.

Their modular hydroponic floating agricultural system, SEALEAF, is designed to help coastal cities grow crops in the sea.

Using Singapore as an example, the designers explain that densely populated cities are often forced to import up to 90 percent of their food from other countries, since there is limited land available for local agriculture.

SEALEAF enables urban farmers to cultivate crops that would otherwise be grown on commercially valuable land, on water. The design is based on a floating agricultural platform that consists of an enclosed hydroponic farming module. It also features a walkway that enables farmers to access their crops.

In addition to providing a floating platform for crops to grow, each module collects its own rainwater. They are also equipped 1W solar panels that drive root aeration. This makes SEALEAF a low-maintenance solution, which is a minor benefit in the scheme of things: imagine how much good will be done for climate change if cities no longer need planes, ships and trucks to bring them fresh produce?




It looks like a Chesterfield sofa, but the grooves on the surface of this public bench actually channel rainwater for collection, harvesting it for the irrigation of nearby landscapes.

Designed by MARS Architects in conjunction with the BMW Guggenheim Lab project, the Water Bench features water inlet buttons that direct water into storage tanks inside the bench, or underground.

Three variations on the Water Bench are currently available:



Images: MARS Architects


The first prototypes of the Water Bench have been installed in Mumbai, India. The product is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.




The CityTree at Ernst-Abbe-Platz in the city of Jena with benches, as a WiFi-Hotspot and communicator © Green City Solutions


German startup, Green City Solutions, has designed a new piece of urban furniture that tackles the problem of air pollution in cities.

A four-metre-tall, freestanding installation, the CityTree relies on a special moss culture that has the ability to attract air pollution from its surroundings. Once captured, the pollution is converted into the CityTree’s own biomass.

“The moss literally eats air pollution,” Green City Solutions CEO, Denes Honus, explains in a video introducing the product.

Each CityTree attracts local air pollution within a range of up to 50 metres. Its air purifying capacity is equivalent to 275 trees. Compared to 275 normal trees, however, the CityTree is 95 percent more cost-effective, and requires 99 percent less space on ground.



Eight CityTrees in front of the Frauenkirche in Dresden © Green City Solutions


CityTrees are additionally supported by Internet of Things (IoT) technology, which traces air pollution reduction. Incorporated solar panels and rainwater retention systems mean each unit is self-sustaining, and requires only a few hours of maintenance each year.

To ensure its profitability, visual and digital information may be implemented on the vertical plant display for marketing campaigns. Integrated benches and the offer of additional services, such as WiFi hotspots or e-bike charging stations extend the functionality of the CityTree.


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