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how engineers are designing cities for the future

How are engineers designing cities for the future?

Cities are the places where it all happens. Whether driven by aspiration or necessity, people are moving to cities more and more.

Why? So that they can experience the opportunities that come from so many people, businesses and new ideas in one place.

Civil engineering improves outcomes and wellbeing for city inhabitants.

Urban areas and populations are growing worldwide and are predicted to rise from 4.3 billion people in 2018 to nearly double that by 2050.

Infrastructure plays a vital role in urban planning by providing the essential services that affect how citizens work, play, connect and impact the environment. The built environment of our cities is made up of different layers including:

  • Economic infrastructure such as industry, transport and utilities.
  • Social infrastructure such as homes, schools, hospitals.
  • Natural environment such as air quality, green spaces and ecosystem management.

These interlinking systems feed into each other and shape the outcomes of individuals and wider society.

Engineers affect cities when they design projects that add to or improve upon the city’s existing infrastructure. Civil engineering is the primary engineering discipline relating to the built environment, though other specialised areas offer insight such as structural engineering, environmental engineering, fire engineering, geotechnical engineering, building services, digital delivery and many more.

Engineering projects may benefit areas of urban development and city planning such as:

  • Buildings and infrastructure
  • Transport networks
  • Utilities
  • Public health
  • Protection from environmental risks and natural disasters
  • Heritage & environment conservation

As a result, engineers play a pivotal role in designing cities for the future. They work with private and public sector clients to examine what is currently needed, look to the future challenges of city planning and reimagine what can be achieved. By taking advantage of the latest material and digital technology, they can create architecture that would have been previously impossible and improve their designs’ functionality, resilience, and environmental impact.

By reimagining what is possible, engineers can make more connections between areas than ever before through smart infrastructure. Smart infrastructure is where digital functionality integrates into the built environment, such as air quality sensors or remote environment controls.

It has incredible potential to make digital processes effortless and create digital data points that capture how the service is used. This more accurate understanding of user behaviours and activity shows future decision-makers and city planners where to direct investment. It also creates cross-system functionality where previously isolated strengths and resources can be identified and put to good use.

Read on for examples of civil engineering and construction projects that are transforming the future faces of cities and built environments:

Economic Infrastructure

Economic infrastructure supports people as they make a living. It includes everything that a business might need to keep moving, such as the power and water utilities to run factories, roads and trains to transport goods and communication systems to stay in contact. Resilience is vital for these systems, as disruption can have wide-felt consequences on the region’s economy.

Unlocking Sydney’s Northwest Region

We’re part of Australia’s biggest public transport project, the Sydney Metro. Sydney north-west is one of the fastest-growing regions in New South Wales, and this rail project looks to enable that continued growth. Making travel easier and more efficient for its 500,000 residents results in connected communities where businesses and families are free to grow.

As part of our work on the North-west line, we’ve created stunning designs for innovative architectural spaces at train stations, power systems for the whole line, train stabilising maintenance facilities and provided civil engineering project management services.

During the project, our engineers and project managers identified considerable savings in cost and resources. One example of this was the world-first techniques they pioneered to create underground stations with more precast elements than anywhere else in the world.

Social Infrastructure

Social infrastructure helps provide essential support to communities, such as improving health, access to education and providing fair access to services to all. When creating buildings such as homes, hospitals, schools and universities, engineers use their expertise to make them more digitally connected than ever before; this creates opportunities for cross-service support for citizens, ease of use and more accurate data for decision-makers.

The Future of Higher Education

A Smart Campus is a university environment that integrates physical spaces with digital technology. Mott MacDonald is providing engineering, business consultancy and digital expertise to the University of Glasgow Smart Campus to help them achieve their vision of becoming a world leader in smart infrastructure. We are advising them on a transformational roadmap, creating new facilities, and integrating end-to-end technology.

This ambitious vision will support a world-class teaching environment that is open, connected and adaptable for students and teaching staff both on and off-campus.


The future poses increasing risks from climate change and natural disasters to populations around the world. Engineers need to create structures that will be both climate-resilient to cope with additional stresses and leave a minimal impact on the surrounding environment.

Leeds flood alleviation scheme

Around the world in recent years, we’ve seen unprecedented rainfall trigger extensive flooding that can endanger lives, property and businesses. Mott MacDonald worked in a joint venture with BAM Nuttall, Leeds City Council and the Environment Agency to protect 3,000 homes, 500 businesses and 120ha of development land around Leeds city centre from flooding.

As part of the award-winning scheme, we created defences along a 4.3km stretch of the River Aire that included reinforcing waterfront buildings and creating two moveable weirs. These were the first of their kind to be used for flood defence in the UK.

These measures will safeguard 22,000 jobs over the next ten years and give confidence to future investors in the city.

When it comes to city planning for the future, civil engineers have unique engineering project opportunities to identify and improve what cities need most. Advances in technology mean engineers can tackle urban development issues such as overcrowding and congestion more effectively than ever. In addition, smart infrastructure allows for future urban development issues to be identified and prepared for as they develop.

In Bristol, one of the UK’s most vibrant and popular cities, the most central rail service is expecting passengers per year to more than double to over 22 million within the next decade. That’s why the local authorities have appointed Mott MacDonald to lead a team of industry-leading architects and financiers in guiding the redevelopment of the historic Temple Quarter. This will include:

  • expanding the iconic Bristol Temple Meads station
  • 11,000 new homes
  • new enterprise zones
  • new characterful public spaces

This regeneration project looks to put green infrastructure and sustainable neighbourhoods at the heart of the city while meeting the growing needs of the city. It will benefit not just the centre of Bristol but the wider city by connecting up different regions of the city like never before with faster transport links, opportunities for employment growth, meaningful housing and new investment at the local, city and regional level.

By putting in place infrastructure that is responsible, sustainable, resilient, and more connected than ever before, engineers can begin building cities for tomorrow that are suitable not just for today but also for future urban areas.

Could you pioneer the future of our cities? At Mott MacDonald, we welcome job applications from across various disciplines including civil engineering, mechanical engineering, geotechnical engineering, project management and many more.

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