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Dense Forests and Taller Cities: A Vision of the Future

I've written earlier [1] [2] [3] about my musings on contrasting futures that the world faces between cities and suburbs, and my conclusion that ecologically sustainable living is possible only with cluster based human settlement – large metropolises or cities with shared infrastructure which reduces the ecological cost of human lifestyle. But there is one more statistic that keeps veering me towards favouring suburban lifestyle - the potential reverse of human population. India has overtaken China as the world's most populous country in 2023, but India's population growth will come to an end: the number of children has already peaked more than a decade ago and is now falling. [4]

Rapid population growth is a temporary phenomenon in human history - since the 1800s we have added 7x of human population - this has also been possible due to falling death rates, but this was then followed by falling fertility rates sequentially across world regions, which has lead us to a slowdown of population growth in the current times. The world is entering a new equilibrium and rapid population growth is coming to an end. World population is expected to peak off at 10.5bn by 2086, and we've already started the ascend to the plateau of the curve in 2023 [5]. 

Nevertheless, 2086 or even 2050 (when we start to plateau out) is still two and a half decades away. My conclusion in the series on Cities vs Suburbs was that the future, until population abates, lies in clustered living – even denser cities and metros rising vertically leaving larger swathes of land for agriculture and forests. And I've been mulling over that ever since I concluded this series. Given my own penchant for the outdoors, forests and nature, I fantasized the below:

Imagine a city where nature and urban life blend seamlessly, creating an oasis of greenery and modernity. This is the vision of the city of the future—a modern metropolis within a thick forest. Picture a vibrant urban landscape arranged in a doughnut shape around a lush, central forest, with towering skyscrapers, efficient circular metro rails, and ample public spaces. Welcome to the city of tomorrow, where thick forests and taller cities coexist harmoniously, offering unparalleled benefits to humans and the environment alike.

Dense forests and taller cities
All images created by Nikhil Kulkarni using Microsoft Designer AI tool

The Design of a Forest Metropolis

At the heart of this futuristic city lies a thick, circular forest, serving as the green lung of the metropolis. Surrounding this verdant core is a ring of towering skyscrapers, designed to maximize space and minimize environmental impact. The cityscape is interconnected by a circular metro rail, ensuring efficient and eco-friendly transportation. Public parks, fire stations, play areas, malls, bazaars, and other municipal utilities are strategically placed to ensure accessibility and convenience for all residents. Mini Airports / Helipads will be planned within each quadrant of the doughnut city to carry small planes and drones thus providing providing connectivity within and to nearby cities or large airports. 

Beyond the urban ring, a protective forest encircles the entire city, acting as a natural barrier against environmental hazards and providing a habitat for wildlife. This unique design not only fosters a strong connection between urban living and nature but also promotes sustainability and resilience.

Advantages for Humans and the Environment

1. Improved Air Quality: The central and surrounding forests will act as massive carbon sinks, absorbing pollutants and producing oxygen. This natural filtration system will significantly improve air quality, reducing respiratory problems and enhancing overall health for city dwellers.

2. Enhanced Biodiversity: The thick forests will provide a sanctuary for wildlife, promoting biodiversity around the city. By moving rural populations of the surrounding areas into the city and clustering human population within the city, will create more fallow area for the forest to spread, thus opening up a larger contiguous tract of land for flora and fauna (wildlife) to spread and sustain. This coexistence of urban life and wildlife fosters a balanced ecosystem, which is essential for the health of our planet.

3. Climate Resilience: Forests play a crucial role in climate regulation. They help to moderate temperatures, reduce the urban heat island effect, and protect against extreme weather events. The doughnut shape of the city will prevent it from becoming a heat island being sandwiched between two layers of forests. The presence of extensive greenery within and around the city will enhance its resilience to climate change. Further, a dense forest can contribute far more in climate resilience than a sparse one. As mentioned above, the city will absorb rural populations hitherto occupying patches within the forest. The area freed will create opportunity for the forest to become denser. 

4. Mental and Physical Well-being: Access to green spaces has been proven to improve mental health, reduce stress, and encourage physical activity. The city’s numerous parks and recreational areas will provide ample opportunities for residents to engage with nature, promoting a healthier and happier lifestyle.

5. Sustainable Living: Skyscrapers reduce urban sprawl, while the circular metro rail system minimizes reliance on cars, reducing carbon emissions and traffic congestion. The doughnut-shaped cityscape also encourages an efficient use of space and resources, each quarter of the doughnut shall need to be planned for a walkable lifestyle with local markets, playgrounds, clubs and recreational facilities. The circular metro rail can enable long distance travel for work related commute. 

Need for Doughnut Cities

The world has witnessed two contrasting trends with respect to urbanization since the 1950s - while the share of Urban Population has consistently grown, with more than half of humanity now living in cities, the number of cities in across various regions has either reduced or stagnated [6] [7].

This means that humanity is moving into lesser but larger cities - metropolises and megapolises. This is creating a more uneven society, both culturally and ecologically, where the metropolis is becoming a huge carbon source generating gargantuan amount of pollution of all kinds. This is causing large scale climate disruptions such as unseasonal floods and heat waves. In the last five years each region of the world has seen urban flooding [8]. Same is the case with Heat waves [9]. 

As the global population continues to grow and urbanize, the need for sustainable city designs becomes increasingly urgent. Traditional urban expansion often leads to deforestation, loss of biodiversity, and environmental degradation. By integrating thick forests into the urban fabric, we can mitigate these negative impacts and create cities that are not only livable but also environmentally friendly.

Building taller cities within forests and a mini forest within the city also addresses the critical issue of land use. By optimizing vertical space with taller buildings, we can preserve more land for nature, agriculture, and recreation. This balance is essential for ensuring food security, protecting wildlife habitats, and maintaining ecological integrity.


While the vision of a modern metropolis nestled within a thick forest offers numerous benefits, it also presents several challenges that need to be addressed to ensure its success. These challenges span environmental, infrastructural, social, and economic dimensions.

Firstly, integrating wildlife with urban living can lead to human-wildlife conflicts. Effective management strategies are needed to protect both residents and wildlife, ensuring safe and harmonious coexistence. Notwithstanding the fact that moving rural populations into the doughnut city will reduce the human-animal, the city edges shall need to be planned in a way such that it does not encourage movement of animals into the city limit, and yet does not prevent their free movement across the forest. The circular shape of the city shall anyway make it easier for animals to traverse along the boundaries of the city to move into farther areas of the forest, but building ecoducts (animal crossing tunnels or overpasses) like the ones developed across Dutch highways [10] might help.

Secondly developing and integrating essential utilities (water, electricity, waste management) in a way that supports sustainability and minimizes disruption to the forested areas requires careful planning and advanced technology. Carrying power into cities within a forest means laying large swathes of HT power lines from the power plants to the city. Here, exploring self powering technologies like Solar panels and wind mills plants on the periphery of the city may be explored. However, given that the doughnut city will be vertical, it may not be possible to generate enough power within them. Similarly, sewage dumping into the forest has to be avoided, and hence sewage treatment and waste disposal within the city limits will have to be planned without impacting the health of the denizens of the city. Innovative ways of recycling waste will have to be explored, while also creating corridors of utility highways which would be used to connect the city to power plants and waste disposal sinks. 

And finally, creating an economic model for sustenance of the doughnut cities will be challenging. Developing a forest-centric metropolis involves significant initial investment in infrastructure, technology, and environmental conservation. Securing funding and managing costs is a major challenge. Even if a benevolent benefactor (like the Saudi monarch, who has envisaged and invested in NEOM) funds the development of such a city, ensuring that the city remains economically viable in future while prioritizing environmental sustainability requires innovative economic models. This includes attracting businesses, fostering green industries, and creating jobs that align with the city’s sustainability goals.

The Final frontier: A network of doughnut cities

In the quest for sustainable urban living, existing cities must undergo a profound transformation to adopt the doughnut city model. This involves modifying sprawling urban landscapes to become taller and more efficient, with central areas converted into lush forests, serving as green lungs for the city. Excessive development on the periphery of existing cities should be rolled back to allow forests to encircle the city, creating a harmonious blend of nature and urbanity. 

Rejuvenating old, defunct, and shrinking cities into vibrant doughnut cities can be another way to create new doughnut cities breathing new life into these areas, addressing urban decay and promoting ecological balance. This new urban planning paradigm ensures that every part of the city, old or new, contributes to a healthier environment and a higher quality of life for its residents.

These doughnut cities will be connected to each other through a network of expressways and high-speed rail corridors making inter-city travel also fast, efficient, and sustainable. These corridors will also serve as conduits for essential utilities like power lines and water supply, ensuring that all cities are well-serviced. 

Some doughnut cities will be specifically designed as utility hubs, built around significant infrastructure such as nuclear power plants or expansive solar farms. The economies of these utility cities will primarily revolve around the servicing and maintenance of these utilities, creating specialized communities with focused economic activities. Large airports (or spaceports!), structured themselves as doughnut cities, will develop robust economies centered around the aviation industry, further integrating global connectivity with sustainable urban living.

The vision of a modern metropolis embedded within a thick forest offers a transformative approach to urban living, addressing both environmental sustainability and human well-being. By redesigning existing cities to become taller, greener, and more efficient, and by rejuvenating old and dilapidated areas into vibrant doughnut cities, we can harmonize urban expansion with nature. The integration of lush central forests, efficient public transportation, and strategically placed public amenities will create a dynamic urban environment where nature and modernity shall coexist seamlessly. 

Utility cities, centered around essential infrastructure, and airport-centric doughnut cities exemplify specialized urban economies that thrive on advanced connectivity and green practices. They will also foster intermingling of human populations, like the industrial towns of the 20th century and create new societies.

Connecting these doughnut cities through expressways and high-speed rail corridors will ensure efficient inter-city travel and reliable utility services, fostering a cohesive network of sustainable urban centers. This dreamscape of an interconnected doughnut city network is my ultimate reverie for sustainable urban development, offering a blueprint for future cities that prioritize ecological balance, economic vitality, and the well-being of their inhabitants. 

If we can build this alternate future, to replace the sparse polluting cities and depleting forests' present, which we are heading towards, we may not need the Martian Colony after all. But if we still build a Martian colony, the doughnut city might as well serve as a template for development of a network of cities or colonies on the Red planet itself!



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