Originally published in February 2012.
The need for local government innovation is now greater than ever. The uncontrolled urban development we have witnessed in the past 100 years cannot continue.
Dynamic and effective cities, built on the ideas of sustainability, can have an effect reaching far out to the surrounding rural areas, strengthening and increasing the public’s quality of life. So, sustainability has to become the prerequisite for urban planning.
As cities continue to densify, uses begin to overlap and intertwine to mutual advantage, and new relationships emerge. Even in better times, it was challenging to use taxpayer dollars. Today, the challenge to innovation is that public dollars are scarce and it is hard enough to fund existing basic needs, let alone new initiatives. Still, some cities continue empowering leaders to drive innovation, reducing the barriers they face, and supporting those who challenge the status quo.
In the wake of the Great Recession, several powerful trends are converging: the world is undergoing the largest wave of migration back to cities in history; markets are listening to the needs and wants of Generation Y (20-somethings); and major cities are poised to become epicenters of ideas and creative energy. The places that thrive today are those with the highest velocity of ideas, the highest density of talented and creative people, and the highest rate of metabolism.
For the first time in three decades, Gallup shows that fewer than half of North Americans believe the next generation will have a better life. According to a Generation Opportunity poll, nearly three quarters of 20-somethings plan to delay a major life change because of economic factors. They are already prone to delaying careers and marriage. The recession has affected them profoundly. Many are reconsidering educational plans and resigning themselves to a life with less.
Critics say the age of sub-urbanization and growing homeownership is over, and the coming decades will be a time of great re-urbanization. Gen Y seems to prefer walking instead of driving. They are beginning to see houses as economic traps that hinder and even prevent people from new opportunities. They are moving into smaller spaces to be able to afford an urban lifestyle, replacing front lawns and sedans with apartments and trains – preferring greater flexibility and mobility.
Perhaps it is that “connectivity” remains key in young people’s lives. More than any generation before, they use bikes, public transit and their feet to be free from the expense and responsibility of a car. For them, losing the car is a ticket to living in the city, freeing up space, budget and time. This new way of life is less stressful. It is, happily, more sustainable.
Living in a modern city has a significant impact on the environment. The most demanding and challenging issues of future generations will be those dealing with the environment, climate and food resources. A few decades ago, this gave birth to an urban design movement promoting walkable neighborhoods with a range of housing and job types. Global warming is becoming ever more apparent and the extreme consumption of our energy resources is largely at fault.
A movement called New Urbanism began to support regional planning for open space, context-appropriate architecture and planning. Their strategy: to reduce traffic congestion, increase the supply of affordable housing, and rein in suburban sprawl. Their intention: to influence significant changes in the standard engineering approach to road and street design, shifting emphasis away from increasing automobile-oriented mobility and toward pedestrian mobility.
Strong Towns recently released a new report arguing the case for a new urban development approach if we wish to end the current economic crisis. Their emphasis was on obtaining a higher rate of financial return from existing infrastructure investments by focusing on traditional neighborhoods where large public investments in infrastructure are underutilized. They claim that being blind to the financial productivity of our cities has led to inefficient use of public infrastructure investments and allowed local governments to assume overwhelming, long-term financial obligations for maintaining infrastructure.
If public dollars are indeed scarce, it is hard to justify infrastructure projects that expand long-term maintenance obligations.
Dennis Walsh is a writer, researcher and consultant (www.walshfuturist.com or firstname.lastname@example.org).