The Future of Cities

As cities continue to arise, morph and expand – and as the new science of cities becomes a critical field of study for successful human development – we will need to invest much more time and effort in purposefully creating the future of these integrated metropolises of economic, environmental and social interaction.

When we look back at the history of cities up to the 21st Century, we will discover a series of successes and failures. A great example is the city of London – the quintessential picture of the city throughout multiple generations. In the 1890’s, London was becoming a living nightmare due to the intractable problem of manure from the horses that were used for transportation. A London journalist and part-time futurist declared “every street in London will be buried under nine feet of manure.” There were 50,000 horses each producing 35 pounds of manure a day. Of course, the advent of the automobile soon took care of that problem, but only created new ones such as air pollution and congestion.

New York City, Chicago and other major American Cities have seen their own ups and downs, with Detroit becoming a modern poster child for urban decay and future dystopia. However, if you have been to any of these cities recently, they seem to be thriving anew. Why? A large and diverse number of people are flocking to cities across the world, and this global urbanization is driving dramatic change. With these disruptive and transformational changes in mind, it is imperative for us to ask ourselves: What will the dynamic, landscape and role of our cities look like in the future, both near and far?

There are likely many game changers in our future cities, but the one that seems to be ubiquitous is the rise of a new “ownership” model. In the United States, the millennial cohort is often characterized by their lack of wanting or needing to “own” or possess material things. Today’s growing cities serve as a placeholder for a population of people who feel no need to own cars, homes or many other material things. Many individuals are now spending their time and money on experiences and relationships rather than possessions, and cities are providing the backbone for such a shift.

Some cities will thrive in the face of these dramatic shifts in values and desires, and others will not do as well. The cities that thrive will be those that concentrate on building transportation to connect and collaborate with neighborhoods that have historically been marginalized rather than simply moving people on their daily commute. Transit-oriented economic development will make these neighborhoods microcosms of the larger urban context. Even non-motorized transit like bike paths and walking paths will impact neighborhoods in a very positive way. Indianapolis’ Cultural Trail has spurred neighborhood growth and innovation in areas that haven’t seen development in years. Atlanta’s Beltline Trail has already generated interest from a large number of community developers. The overhead trams built by the Colombian government in Medellin have pulled shanty towns out of poverty.

The greatest impact on cities in the last century wasn’t the trolley car or subway, but the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act created and passed by the post-war Eisenhower Administration. Designed to provide a major transportation hub between far flung American Cities, it actually promoted suburbanization and the decline of passenger rail travel. Depending upon one’s view, this outcome was either very good or very bad. New modes and models of transportation are once again going to impact the cities of the future. Companies such as Uber and Lyft have impacted mobility in our cities and more effective and efficient public transportation has generated new synergies. However, we still haven’t even seen the incredible impact that will come from autonomous transportation or breakthrough technologies such as Hyperloop systems.

The future of cities rests on the desire of humans to connect, and these urban landscapes will be impacted by the modes through which we seek out those connections. However, advancements in technology may also offer these global connections to those who live in less urban communities as well. Being connected through digital and virtual technologies means that people collaborating between upstate New York and sub-Saharan Africa can benefit from the same conveniences experienced by those living in a common physical location. But that is an entirely different story that deserves its own article.

Successful cities of the future will be those that have visionary leaders both in the public and private sector that embrace diverse ownership models, rely less on industrial era models of economic development, invest in efficient and effective public transportation modes, and allow disruptive technologies to shake up the marketplace. Cities will be great places to live when leaders have a clear and disciplined view of the future. This visionary outlook comes from a good futures-thinking practice within city hall, among economic development agencies and throughout the leadership of every city-related stakeholder group.

The cities of the future can be beautiful place of prosperity for everyone. The question remains, will we live there.

Marty Vanags

Interim City Administrator, City of Moline
Global Foresight Advisory Council Inaugural Member
The Futures School Denver 2017 Alumni

My work in economic development has afforded me the opportunity to impact the communities in which I have lived in a positive way. Working with a wide variety of public and private sector organizations from single-person entrepreneurs to multi-national global corporations has taught me the value and power of business and its ability to provide for individual fulfillment. The work of economic development is like no other profession or task and those that are successful at it have multi-variate talents, abilities, experiences, and curiosities. I am one of those people.