The Future of Cities
By Glen Hiemstra, July 2002
The month of July 2002 has been one for thinking about the future of cities. In early July I was asked to Keynote the Mayor’s Vision Summit in Tulsa, Oklahoma, as they begin to envision Tulsa in 2025. Later in the month we produced a video for the suburban city of Kirkland, Washington, in preparation for a series of community conversations on what Kirkland should look like in twenty years. Finally, near the end of the month I was invited to present the closing keynote by the League of California Cities at their annual Mayors and Council Members Executive Forum, in Monterey, California.
Here are a couple of observations. First, at the present time people in the United States are said to be pessimistic and feeling down about the future, due to the political and economic shocks of the past year and more. As I mentioned a couple of newsletter issues ago, I’ve had clients recently suggest that it is hard to look at the long term future now that there is no reason to be hopeful. These feelings are real among some, but perhaps not as widespread as generally believed.
The three projects just mentioned were or are designed to encourage people to imagine cities in the relatively long-term future, twenty to twenty-five years out, and to ask how we might create the best future possible. One might suppose there would be little interest in such projects right now. My recent experience suggests the opposite. In Tulsa, the Mayor’s Vision Summit was put together on a short time line, and organizers originally expected at best about 300 people to pony up $25.00 to attend the day-long workshop. As the day approached estimates of attendance went up to 500, then 600, finally 800. Then 1100 people walked through the door, swamping the organizers, and eager to discuss a positive future for their city.
In Kirkland, the plan is to invite local businesses, schools, organizations and citizens to hold a “community conversation” during the month of September, 2002 using our video and a discussion guide to imagine the city in twenty years. Originally we planned for 30 videos, but recently the project leader raised that to 50, based on expressed interest so far.
At the annual California League of Cities conference, the largest attendance in their history came to Monterey, nearly 700. League officials told me there were thrilled with the enthusiasm, and surprised. “People seem to want to turn to creating something positive,” they told me.
Three events are too few to be a trend, but perhaps they are an indication that we are hungry for opportunities to turn to building rather than worrying, creating rather than waiting.
Second, how about the future of cities themselves? Doing research for these projects revealed some key themes, which seem to apply to both larger, older cities, and smaller, newer suburban cities.
“An end of the automobile era is a chimera, but at the same time cities of the future are working to become places where the auto is less dominant.”
The most important thing that cities can do to assure their future is to begin a transition toward being lively, 24/7 cities. This means bringing residential living into the center (in many cases returning it to where it started) and working to create lively commercial centers downtown, and at other “town center” points throughout the community. Strong residential is the key. In addition, the late 20th Century urban model of the 9-5 downtown characterized by office towers and generally deserted before and after business hours is dying. This was the city that people commuted to in the morning, and fled in the late afternoon. Investment now is flowing toward cities that are becoming multipurpose areas for living, working, entertainment, and culture.
An end of the automobile era is a chimera, but at the same time cities of the future are working to become places where the auto is less dominant. This means planning for a variety of transportation and mobility alternatives, which will vary by what is already available in a particular city, along with local financial and political issues. Perhaps most of all it means beginning to transform streetscapes to become friendly to walking, as well as for bicycles and perhaps eventually for things like the Segway personal transport system. In many cities, especially suburban ones, this theme begins with the simple act of building sidewalks, which were sadly ignored for decades.
People underestimate how transformed cities can become in twenty years. For Kirkland and Tulsa we went back twenty years to find photos of areas of the city, to compare to today, so that we might imagine how much things can change over time. In both cases, we were surprised to see how dramatically various parts of the cities have changed, for the better or for the worse. If you create a 20-year vision, you can imagine very significant transformations, and major retrofitting of old neighborhoods and streets. In fact, you probably cannot stop such transformations. The only question is their direction.
Glen Hiemstra is a futurist speaker, author, consultant, blogger, internet video host and Founder of Futurist.com. To arrange for a speech contact Futurist.com.
The Urban Land Institute offers a wealth of information on cities and their future.