Cities that Work for Humans
The trend towards people living in cities across the globe won’t subside. While U.S. Millennials are reverting to suburbs as they have kids, the vitality and innovation of cities is still attracting the masses. This influx is getting once suburb-focused businesses to establish footholds in cities. Target’s been doing it for years, but now companies like IKEA are even starting to move into the city center.
The growing populations in cities of course means cities and the metro areas around them are becoming more and more dense. Cities have become more expensive, having secondary effects on housing supply, gentrification, and retail blight. Thus, our largest cities are becoming more intense to live in and difficult to manage. Through these changes and with growth, more responsible city design needs to take hold with a focus on creating a collective higher quality of life for those living in cities.
Given this opportunity, it’s not surprising that tech has found cities to be ripe for innovation and investment. Investment in urban tech from 2016-2018 reached over $75 billion, a total of about 17 percent of global VC investment during that time.
Such investments went into Transportation (e.g., ride hailing like Uber and Lyft, electric scooters), Real Estate (e.g., WeWork, which is now the biggest commercial real estate company in the world and is only eight years old), Delivery Services (e.g., Instacart) and Hotels (e.g., Airbnb), for example. You also have companies such as ABC/Google’s Sidewalk Labs pushing forward with their Toronto new city experiment.
And not unlike in other applications, there are positives and negatives effects to this new tech innovation. Given the fast growth in Uber and Lyft, it’s not surprising to say that consumers love the convenience of these services, yet they’ve also resulted in a significant increase in congestion in cities. San Francisco did a survey last year and found that 50 percent of the congestion in its downtown area was the result of these services. The convenience of online shopping is also contributing to congestion. In New York City, there’s been a 3x increase in private deliveries, and there isn’t enough space in Manhattan for all the trucks making individual stops. The arrival of electric scooters created sudden traffic jams, competing with pedestrians and bicyclists for the sidewalks and roadways. Thus, across multiple transportation types, there needs to be better management of the space in our cities.
Cities are ripe for disruption and have plenty of problems to solve. Old models won’t work in addressing these new challenges. Living in San Francisco and hearing gripes about homelessness makes us feel like people are wanting cities to become suburbs—cities have always been somewhat gritty, not the playgrounds and utopias of suburbs. Cities need new models, not simply to copy or become a version of what suburbs used to be, but rather to take the best of what beloved cities provide (e.g., Paris, London, New York), perhaps the good of suburbs, as well, but then to shape cities for today’s world. In designing these new models, we need to put humans at the center. This is what Copenhagen did, and the results have made it a world class city that others envy. City dwellers will need help learning how to live with each other successfully and for higher quality of living as cities become more dense and difficult to navigate. For example, how do people get used to living in smaller footprints? How do we provide transportation for the masses on the scale of places like Tokyo? New human-centric models can hopefully help us make this transition more smoothly and successfully.
A place to start would be with initiatives that create future visions for cities, planning for growth and built with a view towards improving quality of life. In visiting London last year, it was great to see the city’s 2016 growth plan that mapped how the city would grow neighborhood by neighborhood while improving quality of life. SPUR, the nonprofit that promotes good planning and good government in the San Francisco Bay Area, is trying to guide regional planning across the Bay, something the region has not been successful at accomplishing in the past, which is likely a key reason we see the problems we do in the region. The organization has kicked off its initiative to create a regional plan for 2070, although that seems a bit too far out with changes needed more quickly.
Tech will still have its place in solving problems in cities but needs to partner more collaboratively with city governments to balance economic gain and consumer benefit with quality of life for citizens. For example, smart cities will continue to be a focus, utilizing data to drive efficiency in a number of realms.
Transportation needs to stop being taken back towards an individual, car-driven culture and more towards one of mass, public transportation and alternative transportation such as walkable cities and bike programs. This ties to architecture and development. Plans that create more holistic city centers where people can walk to amenities is important.
Overall, urban architecture plays an important role in creating cities that impact humans in a positive way. Studies have shown that architecture can impact people’s health. In the U.K., as reported by Monocle, British Land showed based on data from the Centre for Urban Design and Mental Health that beneficial architecture can do this, while also positively impacting the economy. There’s also the importance of investing in “social infrastructure,” central spaces like libraries and parks that can build community and improve quality of life for citizens.
Retail and cultural districts play a vital part, as well, creating spaces for richer experiences. There’s an opportunity to manage and better curate these spaces in cities to build vibrant community centers. A great article from last year in Harper’s Magazine, “The Death of a Once Great City,” spoke to the bleak retail situation in parts of New York City, and the author proposed bringing back commercial rent control to help businesses stay in business. That may not be the only or best answer, yet there are a number of examples (example 1, example 2, example 3, example 4) where lower rents and thoughtful curation lead to thriving retail districts or city neighborhoods in both small communities and large cities, including New York. Finally, in considering new retail structures, there needs to be thoughtful design to how retail is taking shape today in the 21st Century and needs to adapt to residents’ new demands, such as addressing the convenience of the last mile retail and a desire for experiences (e.g., personal service, restaurants).
The Economic Forecast: Help better define the challenges of today’s urban living and take a human-centric view to creating solutions that help citizens live together in more harmony and allow everyone to enjoy a better quality of life. Putting economics aside when framing problems and instead focusing on developing innovation that solve real human problems will lead to the results businesses seek, while delivering what citizens desperately need.