HOK urban designers John Prevc and Rae Smith discuss the challenges and promises of cities at a critical juncture for planning and development.
Cities in the year 2020 sit on the precipice. On one side lies the challenges of overcrowding, pollution, aging infrastructure and a plethora of social inequalities. On the other side is the promise of smarter living through innovation, community, diversity and greater efficiencies.
Which of these competing narratives will define the city of the future? John Prevc, an urbanist and architect in London, and Rae Smith, a senior urban designer in San Francisco, chart seven divergent paths forward.
1. Denser but healthier cities
The rising influence of cities will accelerate population growth in urban areas, creating ever-denser metropolises. With so many people living in such close quarters, cities of the future must take stronger measures to foster public health, particularly when it comes to infectious illness.
“Coronavirus is just the latest example,” said Prevc. “Cities are going to have to improve their governance structures to protect and better coordinate their populations in the event of an outbreak.”
The built environment will play an increasingly important role in public health. Well-designed cities offer residents easier access to medical care as well as health and wellness options.
“By creating public spaces where we can pause, reflect and awaken the senses, we can aid in stress reduction and improve the mind-body connection, which is known to heal,” said Smith.
A healthy city also strengthens community identity by broadening accessibility—supporting multigenerational or multi-ethnic inclusiveness by developing public spaces that encourage community investment and social interaction.
“It’s often helpful to talk about approaching the design of our cities as if children were the primary users,” said Smith. “A city or open space designed for a child to safely walk through and experience is also better for other age groups and mobility levels.”
2. Infrastructure for social equity
As cities get denser, they’ll become more expensive, exacerbating existing issues of social inequity. Though highly trained and educated professionals will be able to afford these increasingly costly cities, many others will face the real threat of displacement.
“The biggest challenges for our cities will be related to equity and supportive infrastructure—from public education and healthcare to affordable housing and social services,” said Prevc. “To retain the workforce necessary to service all parts of the economy, tomorrow’s cities will need to get serious about funding social infrastructure, especially when it comes to housing and accessible education.”
3. Design for resilience and sustainability
Hotter temperatures, rising sea levels and increased episodes of flooding and drought will force cities to redouble their commitment to resilience and sustainable design. Many cities, particularly in the U.S., are already initiating environmental safeguards that exceed those set by federal governments. These initiatives include mandating that older buildings meet new levels of energy performance and requiring that new construction be built with low-carbon materials.
Despite these measures to combat global warming, planners and designers must factor in the damage already done.
“In coastal cities, rising sea levels will soon impact the types of uses we allow on the ground floor of buildings,” said Prevc. “These spaces will be less occupied and designed with resilience in mind. They will be able to take on and shed floodwater with minimal disruption.”
Alternative energy will play a more important role in powering the city of the future. In many places, solar and wind power is now more or equally cost effective as traditional forms of power. As recently as last year, renewables supplied more energy to the U.S. energy grid than coal. Today, unsubsidized, district-scale solar power is cheaper than gasoline and coal across much of the U.S.
“Converting the energy needs of vehicles and electricity from fossil fuels to cleaner, alternative energy sources will have a huge impact on our cities in terms of air quality and human health,” said Smith.
4. A return to the “medieval city-state”?
The rise of populism is increasingly pitting more progressive urban areas against their conservative regional and federal governments. This urban/rural divide extends beyond politics. Cities provide the jobs, the goods and the capital to fuel state and national governments. As politics become more partisan and gridlocked at higher levels of government, cities will begin to circumvent federal and regional policies with their own strategies and funding mechanisms.
“Big cities in the U.K. are beginning to have more power, and you’re seeing that in U.S. cities where they’re creating their own laws surrounding healthcare, guns and the environment,” said Prevc. “If this trend continues, I almost see the return of the medieval city-states, with more self-sufficient and self-contained urban hubs. These cities will not follow the directives of the state or regional governments, and they’ll keep their wealth for their own preservation and development.”
5. On-demand mobility
While the era of driverless cars won’t fully arrive in the 2020s, it will gain significant ground with more autonomous vehicles sharing roadways with traditional automobiles. This transition period will pose challenges to city planners when it comes to safety and traffic management.
“The biggest thing we’ll see is increased congestion,” said Smith. “That’s what everyone’s going to notice. The rise of on-demand transportation just creates more demand for transportation, which now is heavily focused on the private vehicle. We’ll begin to solve this by encouraging more efficient ways to get around, especially methods with dual benefits such as biking or electric scooters that offer some physical activity in addition to having a minimal environmental impact.”
While roads may be busier than ever, autonomous vehicles—which can remain in service throughout the day or return to a docking station—promise to free up valuable urban real estate for other uses.
“At the end of the day, we’ll have lots of parking spaces that are not going to be used and can be redeveloped for great things,” said Prevc.
6. The public-private conundrum
Emerging technology like autonomous vehicles will have cities entering more alliances with private firms. These partnerships are not without their benefits: lower costs, greater efficiencies and faster rollouts. On the flip side, they offer private firms access to large swaths of valuable data.
“Cities should manage these operations. But due to the massive amounts of computer processing power and storage required, they’re most likely to be controlled by big tech,” said Smith. “If we’re not careful, this will leave cities and their constituents vulnerable to data breaches and the annoyance of obsolete hardware.”
7. Data and design
Data will become increasingly important for those seeking power and influence in the 2020s, warns Prevc. But that’s not all that worries him. As a designer, he’s concerned with the potential for data to stifle creativity and invention.
“There’s a notion these days to play it safe and follow the data,” said Prevc. “Yes, data should inform our designs. But we don’t want to be restricted by it.”
He notes that existing data would have discouraged planners and designers from creating many of the world’s great civic assets, such as the London Underground or the 840-acre urban oasis that is New York’s Central Park.
As the 21st century marches on, Prevc sees a need for more public places where people can escape the drumbeat of technology and bombardment of data—if only for a moment.
“Citizens are demanding places where they can slow down and unplug,” said Prevc. “Cities can provide this space in a public park, a plaza, a library or another civic asset. These aren’t new ideas, but they are arguably even more relevant today than in the past.”