Megaregion Design

Many of you will be familiar with the work of Bruce Katz at the Brookings Institute’s Metropolitan Policy Program.  In November 2007 he presented the challenges of the urban world.  (If not click to watch) then read the following and offer comments.

The exquisite logic of Blueprint for American Prosperity was this century’s “Rachael Carson” moment. The truth is almost impossible to believe and as it turns out, no one did. That is a serious problem.

The 2050 population estimate by the U.S. Census is about 440 million people.  This is a 60% increase from 2000 at 280 million and sufficient to sustain modest GDP growth were it not for one salient fact.  One-third of the population in 2050 will be 60 years or older. 

Where will the majority of this population decide to live? Economists seem to think it will be in warm places. This is a critical question for many reasons, one of them confronts an enormous labor shortage expected to begin around 2025. Perhaps the most compelling policy question involves the demands of this population for elder care services in relation to the quality of its provision in the market place.  This affects everything. 

Knowing how this population will decide to live also goes a long way toward knowing where it can be made to work and be well received.  In order of preference, the following answers are probably accurate:

  • living the same way we always have since we settled here until we drop dead, or
  • seek a village-like setting with easy access to my favorite recreation — theater, movies, dining, and health sports such as running, cycling, and golf or tennis, or just name it.
  • move closer, but not too close to the kids, or their kids and some of our friends.
  • be living with the children in their house as they or we become caregiver or receiver
  • find ourselves in elder care or nursing facility/hospice eventually.

One way to resolve the conflicts of prediction is to define the cohorts of the population by the 2050 geography of megaregions from Brookings and work back now. Say it is 2020 – you have thirty-years to arrange policy and resources. If the math for you is less than that now, you already in trouble.

Planners and developers know the analysis well. Work in the context of the above categories and then modify a carefully selected, yet thin wash of possible local development sites with existing services density or links to dense parts are probable. The question of where is then partially resolved. It is least risky to recognize high demand potential regressed to the mean of less predictable costs including displacement events associated with the climate change crises, including COVID-19. The choices also involve a very broad landscape of existing housing, large to small retail districts, office parks, and industrial areas.  All of the megaregions will require analysis of the historically contrived organization of municipal boundaries with rapidly changing demographic characteristics.

A guidebook called Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs documents those who have taken this approach.  (see: Ted Talk by Ellen). It observes how redevelopment plans in low-density areas can be diagnosed. The failure of many developments must be understood. These include grey-field office parks, dead or dying malls, and housing subdivisions altered by illegal or loop-hole conversions. Suburban communities are feverishly working to stabilize or lower personal and property taxes by urgently digging for new options in more haphazard manners than ever before. There is no reason to believe the economic and socia forces that accelerated central city decay is not at work with similar consequences in the spread city.

Face it, successfully injecting an urban design agenda into these communities will require a much sharper, top-down “Brookings, APA, AIA, Lincoln, ULI” coalition, and a public focus on how impossible it is for local government agencies to direct development in a free market economy.  It comes done to one question. Why are people such as Bruce Katz and his team all alone on the significance of this make or break analysis? Where is the public capacity to ban all shovels until all projects proposed comply with regional rules that clearly recognize the age cohort and highly disruptive displacement events? 

Mandatory rules in the following order of priority are available. The guidebooks and manuals for a more successful urban world are well written.  The missing element is a coalition level of political enforcement that would help assure community planning, urban design and architecture will accomplish the following:

  1. a residential environment that is safe and walkable to meet convenience needs
  2. design solutions that allow for the routine use of human-powered and power assist vehicles
  3. provision of mass transit access serving all comparison needs, interests or desires
  4. zero footprint impact and plus-grid (micro) energy, natural and technologically advanced waste (of all kinds) management systems
  5. integration of open space systems responsive to natural environmental conditions of wilderness (preferably not fragmented).
  6. oh, and end the crapshoot presented by the following image of Atlanta as it really exists.

Experience plus reflection produces knowledge. The Brookings Institute’s Metropolitan Policy Program back in 2007 presented the real challenge of the American urban world.  (Click to watch then all (take a taste below). Then read and comment.

Why has it not taken hold in a way that ordinary people can absorb. I think the exquisite logic of Blueprint for American Prosperity failed to convince Atlanta. With the exception of NYC nobody got it because the hard truth was impossible to believe. Time to say it again SAM.

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