In November 2007, Bruce Katz presented the challenges of the “mega” urban world. 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.RLC
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. They will need walkable communities, or they will ask to have everything delivered.
Where will the majority of this population decide to live? Economists think it will be in warm places that are becoming hot and dry or hot and wet. This brings many critical questions. One of them confronts an enormous labor shortage expected to begin around 2025. However, perhaps the most compelling policy question involves the demands of this population for elder care services concerning the quality of its provision in the marketplace. The impact everything urban where the efficient use of energy depends directly on density.
Knowing how this population will decide to live also goes a long way toward knowing where density can work and be well received. In order of preference, the following answers are probably accurate – people will be:
- living the same way since settled, and will stay there until we drop dead, or
- seeking a village-like setting with easy access to leisure– theater, movies, dining, and health sports such as running, cycling, golf, tennis, or name it
- moving closer, but not too close to the kids, their kids, and some friends
- be living with the children in their house as they become caregivers or receivers
- be looking for elder care or nursing facility/hospice eventually
One way to resolve the conflicts of prediction is to define the population’s cohorts by the 2050 geography of megaregions from Brookings and work back to now. So say it is 2025 – you have a few years to arrange policy and resources.
Change the Subsidy and Alter the Incentive
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 or links to centers of density most likely to provide specialized services. 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 event, including COVID-19. The choices also involve a broad landscape of existing housing, large to small retail districts, office parks, and industrial areas. All megaregions will require analysis of the historically contrived municipal boundaries organization with rapidly changing demographic characteristics.
There is no reason to believe the economic and social forces that accelerated central city decay is not at work with similar consequences in the spread city. A guidebook called Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs documents those who have taken this approach. (see: Ted Talk by Ellen Dunham Jones). She observes how planners can diagnose low-density areas for possible problems. The failure of grey-field office parks, dead or dying malls, and housing subdivisions altered by illegal or loop-hole conversions are good examples. 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.
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 down 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 to 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:
- a residential environment that is safe and walkable to meet convenience needs
- design solutions that allow for the routine use of human-powered and power assist vehicles
- provision of mass transit access serving all comparison goods, needs, interests, or desires
- zero footprint impact and plus-grid (micro) energy, natural and technologically advanced waste (of all kinds) management systems
- integration of open space systems responsive to natural environmental conditions of wilderness (preferably not fragmented).
- 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. 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. Except for NYC, nobody got it because the hard truth was impossible to believe. Time to repeat it, SAM.