We Need to Talk About the Far-Out Future of Cities

It has become almost cliché to recite the fact that for the first time in the history of our species, the majority of people live in cities. Rarely, however, do we fully investigate the challenges and opportunities emerging from this profound shift. In this critical moment in urban history, how do we envision the far-out futures of our cities? And how do we use our most affirmative visions to catalyze action, taking the steps needed to shape the futures that we believe in?

It is time to surface the questions that enable us to fundamentally reimagine the urbanist space. To that end, Longpath, an initiative focused on fostering long-term thinking and behavior, has convened some of today’s leading urbanists to broaden the aperture through which we explore city futures, examining the many rich historical narratives and possible scenarios that inform urban discourse.

Below are excerpts from Longpaths’ interviews with these mayors, thought leaders, and practitioners.

Longpath: Albert Einstein famously said “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking that we used when we created them.” What are some shifts in mindset that are needed to achieve your vision for the future of cities?

Set a goal of sustainable happiness

Gil Penalosa, founder of 880 cities

I think that we need to realize that the United States is going to grow by around a hundred million people in the next 50 years, and almost all of them are going to go to cities. So we are urban, and we need to create cities that are good for people. And I think the most important mindset shift would be for leaders in cities to become like guardian angels of the gentle majority: the children, the older adults, the poor.

Leaders should also think about how to have sustainable happiness. By sustainable happiness I don’t mean the happiness of the having more cars or more highways or bigger homes. At no time in history has the U.S. had as much wealth, but the index of happiness has not been very high. Countries like South Korea that have increased a lot of their per capita income are not seeing gains in the levels of happiness.

Reinject pragmatism into government

Sam Liccardo, mayor, San Jose

In the current political climate, we are so excessively polarized and everyone is constantly turning [to] ideological battles and we’re forgetting about the facts. The overwhelming majority of our residents just want buses to run on time, and they want schools that work for their kids. So we need to reinject pragmatism in governance. You generally don’t have masses of thousands of people marching in city hall saying “We’re moderates. We want political change…at a moderate pace.” But this is a period that critically calls for us to elevate our political discourse to moderate what we say and how we say it. And to start you have to recognize the importance of human relationships even with those who disagree.

A mindset that needs to change is what I call temporal myopia: the excessive focus on today at the expense of tomorrow. You know I mean I’m certainly not immune from those pressures. We all face election cycles, certainly, but I think it’s just important for all of us just to remind ourselves when we got into politics for. We’re all part of this common project of legacy-building. It’s really about those impacts you have in community that you may not see for a generation because we started a program to get, you know, a thousand low income teens in gang-impacted neighborhoods to jobs and a generation from now we might really see the benefit of that. But those are seeds you have to sow and water for a while before you’re going to see them bloom.

Diversify leadership

Toni Griffin, professor in practice of urban planning, Harvard University Graduate School of Design

The tables are not diverse enough to be quite honest. There are not enough people in leadership that are representative of their constituents, who are oftentimes least benefiting from the current growth some cities are having. And I just find that to be problematic because it limits the full understanding and scope of the challenge that we have.

Bridge the gap between “technologists” and “urbanists”

Dan Doctoroff, chairman and CEO, Sidewalk Labs

There are two camps who have to come together to integrate technology into the urban environment. One the one hand there are the urbanists, the people who plan cities, manage cities, think about cities. And on the other hand there are the technologists, the people who understand technology and who are capable of building new products and services. There’s a massive cultural divide between the two. They literally speak completely different languages. They operate in very different time cycle. For urbanists, the expectation is for things to take longer to get done, whereas the technologist is about the fast iterations, prototyping, getting things out in the market, testing very quickly. And getting those two camps to understand each other is a meaningful barrier to the integration of innovation into the urban environment.

Concentrate on the basics and don’t look for silver bullets

George Abbott, director, external Affairs, Memphis River Parks Partnership

We have to embrace the fact that there is no silver bullet solution. There can be a tendency to look at these big things like Amazon HQ, and think that it will solve all of our problems. But in reality I think you’re much better served by concentrating on the basics, figuring out how to use small-scale interventions that don’t need a huge amount of money to make your city a place that is more pleasant to live in. Focus on providing spaces where people like to be, providing a variety of housing options, providing good education, and good ways for folks to increase their economic opportunity. There are many small things we can be looking [to], but we go for a 10-year multimillion-dollar transformational development opportunity that may or may not exist. The resources you spend chasing that would be better expended doing little things well and having a vision that extends beyond your period of elected office.

Build stronger community institutions to counter corporate interests

Shelley Poticia, managing director, Healthy People and Thriving Communities program at the Natural Resource Defense Council

I think the corporatization of real estate [the prominence of large-scale developers concerned first and foremost with a strict adherence to the bottom line] has really contributed to some good things but it’s also contributed to people feeling left out of the economy. It also doesn’t reward long-term thinking. So we’re not really seeing the incorporation of the effects of climate change into corporate real estate. Instead of focusing so much on whether a project can pencil out for the banks, I think we need to also ask, ‘Will the people who live and work in these places thrive?’

I think that we need stronger community institutions that can really engage and demand that their viewpoint be taken into account in decisions about how neighborhoods change. We need new tools so that there’s more community ownership, particularly in the housing sector. And I think we need the public sector to really step up and have a stronger backbone to think about the long term benefits to the community rather than what I often see is cities scrambling for tax base.

Invest in people, not just infrastructure

Michael Tubbs, mayor, Stockton, California

Our mindset needs to shift from investing just in infrastructure and building, to really investing in people and improving their social capital. I always say the most pointed investment you can make is in our communities. That means especially investing in those who are the hardest to invest in: folks who may have criminal records, folks who may not have money, folks who have immigrated from another country.

LongPath: What do you see as the critical inflection point in the past 100 years of urban history—a historical moment or an event that has had lasting ramifications for the cities of today?

[Note: Almost all interviewees referenced the introduction of the automobile and auto-centric planning as the critical inflection point of the past century. Many also noted the power of federal legislation that impacted population flow and diversity in American cities.]

Jane Jacobs’ influence on optimizing policies for people

Michael Berkowitz, president, 100 Resilient Cities

Jane Jacobs and her opposition to development in New York, and her victory over traffic engineers was definitely significant and continues to be inspirational. She’s become sort of an emblem to the new urban thinkers now. Her work moved us beyond the thinking of the early 20th century where the industrial revolution was about creating silos for efficiency. The government took an engineering mindset that optimized for efficiency, but because of Jane’s work we view cities more holistically.  Now you have departments of transportation that are moving away from optimizing for car drivers to optimizing for people. The value of walkability has certainly changed.

When cars were given priority over pedestrians

George Abbot

The proliferation of the automobile in the 20s and 30s. I was at the NACTO Conference and they described the first moment when cars were given priority over pedestrians. For a long time these new automobiles and pedestrians shared the street. It was actually the car lobby that came up with the concept of traffic lights so that the flow of automobile traffic could be sped up. And that was kind of the first moment where the car took priority over the pedestrian. It just kind of spiraled from there. Those laws were adopted by other cities and then we see the legacy of that today. And you can even trace that to the proliferation of highways and the way the federal highway building program destroyed much of the urban fabric.

The Immigration Act, and the rise of cities

Bruce Katz, author of The New Localism: How Cities Can Thrive in the Age of Populism

One critical inflection point was the Immigration Act of 1965 which basically opened up America’s borders again. That had a rejuvenating effect on cities because it brought a whole new group of residents into many parts of U.S. cities and metropolitan areas that were starting to depopulate.

Globally, the the most important thing that’s happened in the last 100 years is simply the rise of cities. The organizing geography of civilization is shifting. It’s ubiquitous. The question is how do you manage that, how do you enable cities to be more livable and higher quality? The United States is essentially a metropolitan nation. You know half of people who live in rural America actually live within metropolitan areas because our metropolitan areas have sprawl and have decentralized in such a profound way. So when we talk about the urban and rural division, we almost never mention the word metropolitan, which is odd. The divide is not as pronounced as people think. What we need to do, I think, is create a new narrative to enhance the linkages between the core the peripheral.

The U.S. in particular tends to focus on a singular policy fix. Or perhaps the charismatic almost celebrity political leader. And what I focus a lot on in my work are institutional structures that are able to unlock capital, large amounts of capital for investments in the future. We need different kinds of 21st century institutions.

Longer life expectancies

Gil Penalosa

About a hundred years ago, people were dying because there was no clean water and sewage and vaccination. All of a sudden we’re living much longer. That has had many many ramifications and implications. About a hundred and fifty years ago we didn’t have any country in the world that had a life expectancy above 45. Today we don’t have any with a life expectancy below 45. So it has been totally transformational.

The invention of the car and redlining

Carol Coletta, senior fellow of American Cities Practice, Kresge Foundation

I think the invention of the automobile allowed us to spread out in ways that I think in hindsight have proven to be not very smart from a convenience or delight standpoint, not very smart from a climate standpoint, not very smart from a resource standpoint. Also, not very smart from a trust standpoint. There are lots of reasons why that ended up being a really unfortunate development. I wouldn’t want to go back to a time before cars, but I also don’t think we adjusted to that technology appropriately.

Another major moment for cities, was redlining. This was the institutionalization of inequality and separation. The way it reinforced inequality and reinforced separation was a really bad thing. We’re a society that needs everybody contributing, and we need no waste whatsoever, including in terms of people and their talent. So redlining was just stupid. Now we’re in a place where we’re trying to rectify it.

The decline of urban public school systems

Jonathan Rose

First the advent of rail and streetcars and then the advent of the automobile. Then post-World War II the growth of the suburbs and the decline of cities as a place for middle class, which occurred simultaneously with that the decline of urban public school systems. Schools are a really important part of making a city work for families.

Industrialization brought a whole lot of jobs to cities and help really dramatically expand them but also brought pollution. And so also what you saw in the 60s, 70s, and 80s was this confluence of the decline of the public school systems and the rise of the urban and the loss of jobs at the same time. And that hit cities really hard. So 100 years ago you had all these trains which were moving people to cities and then 50 years ago you had these trends which were moving people away from cities. Now that’s reversing.

The Civil Rights Act and its aftermath

Toni Griffin

When the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed, giving greater access, opportunity, and rights to African-Americans in this country, they began to dismantle the decades of federal policies and programs. But you can’t dismantle racial segregation. That manifested itself in cities all across the U.S. through racially restrictive covenants, blockbusting policies, redlining, Federal Highways Act—all  programs that were designed to exclude and separate African-Americans from other populations. In turn, it also deeply divided cities—by class, in addition to race. Through the 60s and 70s the struggles really began to operationalize. The Civil Rights Act was pretty pivotal.

The decision to invest in highways instead of transit

San Liccardo

I think many urbanists like myself lament that we didn’t get city building done before the automobile came along. If I could go back, I would encourage the Eisenhower administration to reinvest all that money that went into the interstate highway system and double down on transit. I don’t pretend that anybody in the 40s or 50s could have seen that. Newly constructed highways would divide communities, lead to suburban sprawl, and increase social isolation and alienation. I think it’s our task now to see how we can retrofit the city. In my work in San Jose, I want to transform a city that was built for cars into a city for people.

The steam engine, the electric grid, and the automobile

Dan Doctoroff

I actually think we’ve had three big innovations over the last 200 years that have fundamentally shaped the modern city. One being the steam engine in the early part of the 19th century, the second being the electric grid in the latter part of the 19th century, and then the automobile and its widespread adoption in the early part of the 20th century. I would argue that they haven’t changed a whole lot. The way we get around is essentially the same, the way we get our energy is the same, the way we get our water is basically the same, the way our buildings are built is essentially the same, the way we do government functions is largely the same. That’s the whole thesis behind Sidewalk Labs. When Google and I got together, we shared a belief that we’re at what we would call the fourth urban technological revolution. This is a combination of digital technologies all based on the Internet, the fact that everyone is connected or will be within a relatively brief period of time.

The power of advanced computing sensing, the whole idea of social networks, as well as sort of new design and fabrication technologies can build off of a lot of these other digital technologies. Our whole thesis underlying Sidewalk Labs is that the convergence of these technologies at this moment in time actually heralds sort of a fourth technological revolution that will play out over the course of the next generation or two. We actually sit at the very early stages of that. We’re only beginning to glimpse it, and I probably use the word glimpse as maybe even a slight overstatement.

Jim Crow and the war on drugs

Michael Tubbs

Three for me. The backlash after Reconstruction in the 50 to 70 years of Jim Crow. Just the terrorizing effect of it. Also, the advent of open markets and international trade and the declining manufacturing and semi-skilled labor. And then the third thing would be the war on drugs. The war on drugs is part of the rise of the prison incarceration state where you have whole ecosystems and economies and billions of dollars in prison stocks traded on Wall Street. It created a profit motive where we’re locking people up for nonviolent offenses while not necessarily corresponding with the decreasing crime. Doing that ravages communities of color. And you see the ripple effects today.

Interviews were conducted and compiled by Longpath City Fellow Chad Rochkind.

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