Rapid change has become the new normal in cities, with technological advances and societal shifts spilling out into the physical realm in unpredictable ways. The people shaping our communities—city leaders, planners, design professionals—are faced with a fundamental challenge: How do you design for an uncertain future? The pace of change we’ve seen over the last decade shows no signs of slowing down, and city leaders struggle to predict what fundamental changes the next 10 years will bring, much less plan for them. Are we walking into the next Roaring Twenties? Or will the decade be Reactionary? Rancorous? Revitalized?
To get at these questions, we asked a select group of mayors and leaders in the allied design fields (architecture, landscape architecture, planning, urban design, transportation planning, real estate development) to reflect on what the next decade will bring for cities. All 44 mayors and 45 design leaders participated in the Mayors’ Institute on City Design last year. Answers ranged from the practical to the alarmist, from the aspirational to the fantastical. Within the 64 responses we receive, five interrelated themes emerged.
The Existential Threats of the Last Decade Will Shift From the Theoretical to the Urgent
From climate change to the affordable housing crisis, autonomous vehicles to digital privacy, mayors and design leaders alike see the next decade as a time when abstract challenges will become seismic shifts, and cities will have no choice but to confront them.
“Climate crisis touches everything. Whether we are talking about equity, affordable housing, food resourcing or rezoning, it will become essential to do a climate-engaged environmental impact study for future building/infrastructural projects.” —Mark Gardner, Principal, Jaklitsch/Gardner Architects
“We’ll be talking in terms of ‘retreat urbanism.’ Our cities, when not faced with their own disasters, will become home to climate refugees and people leaving high-risk places. This is already happening, but it will suddenly start being seen and designed for.” —Gina Ford, Principal, Agency Landscape + Planning
“We are going to have to make friends with climate justice.” —Zabe Bent, Director of Design, NACTO
“Now that we’re moving beyond proof of concept for transportation innovation, the next decade will be focused on big shifts in policy and design to ensure that transportation technology rises to the biggest challenge of our time: climate change. We have yet to see the scale at which transportation needs to be transformed, from transit investments and improved operations, mode shift, sustainable micro-mobility, to electrification of all kinds. We have to come together to create the policy, governance, and design conditions to get it done in the next decade.” —Shin-pei Tsay Cunningham, Director of Policy, Cities, and Transportation, Uber
“The lack of affordable housing requires the return of alternative strategies—land trusts, communes, intentional communities, co-housing, and cooperative investment.” —Helen Leung, Co-Executive Director, LA-Más
“The affordable housing crises can open new thinking about zoning to allow for greater density and new (or back to old) housing types.” —Scott Sizer, P3/Joint Ventures Policy Coordinator, County of Fairfax, VA
“Equity will continue to be an important consideration for communities as the income divide increases. Denver has placed a significant emphasis on ensuring that vulnerable residents are not significantly impacted by planning and other policies for investment and potential gentrification. Displacement and access to opportunity will need to be addressed by cities and new development.” —Sarah Nurmela, Neighborhood Planning and Implementation Manager, City and County of Denver
“Automated vehicles will be a public binary trend, all or nothing. They will either become the dominant platform for mass transit, or there will be some catastrophic accident that will put everything on hold for another decade.” —Mayor Tim Keller, Albuquerque, NM
“Autonomous vehicles will not be the cure-all to issues they propose to solve.” —Gina Sofola, Founder, Sofola & Associates
“I think traffic will continue to increase on our roads, and we’ll make our way through the transition to autonomy, for which we’re not prepared.” —Mayor Paige Brown, Gallatin, TN
“Public desire to reign in big tech and privacy concerns will topple business models.” —Seleta Reynolds, General Manager, Los Angeles Department of Transportation
“Data-driven digital planning models will both grow and begin to yield to public concerns about presumably anonymous invasions of privacy. 5G digital delivery systems will prove to be more of a surveillance and public data gathering tool than a boon to consumers.” —Ted Landsmark, Distinguished Professor, Public Policy and Urban Affairs; Director, Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy
“A techlash will finally take hold, forcing us all to ask ourselves what are the real consequences of lifelong surveillance and what is our data and personal privacy really worth?” —Giselle Sebag, Global Cities Consultant, Bloomberg Associates.
Residents Will Demand That We Do Things Differently
A changing society requires a responsive government, and mayors and design leaders alike see cities as best equipped to step into that role. Cities will need to be nimble and flexible as residents demand the seamless service that they’ve come to expect in a digital world. With a rapid influx of mobility options and an increased reliance on deliveries and pickups, curbside management has created an immediate challenge for city planners. More broadly, rethinking auto-centric development and street designs—streets make up more than 80% of all public space in cities—could allow people to move more efficiently, gather more often, and reap the benefits of being close to nature.
“The next decade will bring genuine accessibility. Where government goes directly to the people, the large municipal buildings will be a relic of the past. We’ll see more mobile offices going directly to people’s homes (We have a mobile office in Miami Lakes which I personally drive.) The era of people having to go directly to their local government is over.” —Mayor Manny Cid, Miami Lakes, FL
“The speed at which society is changing will continue to impact cities. If city leadership fails to change and adapt, then the faith in local government will be adversely impacted.” —Mayor Juan Carlos Bermudez, Doral, FL
“In the next decade, cities will formally take the title as the ‘true labs of democracy’ as policymakers realize that everything is local.” —Mayor Levar Stoney, Richmond, VA
“People are waking up to the limits of an auto-centric world. Long commutes, crowded highways, pollution, and cities divided by infrastructure are a 20th century problem that is now being recognized and addressed in the 21st century.” —Susannah Drake, Founding Principal, DLANDstudio
“We will see the design of buildings and spaces accommodate people who get around in a much more multi-modal pattern every day—from improved bike/walk infrastructure to shared scooters and subscription-based autonomous vehicles. Cities will explore new ways to maximize street right-of-way and developers will find redevelopment opportunity in underutilized parking lots and structures.” —Shane Hampton, Director, University of Oklahoma Institute for Quality Communities
“Decongestion zones finally take off in U.S. cities, and biking and walking are the new disruptive tech.” —Seleta Reynolds, General Manager, Los Angeles Department of Transportation
What’s Old Will Become New Again
In the responses we received, there was a sense that after a decade of rapid change, after decades of sprawling and placeless development, we will continue to see a shift back to the core of our communities, back to neighborhood-scale development, and the cities that embrace and promote their uniqueness will be the ones that thrive.
“What was old will become new again. After years of big-box stores, large lot development, and seas of supermarkets—residents today want to know who grows the food they eat, they choose to shop small, supporting local retailers over national chains, and 10,000 sq. foot single family lots will be passed over for residential flats in adaptively reused historic spaces. Our next generation of thought leaders will continue the urban renaissance occurring throughout the country.” —Mayor Cassie Franklin, Everett, WA
“Cities will continue to attract residents who want an authentic experience of attachment to community, history, and nature, and those cities that can integrate such authenticity into their lifestyles will grow and develop.” —Mayor David Alvey, Kansas City, KS
“The U.S. is over-retailed. We have more than twice as much retail space than we can realistically support. Retail space will shrink—particularly automobile-oriented retail space—to help level the supply, and market-responsive locally owned businesses will fill voids created as retail chains shrink. Independently owned businesses will gain strength downtown. Chains are over-leveraged, and Millennials and Gen Z prefer locally owned shops over chains, and they gravitate towards walkable places.” —Kennedy Smith, Co-Founder, Community Land Use + Economic Group
“Cities will make more use of the public realm: demonstrations, celebrations, festivals, markets, more walking, more biking, more young people demanding new ways make connections and to be in the city without spending money.” —Mayor John D’Amico, West Hollywood, CA
“In an increasingly global economy, a city’s most important mission is to elevate their unique localness.” —Chris Kroner, Principal, MASS Design Group
Cities Will Lead With Landscape as the Era of Single-Objective Infrastructure Ends
It’s a story that’s been told again and again: federal and state dollars are shrinking, infrastructure is crumbling, and cities have to be creative in utilizing their limited dollars. The currency is infrastructure, but the purchase is resiliency and public realm opportunities that increase the value of citizenship and help build public consensus on spending.
“When landscape architects lead public realm/infrastructure projects in cities, the sum is greater than the individual parts. Their ability to synthesize critical issues, redefine problems, and shift paradigms, all while creating places that contribute to the human spirit, is unmatched.” —Mayor Jacob Day, Salisbury, MD
“Resiliency as we deal with sea level rise, storms and floods—and how designing the public realm can be combined with infrastructural solutions. And in general how cities in the future, more and more, need to combine infrastructural needs with public realm opportunities (deck-over parks, converting rail lines to mobility corridors and linear parks, transforming below-structure right of ways etc.).” —Mary Margaret Jones, President/Senior Principal, Hargreaves Jones
“We’ll continue seeing parks that serve communities as sea walls, water storage sites, and water drainage solutions.” —Andrew Brown, Associate Director of Research, Van Alen Institute
“‘Civil led’ projects are being replaced by ‘Urban Design–Landscape Architecture’: multidisciplinary teams are on the rise.” —Shane Coen, Founding Principal, Coen+Partners
Cities Will Become the Primary Stewards of Social Infrastructure
While physical infrastructure consistently makes headlines, the mayors we questioned spoke as frequently about the value of social infrastructure—the connections and glue that bind communities together. When communities are lonely and divided, how do design and the fabric of our neighborhoods help heal us? How do they address physical and mental well-being? With mayors on the front lines of tragedies in our cities—homes destroyed by climate events, mass shootings, financial crises—design leaders are positioned to be critical partners in knitting our communities back together.
“Every city will be dealing with climate issues: increasing storms, salt water intrusion, flooding, etc. One major challenge will be how cities will pay for the resiliency infrastructure and the recovery costs associated with these climate issues. But also, as we look at our infrastructure, it will be more and more important that we look to our social infrastructure—creating communities of connection through planning and design, focusing on mental wellness and a sense of belonging and community.” —Mayor Christine Hunschofsky, Parkland, FL
“In the next decade, mayors and cities will adopt the mantra of management experts: ‘The hard stuff is the soft stuff.’ Human-centric issues—in particular, behavioral and mental health—will cut across every aspect of the urban environment (think housing, education, jobs, families, health and human services, mobility), and cities will increasingly learn to see ‘hard-scape issues’ in the context of ‘soft-scape issues.’” —Mayor Alan Webber, Santa Fe, NM
“Investing in the ‘slow city,’ where the pace is not as fast, technology is less imposing, and the visceral connection between people and place are still at the forefront.” —Hans Butzer, Dean, Christopher C. Gibbs College of Architecture, University of Oklahoma
“We are a refugee city, and much of our growth is due to new residents from countries experiencing significant trouble. Working to help them understand how to become an American while not leaving their own culture behind is an issue for us.” —Mayor Bruce Wilkerson, Bowling Green, KY
“Cities that welcome and support immigrants and diversity will help meet the workforce needs of local businesses and make their communities stronger and more interesting.” —Mayor Brad Hart, Cedar Rapids, IA
“Cities have climbed from post-Recession depths of a decade ago and have proven that rich, vibrant and lovable places are long-lasting. In the coming decade, I believe that cities will grapple with the decoupling of real estate and retail by doubling down on local maker movements and entrepreneurship, two efforts that must diversify and intertwine with equity-seeking efforts. The great challenge in the next 10 years will be reconciling displacing forces with economic growth goals to address the massive affordable housing, homelessness and affordable transportation challenges that could spin out of control. Cities in 10 years, I believe, will have become stronger and more resilient by becoming more welcoming to immigrants and by erasing divides by gender, race, and ethnicity.” —Mayor Jacob Day, Salisbury, MD
“The Bottom Line Will Be Quality of Life”
Mayors and design professionals are a self-selected group of urban optimists, people whose careers are founded on a desire to peer into the future and help steer communities toward healthier, safer, more equitable futures.
“We could continue with business as usual, which would mean that the next decade for cities will look a lot like the current decade. The likely future scenario would be that wealthy cities get wealthier, exacerbating income inequality, housing affordability and homelessness—and the cities that were already struggling continue that downward trajectory. But my hope is that we’ll experience a seismic shift; that we will rebuild/redesign our cities for people. That we will come to terms with the fact that resources are finite, and respond accordingly. That we will prioritize public transit and pedestrians (and autonomous vehicles will be used for practical things like school bus and bus rapid transit routes, not individual trips to brunch). That we’ll rediscover the idea of the collective and understand that there is no progress if so many are left behind. NIMBYism will die out; homelessness will become unacceptable. We will grow weary of smartphone-as-appendage and talk to each other in cafes. The bottom line will be quality of life, not ROI. Utopian? Perhaps. But I need to convince my 14-year-old that she’s got a bright future ahead of her.” —Allison Arieff, Editorial Director SPUR