Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

The City in 2050

Dateline: 10:21 am August 31, 2009 Filed under:

What will the city of 2050 look like? How will we really get there?

A lot of urbanists seem to be buzzing about this, including the Urban Land Institute, which last year released a publication called The City in 2050. Many of the projections and visions, including those of ULI, are thought-provoking, evoking high-tech, connected cities with a reduced carbon footprint.

Demographers add their two cents, with projections of an aging and more diverse population, and the corresponding effect on housing demand. One projection urbanists like to hang their hat on is by A.C. Nelson, who indicates that the United States will not demand any more net single-family homes on large lots (read: suburban) over the next couple decades, while demanding millions more small lot homes and attached housing units (read: urban).

This doesn’t mean the end of suburbs, but it means a whole lot more infill housing in cities and suburbs alike. Defenders of suburban living need not worry, there will be a market for new large lot suburban homes. However, if the numbers play out, there will be a very real issue that for every new home, there will be an obsolete or unmarketable suburban home somewhere else. Cities have dealt with this before, and will again have to decide if policies should allow for splitting homes in to duplexes or whether redevelopment is an option, however unpalatable.

Another of A.C. Nelson’s estimates is that 2.8 million acres, currently occupied by aging or obsolete retail centers (grayfields), will be available for redevelopment in the next 15 years. Indeed, if only one-quarter of these grayfields are redeveloped at a relatively low infill density of 10 units per acre, you could accomodate 7 million of the 17 million attached housing units Nelson forecasts will be needed by 2025.

If only it were that easy….

I have been to precious few meetings with city councils, planning commissions, and other public meetings where cities are faced with a redevelopment opportunity to redevelop a site with infill housing. I have researched countless others, and it is my unscientific conclusion that infill is usually not too popular. If it is, the preferred housing type is high-end condos or some risky or infeasible solution in the marketplace. My own estimate is even if all 2.8 million acres were “shovel-ready” (I have grown weary of that term), politically you’d have a very difficult time developing even a fraction of these housing units in a marketable way in 20 years.

But we have to find a way to do it. We need not pit cities and suburbs against each other in these evolving urban times. Indeed, cities and suburbs should work together to create sensible metro area solutions. Organizations like ULI have plenty of research on how to do infill development, and Brookings promotes strong metro policy to generate good housing development. Even HUD seems likely to promote better infill under the new administration.

But all the high level thinking and research, and not necessarily even financial incentives for infill, won’t trickle down to magically convince John Q NIMBY Public that affordable infill rental housing is good for his or her community. We need more Joe Urbans out there.

Here in the Twin Cities, ULI Minnesota has been doing some very good work in finding a solution. By forming the Regional Council of Mayors, ULI is facilitating metro area mayors to meet and come to common agreement on housing, transportation and economic policy considerations. Thus, they are bringing good decisionmaking on tough urban issues, like infill housing, for example, one step closer to the general public.

The advantage of an entire metro area working together on these issues is substantial, as it can help balance future housing, transportation and economic needs. The work of ULI Minnesota is helping bridge that gap between good urbanism and the decisionmaking of all the John Q Publics out there. It is important that we turn NIMBYs in to good urbanists. The path to our metro areas in 2050 and beyond depends on educated locals working together to create something greater than the sum of their parts.

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