Peering into the future is a favorite exercise for planners and designers. From the Chicago 1893 Columbian Exhibition to New York City’s two Worlds Fairs (1939 and 1965) and beyond, the future was optimistic and filled with cool technology and architecture. But not all views of the future were so hopeful. George Orwell’s dystopian novel “Nineteen Eighty-Four” (published in 1949) looked 35 years forward and painted a not-so-rosy vision of the future.
In 2017, 1984 (the year) is a distant memory. But what do we think the future will look like 30 years or so from now? And what will City: 2050 be like?
City: 2050 will be more dense, larger and older.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, United Nations, Pew Research and other sources, the U.S. will grow to 438 million people by 2050—up 35% from our 2017 population of 326 million. (Global population grows to 9.7 billion by 2050.) And upwards of 75% of future Americans will live in cities and urbanized areas (up from 50% in 2008). In other words, by 2050 there will the same number of Americans living in cities as there are in the entire nation today!
Lifespans and the median population age are projected to increase. The UN predicts the U.S. median age will be 41 years old by 2050, up from today’s 37. That might not seem like a lot, but the rise in median age is directly attributable to second-fastest growing segment of the population—those 65 and older. And those future seniors are today’s Millennials and Generation Z-ers.
City: 2050 will be more multi-modal and less reliant on cars:
- Walking: Denser cities make walking a viable mode for many people once more. City: 2050 may actually resemble walkable neighborhoods common in the early to mid-Twentieth Century. And that includes today’s suburbs, which are exhibiting renewed interest in traditional urban principles of mixed-use, walkability and density. By 2050, many of those suburbs will be 100 years old (or older) and will have evolved into stand-alone, mixed-use, urbanizing areas and employment centers;
- Automobiles: Should current trends continue, 2050 car ownership should decrease in favor of car sharing, autonomous vehicles and other disruptive technologies. And our lives will not rely solely on cars for mobility;
- Planes, Trains, and Loops: Airports will still be part of our long-distance travel plans, but there will be other options. High-speed rail projects are accelerating (pun intended) across the U.S. and other forms (the Hyperloop?) have the potential to offer travelers unique and competitive options. Dense population centers make these modes more viable; and,
- Flying Vehicles: City: 2050 will witness the beginnings of the autonomous flying car. This is not science fiction, research is already underway in numerous countries for this next leap in mobility. The U.S. Department of Transportation is currently working on the technical guidelines for this new technology. And in less than 3 years, “Uber Elevate” should be operational in both Dubai and Dallas. Flying cars may not be available to everyone by 2050, but they could be one of many future transportation choices.
It is not unreasonable for a building to have a lifespan of 30 years or more. So today’s new buildings currently under construction will be important components of our built environment in City: 2050. Architectural design will undoubtedly change over the next 33 years, so expect our cities to be a mix of old and new, just as they are today. What other changes can we expect?
- More Mixed Use: Expect fewer monolithic (single-use) buildings. Today’s office buildings may transition into vertical “neighborhoods” with 3 or more uses in each building. Today’s 25-story office towers could transition into a combination of office, residential, retail and even educational spaces. It’s already happening in the world’s most populous cities;
- New Office and Retail: Given the basic human need for interaction and social connections, offices may still exist, but perhaps in a mixture of traditional office, co-working spaces, telepresence, hoteling or any combination thereof (and more). And retail? Well, it is no secret that the retail sector is currently undergoing a massive transformation. How it reinvents itself is still up for debate, but there should be a continuing need for retail spaces that bring people together. Maybe even a return to more specialization and the local store (bakery, wine shop, etc.), combined with drone delivery services; and,
- Parking Garages: Even the humble parking garage is poised for change. Today, Gensler is advising clients to future-proof new garages by building flat floorplates with taller floor-to-floor heights—at least 11 feet for future residential, and ideally 15 feet to accommodate just about anything from residential to office and beyond. As car ownership and use decreases, and if local zoning regulations follow suit, demand for on-site parking will experience a parallel decrease. Today’s garage is the bones of City: 2050’s mixed-use building.
Supporting 438 million Americans will require massive reinvestments in our current infrastructure—water, sewer, storm drainage, electrical power, telecommunications, etc. And if we rely on today’s delivery systems, our carbon footprint will actually increase, even with denser development patterns. American infrastructure must evolve to be more efficient, flexible, and decentralized.
Take electric power. Today, thousands of homes already generate their own power through solar, wind or geothermal, and are selling unused kilowatt-hours back to the grid. This is attractive to homeowners and it helps decentralize our aging power grid, which experts agree is vulnerable to cyber-attack. Decentralizing even a small portion of the grid could have significant cost-savings and environmental benefits over construction of new power plants. And the ongoing improvements in solar cell efficiency make this more attractive every day, especially given our desire for more digital devices that require recharging. But expect resistance (again, pun intended) from power companies to a future decentralized grid.
Improvements in rainwater harvesting and small sanitary sewer “batch plants” can have similar positive impacts on drainage and sewer systems. At the same time, new investments in our legacy infrastructure will still be required in order to provide reliable water, sanitary sewer and storm drainage services.
At the end of the day, there is no singular vision of what cities will look like in the future. Take a look around—cities in 2017 are unique and different. Expect that same level of diversity and local vernacular, combined with an overlay of new technology and opportunity.