Every city has its own unique qualities, culture, and people, but major metros around the world all have something in common today: construction. (Insert groan here.) Classic city skylines are littered with cranes and urban sidewalks are bordered by chain-link fences. From Seattle to Sydney, new high-rises and luxury condos are springing up on every corner. So what is it all building towards?
Things (well, buildings) are looking up—and up and up—these days when it comes to city construction. Photo courtesy of iStock/jeffbergen.
The reality is that rising populations in cities—both as the global population grows and as more people gravitate towards urban living—will shape the future of housing. Will we be living in 50-story apartment buildings? Shipping containers? How will this affect affordable housing? What will become of the suburbs?
Of course, the answer isn’t simple, but we can get a sense of it by considering the policies, practices, and trends that are influencing the way we live in cities.
Commuting to and from the ‘burbs translates to more folks takin’ it to the (sprawling, crowded) streets. Photo courtesy of Thinkstock/Stockbyte.
There’s no doubt about it: cities are getting more crowded every year. Driving that trend in the developed world is a desire to live closer to jobs, entertainment, culture, and increasingly, the freedom of a car-less life.
While cities like San Francisco and Toronto may be attracting a younger crowd due to in-demand jobs from the tech boom, Baby Boomers are ditching the suburbs for major metros everywhere. And regardless of age, urban dwellers see eye-to-eye on their vision for the future. They want sustainability-minded policies, tech-friendly assets like public cellphone charging stations, and increased ability to bike or walk around their neighborhoods.
STUCK IN THE SUBURBS
Next-door neighbors are a given when it comes to planned-out suburbia. Photo courtesy of Thinkstock/Photodisc.
Ah, the suburbs. They’re an icon of American culture and the setting for many of our childhoods. While it’s nice to have a backyard and not fight for on-street parking, this residential layout doesn’t always benefit society. Sprawl increases social costs via more extensive public transportation (that commuter rail didn’t build itself), more daily car commuters on the highway, and poor use of land that could otherwise go to agriculture or other revenue-generating activity. And of course, more cars on the road lead to more accidents and more pollution.
These homogenous neighborhoods offer more than white picket fences. One major marker of the suburbs? Long commutes.
We’re all familiar with the slow-paced, oft-mind-numbing effects of workday traffic. Looking at big cities around the world, one recent report found that the average commute time in Shanghai is 51 minutes each way. (Whereas aggregate commutes in the infamously traffic-snarled Los Angeles average only 28 minutes—go figure.)
Furthermore, research shows that we can’t reduce highway congestion by adding more lanes. By a theory called induced demand, more lanes will actually invite more traffic, bringing the whole route back to its original crawl.
Recently, Obama signed a law to raise employer-provided tax benefits for mass-transit users to be equal to that of drivers. While employees at one point could be reimbursed for $250/month on parking costs, transit users were only eligible for $130/month. The leveling of those benefits sets an angle moving forward that public transportation is important to officials.
Increased density means cities have to build up—versus out—to keep up with population demand. Photo courtesy of Thinkstock/iStock.
Inevitably, more people means more housing, but if the suburbs aren’t a sustainable solution, where will it all go? We’re at a need for more space, which creates more densely packed city blocks and contributes to the gentrification of neighborhoods outside the urban core.
One solution: Build up, not out. In London, developers shot down a plan for a 254-meter tower after the local community complained it was too high. While some may see it as positive to engage with the locals, there might not be an alternative. As stated by Peter Murray, chairman of New London Architecture, in a recent Letter to the Editor of the UK’s Evening Standard, “London will have to be developed more densely as it faces the prospect of a growth in population of another 2.5 million people over the next quarter of a century, and accommodating these sorts of numbers will inevitably demand more tall buildings.” He argues that while it’s important to maintain an attractive skyline, cities can’t afford the space to build outward. Shorter, wider buildings can provide more of a nuisance for cities, even if they’re less invasive on the view from the top.
New York City is taking housing to new heights (1,396 feet, to be exact) with its record-breaking building, 432 Park Avenue. It stands as the tallest residential building in the world and second tallest building of any kind in NYC, looking up only to One World Trade Center. Competition for real estate will likely only get more intensive from here, indicating that the next 1,000-plus-foot tower is only a matter of time.
MEETING IN THE MIDDLE
Cities could revive “the missing middle” to offer single-family units with shared neighborhood amenities. Photo courtesy of Thinkstock/iStock
When it comes to affordability, downtown real estate doesn’t rank well. Families struggle to find enough space for their budget, but want the proximity to jobs and amenities for a high quality of life.
Some urban planners want to bring back the disappearing concept of "the missing middle"—complexes of small condos or individual units with shared outdoor space. It’s the happy medium between a single-family, detached home and a 10+ unit apartment. Think of them as a more practical model of tiny homes, which are an architect’s (and Pinterest user’s) dream, but are unrealistic for some lifestyles.
We could see a future shift away from 96-story, high-rise buildings, towards modest, shared-space communities.
The future’s unwritten—but strategic city-fied plans are definitely in the works. Photo courtesy of Thinkstock/iStock.
Of course, designers, universities, and policymakers across the board are pushing the limits of imagination to create future cities of all types.
From floating on water to reaching underground, there’s no telling where exactly your next home could be. And when self-driving cars come into the mix, they could revolutionize the way we make use of space. With less need for parking, driveways, and pavement, there could be more playgrounds, parks, or housing.
Someone call Joni Mitchell to re-record her famous tune, Big Yellow Taxi. It’s time to tear down that parking lot and build paradise.