Like many westerners, I left a rust belt eastern city decades ago, in the belief that the region, and certainly those old east coast cities were goners. So it was with surprise and pleasure that I recently read in Landmarks, the journal of The Landmark Society of Western New York, that residents with choices are moving back into the old downtown, and even more surprising, that nationally, corporate headquarters are also moving back to urban centers from the suburbs at an accelerating rate.
We’ve long known that “urban areas” have been rapidly growing at the expense of rural areas, since at least the end of World War II. This growth has mainly been in the suburbs, as population and capital fled the central cities, aided by federal mortgage policies and freeway construction. However, since the end of the great recession in 2010, more or less, a newer nationwide trend is accelerating as young professionals choose density and diversity over suburban uniformity, and retiring Baby Boomers move back to the cultural activities, health care, and transit of cities after the kids are gone. Long a pattern in California and other western areas, it appears the rest of the country is catching up.
As planners and urban designers we have been predicting this change our entire professional lives. For a long time it just wasn’t happening. When I was in college, we were sure people would stop driving and return to urban ways as soon as gasoline hit a dollar a gallon. Ha. In 1962, the promise of “the tower in the park” was first actualized in Reston, but rather than a harbinger of the future, it was not to be repeated.
Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, we have seen it coming for years, as the young knowledge workers reverse commute in employer provided shuttles, returning to the dense neighborhoods South of Market and Noe Valley at day’s end. But even I was surprised to hear the owner of numerous San Francisco apartment houses tell me they are preparing to go to the Planning Commission to repurpose their parking garages as storage. The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency is studying what to do with their parking lots and garages when they are no longer needed. This from a typical government agency that is better known for struggling with today’s problems than trying to capture tomorrow’s opportunities. And just in case I wasn’t sure, the operator of a group of downtown parking lots and garages recently told me that, as he was standing in a half-empty lot, he checked his phone and saw there were 42 Ubers circling the neighborhood.
Public agencies across the country are actually talking about what they will do with all the extra street space as more and more people eschew the single passenger automobile in favor of smart phone-based car and bus services. Here in San Francisco, witness Chariot, a private bus company started to serve the Marina, one of the wealthier quadrants of the city that suffered from overcrowded bus routes to downtown…at between $3.80 and $5.00 for luxury travel compared with the $2.25 Muni bus that never came. Today companies and neighbors across the city have organized themselves and Chariot has responded with a score of additional routes.
When SPUR started City CarShare in 2001 with twelve green Beetles, one of Detroit’s major auto manufactures tried to sue to put us out of business. Fast forward to 2016, when Uber’s market capitalization exceeds GM’s, and GM invested $500 million in Lyft.
Self-driving vehicles, closer than many of us thought just a few years ago, will bring even more momentous changes as more people can travel closer and faster with greater safety, all texting with impunity.
Now suburbs are certainly not going away. What is happening is that they are densifying, often over the protests of those who moved there to escape density. However, the next generation may beg to differ.
In another technology-driven change, shopping is going online. Condos and apartment houses are building additional storerooms to hold the goods brought in multiple daily UPS deliveries. I frequently see a “mobile sorting room” parked in my residential neighborhood picking up and sorting the day’s packages. Storefronts are going vacant all over the city, and even Macy’s is selling one of its flagship Union Square stores for uses yet to be determined.
And of course, multiple social trends are driving change, including co-working spaces, independent contracting, multiple careers, flexible work hours, flexible family styles, and so on.
Where all this is leading is not fully clear, but it is up to architects and planners and other land use experts to imagine the next iteration of the city. Lets try:
- A return to the once common rich mix of urban uses, in contrast to cities defined by rigid zoning categories that emphasize differences rather than compatibilities;
- Flexible working and living spaces as couple formation, work life and home life morph in and out of one another;
- Smaller living spaces as socialization moves from the private living room to more public social spaces;
- Suburbs becoming more like cities with housing and jobs and services intermixed;
- Cities becoming more like suburbs with open space reclaiming former auto spaces, and the roar of traffic diminished;
- A return to an earlier era as roads are narrowed, sidewalks widened, and quality transit returns as a mode of choice; and
- Rust belt cities revive, capitalizing on the historic investments in buildings and infrastructure that already exist there, and taking pressure off the newer western cities that struggle to provide living and working spaces and the public infrastructure to support them.
I, for one, can’t wait.
 Landmarks, The Landmark Society of Western New York, Fall 2016: Volume LIV, Number III. www.landmarksociety.org
Photo by Bill Adams