Insights · September 5th, 2012
This is Part 1 of Chapter 3 of our book on the future of cities, being written with Dennis Walsh. Our plan is to publish a new book blog nearly every day for the next couple of months. We will publish them both here on futurist.com and on dothefuture.com. Later we will compile the blogs into an e-book.
We are debating the eventual title. We started with two choices: “Downtown” and “Shine…The Rebirth of American Cities.” Which do you like? We hope you will find the subject of interest and follow this book in serial form. A reader has suggested, “City Transformation?” So far, “Downtown” with a subtitle is leading. What do you think?
CHAPTER THREE – Part 1
by Dennis Walsh and Glen Hiemstra
Hard times are not for all time. We missed the signs and got caught in a bad place. But life is too short to waste in the wrong place. The question is, “What are going to do about it?”
Cities are at a crossroads. You know that. We all know that. The question is, do we want to change course?
Yours may be the first generation in decades to face worse economic prospects than your parents and even grandparents. You deserve better. And you know what, we believe that you will make things better by laying the foundation of a new American prosperity and by driving a vibrant green energy economy. You and others like you will reinvent and rebuild our nation’s infrastructure. You will do that by galvanizing the immense potential of the private sector through innovation and creativity. That’s what it is going to take. The need for local innovation is greater than ever before.
The problem is many American cities are in trouble, their economies failing. There are social issues that have not been dealt with. At the same time there are cities that are rebounding, improving. A new attitude, a new awareness is growing, and all over the country.
Skeptical? Consider this: the decline of weakly managed large cities is neither inevitable nor irreversible. But for our cities and towns to function successfully, we must make them great. We must make them sustainable. Sustainability cannot happen at the global scale – that is far too vast to be knowable or controllable. It will take cities capable of addressing the social, economic and political imbalances in the world. At this scale such problems can be resolved. It is time for optimism. We are, after all, more optimistic than realistic by nature. Without optimism, our ancestors wouldn’t have accomplished much.
We are entering a new era, the era of cities. It is difficult to imagine anything more intriguing. Cities are disorganized, yet promising; unruly, yet filled with creative potential. Cities are inspirational, magical places. Centers of artistic and intellectual creativity, seats of political power, focal points of invention and discovery, cities are the engines of economic development. Across the globe, metros with populations over one million account for more than half of the world’s economic output and nine of every ten innovations, while housing roughly one out of every five people.
Did we say cities are shrinking? Every sixth city in the world is contracting. Yet other cities grow. According to the McKinsey Global Institute, there is no limit to how big or fast a city can grow and growth can’t continue without sparking an environmental crisis. Growing cities have to face the fact that cities consume two-thirds of our total energy and produce over 70% of global energy-related CO2 emissions. Some people say that urban life is out of balance. Uncontrolled urban development can’t continue.
Thankfully, there is a deeper side to American culture. Under layers of advertising and hyper-consumerism, there’s a move to simplify life, to free up space, budget and time. Some of us are looking for a new, less stressful way of life. Some have decided that owning less “big stuffâ€ like houses and cars makes sense. There are signs that older American cities have been slowing down. And they’re reinventing themselves.
The idea goes against the stream but it appears that if cities can grow in a smart way, they can shrink smartly. A case in point: If you want to see what the future of America might look like, drive through Detroit. Confused?
It seems governments are genetically programmed to grow when they can, and to ossify when they cannot. Detroit is an extreme example, but America is full of school districts, townships, counties and cities that made sense once but no more. You might say Detroit, like many other cities, missed the signs and got caught in a bad place. But as we said life is too short to waste in the wrong place. And so, cities are at a crossroads with little choice but to change course.
Like it or not some cities are growing too fast and some are slowing down. Many are shrinking. Blame it on lack of planning if you like. That’s where problems begin. But in the end, slower population growth creates problems of its own.
[Glen Hiemstra is the Founder of Futurist.com, and curator of Dothefuture.com. Dennis Walsh is a sustainability futurist from Canada best known for his work as the first publisher of green@work. Contact us through futurist.com]