Insights · September 14th, 2012

This is Part 1 of Chapter 4 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 and on 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?

by Dennis Walsh and Glen Hiemstra


Cities are at a crossroads. It’s time to step into the future. For some, the challenge is great; for others, insurmountable. The question now is, “Where do they go from here”?

Cities are in competition. To be successful, cities have to be competitive. They have to compete for people and for jobs. And to be competitive they have to be great: That is the theory anyway. Greatness – you guessed it – means making choices. To reach up for the new, you must let go of the old. Like an Olympic athlete, it takes a world of sacrifice and a willingness to change; to fix what doesn’t work. And these days that is a problem.

Sometimes it seems like cities are much more interested in survival than coming out on top. Success means adapting and constantly changing. Failure to adapt leads to disappointment and missed opportunities and that is not sustainable. If you are going to succeed, you have to enter the race. Survivalist cities avoid collapse, entering the race through innovation; innovation that has to happen faster and faster all the time, hoping to transition into the next wave of growth.

Seattle, Washington did that some time ago, committing to Kyoto goals and persuading 590 other U.S. cities to do the same under the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement. Soon after that, San Francisco became a leader in green building. Austin became a world leader in solar equipment production and made great strides in preserving open space. And Chicago invested hundreds of millions of dollars to revitalize its parks and neighborhoods, building some of America’s most eco-friendly downtown buildings and becoming a leader in green roofs. But New York City – with densely packed housing, reliance on mass transit and walking, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s green policies – may have made themselves the greenest of all. When it comes to economic growth and the creation of jobs, the denser the city the better.

What does a great city look like? Like it or not, the trends tell us the future belongs to town centers, main streets, and mixed-use development. And national chains are listening. Wal-Mart and most of the other big box stores are planning new urban stores in cities all over America, while as many as 400 former Wal-Mart stores and other big boxes sit vacant on commercial strips across the country.

In great cities, Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) is a growing trend. Designed as a neighborhood community and organized around a pedestrian spine that extends out toward a grid of walkable tree-lined streets and parks, these developments promote a walkable, pedestrian-friendly community. Downtown-centric rail transit networks increase mobility and easier access to jobs. The Urban Land Institute predicted in its 2011 emerging trends report that any new development in the United States will focus on infill. The new norm is small infill projects with access to public transportation and retail stores. And for that reason, most analysts agree that cities and urban neighborhoods are the new land of opportunity for retail.

Such ideas are a reflection of the New Urbanism, which was born in Miami decades ago, at the hands of the city-planning duo Ms. Plater-Zyberk and her husband Andres Duany. Architects Duany Plater-Zyberk’s (DPZ) designed the island community of Aqua in Miami Beach, and master planned some of the city’s older areas. Challengers argue that, “density is not the cure-all and that wealth can’t be created just by crowding people together”. They say if density was the cure all then the super-dense metropolitan areas in emerging Asian countries would be richer than American cities.

It isn’t an easy transition. Cities still struggle to get the “mix” right. But they have an incentive. In America, at least, multi-phased redevelopment projects can make cities more resource efficient. Mixed-use development ties into efforts to revitalize America’s downtowns. Changes to city centers are being made one block at a time and they are becoming profitable places for businesses to locate.


[Glen Hiemstra is the Founder of, and curator of Dennis Walsh is a sustainability futurist from Canada best known for his work as the first publisher of green@work. Contact us through]

Millennial City
Nikolas Badminton – Chief Futurist

Nikolas Badminton

Nikolas is the Chief Futurist of the Futurist Think Tank. He is world-renowned futurist speaker, a Fellow of The RSA, and has worked with over 300 of the world’s most impactful companies to establish strategic foresight capabilities, identify trends shaping our world, help anticipate unforeseen risks, and design equitable futures for all. In his new book – ‘Facing Our Futures’ – he challenges short-term thinking and provides executives and organizations with the foundations for futures design and the tools to ignite curiosity, create a framework for futures exploration, and shift their mindset from what is to WHAT IF…

Contact Nikolas