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The IFHP Travel Squad has asked Patrick Phillips, CEO of the Urban Land Institute three questions about the future of cities

The new realities of the 21st century are mandating a new approach to urban development - one that emphasizes the fact that cities are about what’s best for people, not buildings and not cars.

IFHP Travel Squad: In order to face the massive challenges that cities are faced with today, do we need a whole new way of urban planning and urban leadership?

Around the globe, cities are grappling with innumerable challenges resulting from rapid urbanization, population and demographic shifts, new economic drivers and increasing environmental concerns. The new realities of the 21st century are mandating a new approach to  urban development - one that emphasizes the fact that cities are about what’s best for people, not buildings and not cars. This fundamental shift in planning and design will play a key role in shaping emerging markets and revitalizing developed markets; and its success depends on strong leadership, from both the public and private sector.   

While we are seeing this “people-first” focus gaining momentum, it represents a dramatic change in city building that for decades has been oriented toward auto-dependent design. But, building cities for people means more than just making them pedestrian-friendly. It means taking a more holistic approach to city building, one that considers all phases in tandem.  It means using integrated thinking, so that transportation and mobility decisions are linked with housing, open space, and economic development planning. In the 1930s, Urban Land Institute Founder J.C. Nichols wrote, “An intelligent city plan thinks impartially for all parts of the city at the same time, and does not forget the greater needs of tomorrow in the press of today. It is simply good, practical sense.”  It was good advice then, and it still holds true today. The individual parts of cities’ underpinnings – open space, energy and  water resources, and transportation – each contribute to economic, social and environmental well-being as a whole. No single component should take precedence over another.

IFHP Travel Squad: What are the potentials - and/or risks - with IT-companies increasingly influencing the urban planning agenda?  

Advances in communications technology are, perhaps more than any other phenomenon, playing a key role in urban planning, design and development. We are seeing smart technology influence every sector of the industry, from wireless service being the norm in housing to shopping center apps that locate sales tailored to buyers’ preferences. Hyper-connectivity has caused a permanent shift in what is built, where it’s built and how it’s built. Savvy real estate professionals are using technology as a tool to give them a competitive edge, both in their business operations and in the products they provide.   

On a broad scale, smarter cities are emerging because the world is now instrumented – every device has a chip – and everything is connected. The resulting massive datasets can be analyzed to produce better decisions about long-term planning that incorporates more efficient and more effective delivery of public services. We can and should embrace technology, and use it to improve the urban planning process. What we must avoid is using technology to reinforce or repeat bad planning decisions of the past.

IFHP Travel Squad: What keeps you up at night? And what is the most important recommendation that you would give city leaders in order to create more sustainable and livable cities?

What keeps me up at night is the prospect of rapidly developing cities repeating the mistakes of mature, developed cities, particularly when it comes to planning for mobility and transportation. Decisions on these issues have long-lasting impacts on quality of life. Too often, the phasing of urbanization has started with road building being the first priority, as people gain wealth and desire more mobility. Other phases, such open space preservation, have tended to occur much later, after the road placement has defined – and limited – the type of development and land preservation that is possible. As a result, decisions on what and where to develop, and what and where to save land, have been guided not by a plentiful supply of land, but by how to use the land that is left. 

This has certainly been the case in the United States, where, following World War II, the growth patterns of major cities tracked outward, along major thoroughfares and interstates. Housing, shopping and employment in suburban neighborhoods were segregated from each other, with each land use accessible primarily by cars. Much development in these outlying areas tended to be piece-meal, haphazard and poorly connected. Urban downtowns suffered from this model, as the loss of residents drained them of energy and activity.

Near the turn of the century, we started learning from our mistakes in the U.S. In the mid-1990s, we started rebuilding urban cores as places to work and live, not just work and leave. A downtown migration of young, childless professionals and older, affluent executives and retirees created a development boom, in many cases breathing new life into old space and allowing cities to reinvent their economies.

Yet, while this downtown growth changed how we view our cities, it’s but one aspect of the evolution in urban growth that is going to intensify in the years ahead. To be sure, we discovered a market in central urban areas for compact, mixed-use design, smaller housing space, and transit-oriented development. But perhaps the bigger lesson – one we are still learning how to apply -- is that demand exists for at least some aspects of this development in the outlying suburbs.

The bottom line is this: urban areas do not have to sprawl to grow. This is a truth that hopefully will resonate with the land use decision-makers in emerging cities that are still growing and still being developed.

To be successful going forward, cities must embrace growth strategies that foster 1) building more densely to conserve energy, water and land; 2) better coordination of land use planning and transportation planning, so that more development is oriented toward transit options; and, 3) development that is flexible and adaptable to meet changing needs and expectations of residents and workers for decades to come. The cities that get this right will be the winners for the 21st century.