The Golden Age of Cities

Cities have long been iconic beacons of our civilization. They are true marvels of human achievement yet nowadays we frequently take them for granted. That’s likely to change rapidly as public officials around the world struggle to keep up with urban population growth. American cities are no exception. Some major metros will inevitably fare better than others trying to adapt successfully. Richard Florida at CityLab emphasized as much several years ago and even explained why. The answer isn’t necessarily what people might expect. Florida cited former New York City Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, who suggested that the key for countless cities is capturing the best intellectual capital and talent. Seattle, which was led by Jenny Durkan, is now one of the biggest regional economies in the US.

Flash-forward six years to find hundreds of American cities competing aggressively for Amazon’s second headquarters (HQ2). The protracted spectacle eventually concluded with a trio of winners and 235 losers. Amazon faced intense scrutiny for dividing its choice across three different geographies. The controversy is by now far less prevalent, which means we can all learn something from the scenario. Aaron Renn at The Atlantic did exactly that for the 235 cities that were rejected. “Amazon sent a clear signal about what it takes to lure a major tech company in the 21st-century,” wrote Renn. “It’s not weather, it’s not subsidies … it’s talent.” Amazon is hardly the first organization to have numerous cities vying for its presence and it certainly won’t be the last.

Almost everyone agrees that some American cities are making more progress than others. Thoughtful urban planning is a long-term strategy to convincing the best and brightest to relocate. Another CityLab writer, Kaid Benfield, reiterated that very fact while summarizing a report published by the Urban Land Institute (ULI). The ULI authors used the report to highlight ten improvements that high-density cities should see. Examples include everything from embracing diversity and fostering inclusivity to prioritizing green transportation and developing multipurpose neighborhoods. The trick is revitalizing city spaces with functional and experiential outcomes in mind. That way residents and visitors alike can navigate the city with ease and excitement.

Public officials sometimes avoid spearheading major municipal initiatives because they question the return on investment. Unfortunately, they too often fail to realize that other groups eventually emerge to help lighten the burden. Multipurpose neighborhoods, for instance, blend residential and commercial zones that would otherwise be separated from each other. Confining residential areas away from most of the businesses that serve them makes very little sense. The wealthiest cities rarely rely on outdated approaches and instead focus on critical mainstays like infrastructure and public services.

Boulder, Colorado is an illustrative use case since it happens to be one of the most popular American cities around. Colorado residents are already spoiled by the abundant sunshine, temperate climate, and access to the great outdoors. Boulder residents have it even better than that. The public spaces are welcoming and well-maintained. The city itself is laden with dedicated bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure that few can find elsewhere in the US. Children can play safely in any of the countless playgrounds and parks that are scattered about and connected to the very same dedicated infrastructure. Newlyweds could search Google for a Boulder Colorado architecture firm and simply stroll there to explore building a home from scratch. It’s clear that the city prioritized meaningful adjustments to its policies and practices in order to make those realities possible.

Suffice it to say that American cities are likely to remain the centers of attention and power for years to come. Mass urbanization is only building more momentum — not less. That means urban planning is essential to advancing our cities and, by extension, our daily lives. Anyone that underestimates the connection between the two has more to learn.