What future cities could look like: A 21st century perspective

Many large cities today are bloated. Many smaller ones are too.

Before forging ahead farther, it is important at this juncture to be clear on what delineates cities.

One way cities are categorized is according to population size. Large cities: metros with population densities of from 500 thousand-plus to 10 million. Medium cities: metros with population densities of between 100 thousand-plus to 500 thousand. Small cities: metros with population densities of 100 thousand and less. And, then there are the megacities: metros with population densities of greater than 10 mil.

Hollywood, California sprawl 1922

The city of the future from a 21st century perspective is one where the principle of moderation rules all, unlike in numerous cities today where excessiveness is the order of the day. The trick here is to recognize limits so as to keep all aspects of life and living manageable. The flip side, of course, is unpreparedness, bloatedness and unwieldiness. Though sad as it is, fact is, many a city have been or are now on a destructive path. It all gets back to this idea of moderation versus excessiveness – a swim versus sink relationship.

These are some telltale characteristics of poorly managed cities:

  • A faltering or failed economy
  • Air pollution
  • Aging and inefficient infrastructure
  • High poverty rates
  • Poor citizen health
  • Traffic snarling and/or gridlock
  • Unchecked and/or inefficient growth

Adding to this, the Center for Clean Air Policy, from its CCAP Transportation Emissions Guidebook, Part One: Land Use, Transit & Travel Demand Management, emphasizes:

“Patterns of urban growth characteristic of post WWII North American development have created cities and regions that are centered upon and are dependent on the car to meet transportation needs. Located largely at the urban fringe, this pattern of suburban, or greenfield, development is typically dominated by housing-only enclaves consisting of single family homes with two-car garages and a hierarchical road system (with one way in and out). Here, land use functions are isolated (residential, commercial, employment), origins and destinations are farther apart, infrastructure design is oriented toward the automobile, and low population densities are not conducive to public transportation. With the automobile as the only realistic transportation mode for suburbanites in these sprawling communities, commuters are faced with increased driving distances and increased congestion. All told, this pattern of growth has resulted in deteriorating urban air quality and human health, increased emissions of greenhouse gases, limited transportation and housing choice, inefficient use of infrastructure, and communities that are less able to meet the needs of their residents”1

Now, a way in which a city grows can make all the difference in the world.

The plan

So, conventional wisdom suggests that by 2050, when, according to projections, U.S. population will balloon to 400 million people, up from 300 million in late 2006, from between 60 and 80 percent of Americans will be calling cities home. If this pans out, it will go only one of two ways: It’ll be more of the same or the moderation principle will rule the day.

Smart Growth, Emeryville, Calif., style

What we are talking about here is employing responsible building practices and such, starting right now, will doubtless, help existing bloated, unwieldy cities get back on sound footing again and guide growth and development in those up-and-coming , get them at least off on the right foot.

From the CCAP definition outlined above, this is the pattern to avoid, obviously. So, what should cities be striving for instead? To sum up in one word: walkability. The more walkable a city is, the less the negative impacts a city will possess. Good walkability as a metro characteristic, effective it will be at addressing the telltale characteristics of poorly managed cities mentioned previously. The question is how, though.

Good that you asked. In Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time, author and city planner Jeff Speck in his book’s aptly named first part “Why Walkability?” in a nutshell explains that it comes down to three constructs: financial well-being, safety and the ability to sustain over the long haul.2

If cities are built upon the foundation of these guiding tenets and remain true to the cause, then there should be none of the excessiveness, unwieldiness in cities alluded to above. Cities epitomizing success: Portland, Oregon; Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

With walkability – which can include transit as one component, denser, mixed-use development being another each built around and dependent upon the pedestrian as catalyst and for success, respectively – the aspect of a lower amount of the family or household income dollar will go to transportation or be a transportation-related expense and therefore more can be used on and is available for other purposes.

If anyone has ever visited Vancouver, B.C. or if one hails from there, it is known well for it being one of the most sustainable cities on the planet. Quite interesting is that things there were not always this way. To say that high-rise development there really took off, is understating conditions more than just a bit. And a huge part of that building-development scheme, was the assurance of building-supportive (adjunct) park-space as well as public-transit access.3 To make this all come about and make it all possible, was the sacrifice of highway building.4 High-rises, not highways: an interesting if not smart building philosophy to say the least.

The Vancouver building paradigm is so not like even that of the average American city, even in this, the 21st century’s second decade. Entrenched building ways continue in many jurisdictions. But, such may be easing and as each metro area regroups and adopts building, development, growth strategies that adhere to smart and smarter growth practices, principles and programs, the more likely a Vancouver, B.C. or a Portland, Oregon style of city could crop up and become the city going up next door.

Walkability – now that’s where it’s at!


  1. Dierkers, Greg, Erin Silsbe, Shayna Stott, Steve Winkelman and Mac Wubben, CCAP Transportation Emissions Guidebook, Part One: Land Use, Transit & Travel Demand Management, Center for Clean Air Policy, Washington, D.C., p. 7
  2. Speck, Jeff, Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time, “Part 1: Why Walkability?,” 2012, p. 16
  3. Ibid, “Part 1: Why Walkability?, The Wrong Color Green,” 2012, pp. 62, 63
  4. Ibid, p. 62

Top image above: Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection

Published by Alan Kandel

2 thoughts on “What future cities could look like: A 21st century perspective”

  1. This is so poorly written that I am too embarrassed to forward it to anyone. Writer, please take it to an English writing teacher or course and ask them for an evaluation.
    Try Fresno State, CSU Bakersfield, or CSU Stanislaus.
    I’m not being a troll, or trying to hurt you, but this is really C work from a 9th grader.

  2. With so much walking in polluted air in our future cities, outside of a personal vehicle, or public transport, I believe each one of us will be exposed to greater air pollution. At least in a vehicle the air is circulated through a filter system in the AC. On the streets people will need their own portable air filters. Air pollution face masks will be the solution to this problem. More reading here about pollution masks: http://www.pollutionairmask.com/blog/

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