The Decade Ahead: Design & Cities in 2020 and Beyond

Design in the 2020s - Cities

Cities have long been centers of cultural, political and economic dynamism, advancing growth and opportunity while outlining larger systems of banking, healthcare, housing, commerce and culture. Over the last decade the social, political and economic power of cities has become more broadly recognized and valued. At the same time, the relevance of place also increased in importance, even amidst disruptive changes in digital media and communications. As we look to 2020 and beyond, urban density in many parts of the world is predicted to continue escalating at unprecedented rates. City leaders, urban planners and designers will be challenged to address a broad range of environmental, systemic, infrastructure and socio-economic issues.

Population Growth & Environmental Impact

Global population estimates are forecasted to reach 8.1 billion by 2025. As density increases, many communities will struggle to mitigate harmful environmental consequences that stem from unsustainable and inequitable growth models. Urban areas will see deteriorating air and water quality issues, diminishing food and water supplies, soaring energy consumption, increased pollution, chronic health crises, and more. Within the architecture and engineering industry, we expect to see a shift in focus from improving building-scale performance to rethinking systems and networks, safeguarding against infrastructure breakdowns that often cause increased inequities for our most vulnerable citizens. “Cities, institutions and communities will turn their attention away from building-scale sustainability to focus on adaptation and implementation of more equitable support structures within communities. We’ll be designing for massive adaptation strategies at all scales,” claims urban systems strategist Steven Baumgartner.

We believe that to manage these and other emerging difficulties, it will become more common for city planners, urban designers, systems engineers and policy strategists to develop robust solutions together. Moreover, it will be increasingly critical for stakeholders across industries to collaborate to drive the scale of change needed. We can’t rely on individual action. “We will create large-scale actions and collaborations with strategic partners to effect the system-level solutions required to address the range of critical issues that our cities will face in the next decade,” says engineer Stet Sanborn.

Transformation and Adaptive Reutilization of Existing Space

By 2050 two-thirds of the world’s population will live in urban areas. At the same time, general awareness that historic models of production and consumption are neither ecologically nor economically sustainable is growing. As populations continue to increase, cities will be compelled to become more creative with their resources.

“In the 2020s, new approaches to policy, development and revitalization must be formed to broaden inclusivity and opportunity while creating a richer context of urban districts, neighborhoods and infrastructure,” says co-director of urban design Dan Kinkead. Built spaces designed for a single purpose will increasingly be adapted or reused to accommodate a more robust mix of purposes with thoughtful design and redevelopment strategies. “Abandoned factories, defunct rail corridors, alleyways, outmoded industrial and waterfront infrastructure, and underutilized office parks and shopping malls will transform into sustainable urban systems that address a variety of evolving community needs,” predicts landscape architect Ujijji Davis.

“And by adapting and reutilizing these spaces and facilities we are maintaining the embedded carbon in their structures. This is imperative,” concludes Kinkead.

Mobility & Access

Mobility is essential to the success and livability of our cities, facilitating access to the jobs, educational opportunities, healthcare, goods and services that are foundational to thriving urban centers. For the better part of a century, the way we planned and experienced cities was largely dictated by the automobile. The unintended impacts on communities include unsustainable sprawl, congested roadways, unsafe and unattractive streets, concentrated poverty and inequity.

Urban design co-director Michael Johnson believes, “As new technologies and innovative business models pave the way for more resilient transportation solutions, alternative multimodal transit systems will become more popular.” Additionally, autonomous and connected vehicles will force planners and designers to think about new ways of street right-of-way and use, leading to more flexible and equitable forms of mobility. 

“As planners, designers and citizens, we must creatively rethink, adapt and improve cities to prioritize human contact and public health, advance sustainability and resiliency, and minimize the negative impacts of new forms of vehicular travel,” adds Johnson. Designers will adapt to considering more than the physical changes to these environments, but also how to change firmly established living, working and commuting patterns, as well as individual preferences. 

From riverwalks and trails, to greenways, protected bike lanes and complete streets, community leaders will seek to accelerate the adoption of safer, cleaner and more inclusive transportation systems that improve public health, increase access to mobility and enhance the quality of life in their cities. “We can improve public health, strengthen local businesses, improve safety, reduce negative environmental impact and create stronger more vibrant neighborhoods with well-designed mobility-integrated projects,” states mobility expert Janet Attarian

Aging Infrastructure & Urban Systems

Understanding the connections between resilience, decarbonization and infrastructure development will become increasingly critical to safeguarding the environment, the economy and the communities we serve. Urban systems strategist Katrina Kelly-Pitou warns of dangers that could arise if cities delay implementing large-scale improvements to systems at local, regional and national levels, “If the climate crisis continues to escalate without intervention, communities and institutions will experience massive breakdowns in services, infrastructure and social norms.”

As we move into the next decade, the design industry will educate municipal and institutional leaders on the impacts that changing technologies, human behavior, fiscal constraints and regulatory structures bring to bear on the built environment. The design community must take a more active role in establishing strategic energy initiatives that drive the development of more resilient, sustainable communities.

“While compact urban cores represent the most sustainable form of development, they often fall short of goals to not only do less environmental harm but to also mitigate climate change, withstand and recover from chronic stresses and acute shocks, and generally improve quality of life for all residents,” says architect and urban designer Georgia Sarkin. Along with technological advances, cities must place greater emphasis on systematic, sustainable and resilient performance of their public realm and mobility networks in the next decade to ensure success for generations to come. Micro-ride, renewable energy sources and electric vehicle technology will afford opportunities to create more resiliency while reducing our environmental footprint.

Bringing It All Together

Decisions made in the 2020s will impact communities for decades to come. The most successful cities will integrate a comprehensive range of solutions that ensure environmental, systemic, structural and socio-economic viability for future generations. Data-driven plans will become increasingly important, helping to align resources and secure investments required to enact meaningful change. “Inclusionary and innovative engagement will be a hallmark of successful design and a key factor in determining a city’s success,” says Alicia Adams, landscape architect. It will take progressive leadership combined with compassionate and data driven design to create the change required for cities to continue to grow and thrive.