The Changing American City: Part 1

Spurred by population growth, the United States is about to begin an unprecedented era of city-building. Over the next 50 years the U.S. will have to build 70 million new houses, according to Enrique Penalosa, a thought leader in smart urban planning and transportation systems who recently authored an article on the future of the American city in Urban Land magazine – but where, how? Will we continue to be influenced by the trends of the 20th century or create a new type of American city?

During the 20th century, the suburb became the predominant mode of living as people left cities en masse, particularly after World War II. This trend reached its tipping point in the 1990s with the creation of ‘drive til you qualify’ exurbs built on the premise of cheap land and transportation costs. Recently, the pendulum has begun to swing back in the opposite direction; there is a generational shift that has seen young people as well as empty nesters moving closer to urban centers.

I think what is really important about this trend is not that it simply reflects a change in where we live, but also a change in values. Much as the suburbs of the latter half of the 20th century were seen by many as a place to live out the ‘American Dream’ of home ownership and a safe place to raise a family, cities are no longer viewed as simply ‘places’, but as a means to a way of life. “The kind of urban structures created over the next few decades will have profound consequences in terms of quality of life, environmental sustainability, economic well-being, and even happiness,” Penalosa writes. From ancient Greece to the Renaissance period in Florence, and Detroit of the late 19th century (to name just a few examples) cities have always been incubators for growth, and studies have shown that even in an age where technology makes telecommuting and working from practically anywhere possible, people prefer to live and work around other people in, well, interesting places.

What this means is that there is a very good chance that the built environment of the United States will look vastly different in 50 years. Architects have long had a tradition of involvement in shaping cities, from Hippodamus’ plan for Miletus, to Daniel Burnham’s Chicago and Le Corbusier’s Plan Voisin. Building the next generation of American cities is an extremely exciting and unique opportunity for this generation of architects, and in Part 2 of this series I will take a look at some of the ways architects can take advantage of this opportunity.