Rethinking Urban Design to Address the Real Needs of Real People
The urban core of the future will likely be more densely populated, diverse and vibrant, thanks to a major generational shift currently underway.
The credit goes to millennials, now the largest generation in the U.S. labor force. As baby boomers retire, millennials are filling the gaps and will account for half of U.S. workers within the next two years. By 2030, they and post-millennial Generation Z will make up nearly 75 percent of the workforce.
Cities, businesses and the urban real estate community must adopt new economically sustainable urban planning and development strategies to compete for their share of this, the most racially and ethnically diverse generation in America’s history.
Career-focused and experience-driven, millennials are drawn to the urban environment due to the flexibility it offers every aspect of their lives. Urban planning strategies are being adapted to meet the demand for the transportation, cultural and educational opportunities they seek.
Urban planning is also becoming an increasingly more complex task that requires a development team to take a variety of physical, social and environmental considerations into account. As we planners look around the current urban core, for example, we must consider — and reconsider — the way land is used, while also factoring in climate and terrain.
Planners must also analyze the availability of public transportation, civic amenities and other resources millennials and Generation Z desire. Demographic information — including employment rates, economic trends, and the number and type of businesses in a given area — is also important.
For an urban plan to reflect reality — one key to its success — this information should come from a variety of diverse sources, such as:
- Community engagement: Talking to people who currently live and work in a community is a good place to start. Residents and commuters understand a city’s nuances, strengths, shortcomings and needs better than anyone. As stakeholders, they will need to buy-in on plans — another critical component for its success.
- Quantitative and empirical data: Because community input can be anecdotal, it should be backed by data where possible. The number of analytical tools available for such study is growing rapidly.
- Collaborators: Collaboration between disparate groups — i.e., public and private entities, businesses and nonprofit organizations — frequently results in unexpected partnerships and innovative results. Such collaborations should be encouraged and facilitated.
While each city’s needs will be different, a growing body of evidence points to urban design features that particularly resonate with today’s millennial workforce and should likely be integrated into city planning strategies. You’re beginning to see them in today’s most vibrant and successful urban environments: mixed-use neighborhoods, public transit-oriented development and infrastructure that supports nonmotorized forms of transit such as walking and biking. Smaller, walkable urban blocks and public green space are also becoming more common features that support a city’s environmental and other sustainability goals.
Features like these are a collective step in the right direction — and away from failed policies that focused on building types, streets or cars. That’s because these features are economically sustainable, and they are geared toward the real needs of real people. Or, as Jane Jacobs wrote in “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”: “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”