The Coming Bold Transformation of the American City
In 40 years, 2.7 billion more people will live in world cities than do now, according to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. Urban growth in China, India, and most of the developing world will be massive. But what is less known is that population growth will also be enormous in the United States.
The U.S. population will grow 36 percent to 438 million in 2050 from 322 million today. At today’s average of 2.58 persons per household, such growth would require 44.9 million new homes. However American households are getting smaller. If one were to estimate 2.2 persons per household—the household size in Germany today and the likely U.S. size by 2050—the United States would need 74.3 million new homes, not including secondary vacation homes. This means that over the next 40 years, the United States will build more homes than all those existing today in the United Kingdom, France, and Canada combined. Urban planner and theorist Peter Calthorpe predicts that California alone will add 20 million people and 7 million households by 2050.
To meet this demand, completely new urban environments will have to be created in the United States. Where and how will the new American homes be built? What urban structures are to be created?
Battery Park City in Manhattan exemplifies how the quality of urban life can be enhanced by replacing waterfront roadways with parks or pedestrian infrastructure. (Left); A "highway" for pedestrians, bicycles, and transit on Jiménez Avenue in Bogotá, Colombia. (Right) Photo courtesy of Enrique Peñalosa.
It is unlikely that city building on the scale to be seen through 2050 will happen ever again. Cities are 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 and the civilization for hundreds of years to come. If we consider the influence American cities will exert on the rest of the world, the way they are built will determine, as well, much of the world’s sustainability and well-being.
Until today, the United States’ main legacy for the urban world has been low-density suburbs, which, most agree, have many shortcomings in terms of the environment and quality of life. The inadequacies of the suburbs are well known. They are high-energy-use environments: homes are large and thus consume much energy for cooling and heating; occupants’ mobility is dependent on the automobile; distances to reach jobs, shops, and recreation areas are long; and low-cost and high-frequency public transport is not viable in such a low-density environment. Suburbs severely restrict the mobility of vulnerable citizens—youngsters, the poor, and the very old—who usually lack access to a car. Because most destinations are unreachable on foot, suburban public spaces tend to be devoid of people—making them boring in their almost eerie silence interrupted only by the sound of cars that sporadically zoom by or lawnmowers with their maddening engines. Suburbs are not propitious for diversity: Russian literature courses or Afghan restaurants require high concentrations of people nearby from which to draw the small percentage who are interested.
Despite the ills of the suburbs, most Americans do not want to live in a Manhattan-like environment either. So, what should the third-millennium American city be like?