Over the past year, an overarching theme at ULI events has been rethinking urban development for the 21st century to better meet the needs of cities grappling with myriad challenges resulting from rapid urbanization, population and demographic shifts, new economic drivers, and increasing environmental concerns. One of the most engaging and provocative discussions on this topic occurred at our Global Metropolitan Summit, cohosted this summer by ULI with the Citistates Group—a network of journalists, speakers, and civic leaders focused on building sustainable cities and metropolitan regions.

The event’s location, the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center in Bellagio, Italy, provided an excellent setting for a lively dialogue among what was perhaps the most diverse group of thought leaders ever convened by ULI: it included more than 30 of the world’s foremost experts in land use, finance, social equity, and governance representing some 15 nations. Participants included the former mayors of Bogotá, Colombia, and Karachi, Pakistan; academics from the United States, India, and Europe; representatives from the American Academy in Rome, the United Nations, the World Bank, and global corporations IBM and Cisco; the city editor of Karachi’s largest daily newspaper; and three former recipients of the ULI J.C. Nichols Prize for Visionaries in Urban Development. Half of those who attended came to Bellagio as nonmembers of ULI; all left as members.

The program typified the type of idea exchange frequently held at the Bellagio Center, which was established by the Rockefeller Foundation to promote innovation and identify impact-oriented solutions to global problems. Access to this world-renowned venue (made possible through the generosity of the Rockefeller Foundation) fostered just what we aimed for—the sharing of frank perspectives on the challenges of rapidly growing cities, all for the purpose of enriching ULI’s global program of work.

The discussions centered on the various components of cities that make them livable and prosperous—open space, energy, water, and transportation—and how each of these individual parts of cities’ underpinnings are both challenged and enabled by issues related to finance, technology, and governance. While opinions on addressing these issues were as diverse as the group itself, all of us agreed that in the 21st century, the cities that are globally competitive will be those that are built for people, not cars, whether they are still-developing emerging markets or mature markets being redeveloped.

Discussion leader Enrique Peñalosa, a former mayor of Bogotá widely recognized for bringing an advanced bus rapid transit system to that city, summed up the “cities for people” sentiment with this: “Traffic is like obesity. It gets worse as society gets richer. . . . A good city is not one where even the poor can use a car. It’s one where even the rich use public transportation.”

ULI J.C. Nichols Laureate Peter Calthorpe, also a facilitator, embraced the idea of carless urban neighborhoods becoming more the norm than the exception, with innermost avenues dedicated to use by pedestrians, bicyclists, and buses and separated from streets that are accessible by cars and trucks. It is a concept at odds with the urban planning prevalent for much of the past 60 years—and which helped reinforce the notion of cities as primarily places to work, reached by car and left by car. “Futurama [an exhibit at the 1939 New York World’s Fair] changed the way we thought about cities after World War II,” said Calthorpe, principal at Calthorpe Associates in Berkeley, California. “What’s the compelling new urban vision?”

To be sure, advances in technology are playing a key role in creating a 21st-century vision for cities, a point made clear by ULI trustee Gerard Mooney, vice president of global Smarter Cities at IBM. “Smarter cities are emerging because the world is now instrumented—every device has a chip—and everything is connected,” he said. “The resulting massive data sets can be analyzed to produce intelligence, and better decisions.”

We heard from Joan Clos, executive director of the United Nations Settlements Programme for UN-Habitat, who spoke on the phasing of urbanization, which he said often results in road building being the first priority as people gain wealth and desire more mobility. Other phases, such as open-space preservation, tend to occur much later, after the road placement has defined (and limited) the type of development and land preservation that is possible, he said. “The important thing is to delineate common space and buildable space,” Clos said. “The rest you will do later.”

Taking a more holistic approach to city building—one that considers all phases in tandem—is not only doable, but also critical to keeping emerging cities from repeating the sprawling growth course of many developed cities, pointed out Christine Platt, president and chief executive officer of the Commonwealth Association of Planners in South Africa. “The starting point can’t be housing alone, or transportation alone. The starting point is integrated thinking,” she said.

Integrated thinking: that’s ULI’s stock in trade. To hear this endorsed as a “must do” at this gathering of global urban development experts, some of whom had had no prior interaction with ULI, reinforced my belief that ULI is just starting to tap its potential on a worldwide scale. Our global program to date has been focused on incremental geographic expansion. The summit in Bellagio was a complementary way of looking at how we grow globally, by focusing on a particular set of issues endemic to rapidly growing urban areas throughout the world.

While there is vast social, regulatory, and economic diversity inherent across cities in different countries, they all share the desire for long-term prosperity. I left Bellagio convinced that in our hyperconnected world, ULI’s longtime role as a convener, content aggregator, and consensus builder remains not just relevant, but also integral to the business of building better cities. ULI’s impact is what turns ideas and vision into reality.