Patrick Phillips This article is being Reprinted with permission from GlobeSt.com.

The 10th anniversary of GlobeSt.com finds the world of land use in the midst of change. The year 2000 was the midpoint of two decades in which urban cores were being rebuilt as places to work and live, not just work and leave. A downtown migration of affluent, childless professionals and empty nesters created a development boom, in many cases breathing new life into old space and allowing cities to reinvent their economies.

While this downtown growth has resulted in a remarkable shift in how we view our cities, it’s but one aspect of the evolution in urban growth that is going to intensify in the years ahead. What we learned from this phenomenon is that there is a market for compact, mixed-use design, smaller housing space, and transit-oriented development that minimizes the need to drive. But perhaps the bigger lesson–one we are still learning how to apply–is that there is a demand for at least some aspects of this type of development that stretches beyond downtown cores and into outlying suburbs. In other words, growth in the suburbs does not inevitably mean sprawl.

Going forward, our decisions on what and where to develop will be guided not by a plentiful supply of land throughout urban regions, but rather how best to use the land that is left.  Vast demographic, financial, and environmental shifts are necessitating a major overhaul in what and where we build and will continue to do so in the decades ahead.

Among the forces of change now in place:

  • The US population has grown by more than 100 million people since 1970, with up to 150 million more people expected over the next 40 years;
  • The first wave of baby boomers are hitting 65. Many will shun or delay retirement and stay in the workforce, and many, if healthy now, will still be alive in 40 years;
  • The children of baby boomers, Generation Y (the most technologically connected and largest generation in US history) has started to enter the housing market and workforce;
  • Household size is shrinking, due to more people living alone, delaying marriage and childbirth, and having fewer children;
  • The US is now the largest importer of oil, rather than the largest exporter, leading to stepped up efforts to develop alternate sources of energy;
  • The US transportation infrastructure system, once a world leader due to the interstate highway system, is now falling far behind Asia and Europe in terms of transportation investments;
  • Concerns over climate change have resulted in an increasing number of state and local government mandates aimed at limiting carbon emissions from vehicles and buildings; and
  • The worst economic downturn since the Great Depression plunged credit markets into prolonged turmoil; left many markets with unprecedented housing foreclosures; and caused a decline in the homeownership rate and possibly a change in the perception of homeownership as the American Dream.

With job growth still slow and the economy inching toward recovery, it is difficult to predict exactly how the development activity that lifted up downtowns over the past several years might similarly boost suburbs in the future. But clearly, the majority of the growth that will occur will do so not in downtowns, but in the suburbs. And in these areas, less land will have to be used to accommodate more people. This change in how suburban areas grow will have a major influence on the environmental and economic sustainability of entire metropolitan regions. 

Piece-meal, haphazard and poorly connected development is a thing of the past. This is what we can expect: building more densely to conserve energy, water and land; better coordination of land-use and transportation planning so more development will be oriented toward transit options; and reusing and adapting obsolete space in a way that reflects the changing needs and desires of a much more mobile society, a society in which many are likely to rent longer and change jobs much more frequently.

I see the coming decade as a pivot point for land use and community building. More than ever before, economic, social and environmental factors will elevate the importance of tailoring urban development to meet residents’ expectations for livability, amenities, flexibility, and choices in getting from one place to another. Ultimately, cities are about what’s best for people, not buildings and not cars. The places that get this right will be the winners, not just within the US, but globally.