The year 2011 is a key one for ULI: it marks 75 years of leadership in land use. But, while this milestone anniversary is a time to reflect on what has been accomplished, it also is a time to look forward to the next 75 years.

The world of land use is in the midst of change. For the past two decades, we were rebuilding urban cores 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 resulted in a remarkable shift in how we view our cities, it is but one aspect of the evolution in urban growth that is changing entire metropolitan regions. 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 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 by how best to use the land that is left. Dramatic changes related to demographics, the economy, and the environment are necessitating a major overhaul in what and where we build, and we will continue to adapt to these changes in the decades ahead.

Among the forces of change now in place:

  • An additional 150 million people are expected in the United States over the next 40 years;
  • The first wave of baby boomers is hitting age 65: many will shun or delay retirement;
  • Tech-savvy generation Y has started to enter the housing market and workforce;
  • Household size is shrinking due to more people living alone;
  • The U.S. transportation infrastructure system has fallen behind Asia and Europe in terms of investments;
  • An increasing number of state and local government mandates aim to cut carbon emissions from vehicles and buildings; and
  • The worst economic downturn since the Great Depression has 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 years ahead. But clearly, the majority of the growth that will occur will not be in downtowns, but rather 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.

Going forward, this is what we can expect: construction at a greater density to conserve energy, water, and land; better coordination of land use planning and transportation planning so that more development is oriented toward transit options; and reuse and adaptation of obsolete space in a way that reflects the changing needs and desires of a much more mobile society.

As ULI begins its next 75 years, I believe we are at a pivot point for land use and community building. Now, perhaps more than ever, is the time for leadership in the development of our built environment. ULI’s expertise in the responsible use of land has never been more necessary, or more relevant, to more places around the world.