If you need a reason to contemplate what the urban landscape will look like 50 years from now, consider that construction of it is already underway. The median life span of a residential building in the United States is 53 years, and a large office building typically will last 65 years, according to the 2010 Buildings Energy Databook, published by the U.S. Department of Energy. That means the future will be characterized by the visions of today’s architects, developers, engineers, and urban planners. And their work will have to stand the test of a world that is likely to be very different from the one that existed when they first started sketching their designs.


kiger_4_250
Just how different will it be? By 2063, the suburban tract house and the shopping mall will have gone the way of the dinosaurs, and a generation of workers in the knowledge-based economy will flock to high-density, walkable urban mixed-use neighborhoods. Some may live in “smart” apartment buildings with motorized walls designed to transform bedrooms and offices into dining rooms and home gyms, depending on the time of day, and travel in miniaturized robotic cars that are controlled by a wireless network to minimize congestion. They will dine on food grown literally next door in a multistory, indoor hydroponic farm, which will also recycle wastewater to produce the drinkable kind, and they will power their gadgets with electricity produced by similarly local renewable sources, such as solar and wind energy. Walkable urbanism 2.0 will be so transcendent that even the suburbs will remake themselves so that they look and feel more like cities.

At least, that is what some futurists think. Others envision a strikingly different scenario, in which 50 years from now, people increasingly will forsake the cities for the rural countryside. They will live in updated, technologically advanced, and economically self-sufficient versions of the 19th-century village. These lower-density “micro urban” communities will enable their inhabitants to own spacious houses and their own automobiles, but also will allow them to enjoy the same economic opportunities and cultural amenities of urban areas while savoring the pleasures of living close to nature.

It may turn out, of course, that both scenarios for the state of land use in 2063 come to pass—or that neither does, just as past seers’ predictions of mile-high skyscrapers, plastic houses, flying cars, and networks of tubes under cities that would deliver freshly cooked meals somehow failed to materialize. “That’s the problem with predicting the future,” says Christopher Leinberger, director of George Washington University’s Center for Real Estate and Urban Analysis, and president of LOCUS, a national network of real estate developers and investors. “As my grandfather used to say, if you’re going to say what is going to happen, you better set it so far in the future that nobody will remember if you were wrong.”

On the plus side, today’s futurists tend to be more data-driven than H.G. Wells or Jules Verne were; imagination and wishful thinking have been superseded by computer modeling based on economic, population, and environmental data. And the internet makes it possible to keep abreast of technological developments in laboratories across the globe, and perhaps to project more accurately where innovations will lead, including how and where people live and work.

Influences on Land Use
Forecasters identify a range of factors likely to shape the landscape around 2063.


kiger_1_351

(chris jacobs www.unitedfuture.com/james nelms www.storyboardsonline.com)
A single vertical farm with an equivalent of one New York City block and
rising just 30 stories could provide enough calories to comfortably
accommodate the needs of 50,000 people, mainly by using technologies
currently available. If vertical farming were to become widely adopted,
some resulting advantages would be year-round crop production; no crop
failures due to droughts, floods, pests, etc.; no use of herbicides,
pesticides, or fertilizers; and no agricultural runoff.
kiger_2_351

Population growth and demographic shifts: The global population—about 7 billion today—is expected to swell to 9 billion between 2060 and 2080, according to the Vienna Institute of Demography. A 2011 United Nations report predicts that the population will grow most rapidly in Africa, and a few Middle Eastern and South Asian countries. India, for example, is forecast to peak in 2060 at about 1.7 billion inhabitants, compared with about 1.2 billion today. But low birthrates and an aging populace are expected to halt growth in China and much of Europe. Researchers say much of the anticipated growth will be concentrated in urban areas, which already contain most of the world’s population; a 2005 World Bank study predicted that the world’s cities will grow 2.5 times in land area by 2030 to accommodate additional inhabitants. The United States, however, is projected to experience relatively moderate growth. U.S. Census Bureau projections show the U.S. population growing by about 110 million over the next 50 years. Such a surge would create a massive demand for new housing—enough to fill nearly 30 cities the size of present-day Los Angeles. Because of immigration, the United States is not growing old as quickly as Europe and Japan; nonetheless, people 65 and older will make up 22 percent of the population in 2063, compared with about 15 percent now. That will cause average household size to shrink and increase the demand for smaller, more affordable homes.

Advances in technology and design: Land use may be affected by advances in how buildings are designed and built, and by the availability of new materials that will make them last longer and improve their energy efficiency.

Architect Peter Testa, a principal at the Los Angeles–based firm of Testa/Weiser and founding director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Emerging Design Group, has designed a theoretical 40-story skyscraper made entirely of composite materials such as carbon fiber, which is five times stronger than steel. University of Michigan materials science and engineering professor Victor Li and colleagues have developed bendable, self-repairing concrete.

Philip Howes, a nanotechnologist who is a postdoctoral researcher at Kings College in London, predicted in a 2011 article for the Guardian, a British newspaper, that future homes and offices may have windows fashioned from electrochromic glass, whose layers of metal and plastic can alter how much infrared light passes through them—thus keeping building interiors cool with less reliance on air conditioning.

Architects Luca D’Amico of Makespace Architects & Lorend Design in London and Luca Tesio of Savigliano, Italy, have designed a modular, scalable apartment tower made of repurposed shipping containers, which would enable nomadic workers to move their entire apartments to wherever they found work.

At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s House_n Research Consortium, director Kent Larson and colleagues have designed a “technology infill” that allows a computer to customize standard-sized urban lofts with whatever design flourishes a resident desires, as easily as he or she could order a couch from Ikea. Larson’s team also envisions a “transformable” apartment, with robotic, mechanized walls that shift configuration for different activities, sensors that control energy use, and mirrors that direct sunlight into various parts of the dwelling to reduce the need for artificial lighting.

Climate change: A 2009 report by the U.S. Global Change Research Program, a federal advisory group of scientists, says that temperatures across the United States are likely to rise between three and six degrees Fahrenheit by 2059, and that rainfall will increase in some areas and decrease in others. In addition, sea levels may rise by roughly one to two feet (0.3–0.6 m). The result may be that real estate in coastal areas and the Sunbelt will become less desirable, and cause population and economic activity to shift elsewhere. “Households that had hoped to live on the California coast but now view it as too risky may choose to move inland to Idaho or Montana,” University of California economist Matthew E. Kahn writes in his 2010 book Climatopolis: How Our Cities Will Thrive in the Hotter Future.

Scarcity and abundance: Some major U.S. cities, including Los Angeles, Houston, and Phoenix, are already running low on water. Kahn predicts that such shortages will cause utility bills to soar as demand continues to grow. In addition, analysts for global bank HSBC predict that worldwide energy demand will double by the middle of the century. Coupled with the drive to curb carbon emissions to slow climate change, that demand will push communities to develop their own local renewable energy sources, and to increase efficiency.

Evolution of the 21st-century economy: The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development predicts that both the global and the U.S. economy will continue to grow at average historical levels, but will undergo fundamental changes—most notably, the decentralization of production. Chapman University futurist and urban development scholar Joel Kotkin, author of the 2010 book The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, predicts that the U.S. labor force increasingly will become “declustered,” with fewer corporate employees working in offices and more home-based free agents providing services such as financial planning, insurance, graphic design, and consulting over the internet. That, in turn, will make geographic location and transportation links less important. Kotkin sees this already happening, with the rise of new technology hubs such as Fargo, North Dakota, where Microsoft now bases its business systems division.

Urbanism 2.0 or Heartland Villages?

Despite the likely longevity of existing structures, most futurists say a vast number of new buildings will be needed to house a U.S. population that will grow by more than one-third by 2063. But they disagree about where and how that development should occur.

Leinberger, for instance, is a proponent of next-generation walkable urbanism, in which high-density, mixed-use neighborhoods will provide a more energy-efficient, environmentally sound lifestyle and attract the critical mass of skilled, creative workers needed to power future economic growth. It is a trend that he says is already underway: “Where are the new jobs? It’s the knowledge economy, and the employees are millennials who belong to Richard Florida’s ‘creative class.’ They’re saying, ‘We’re bored with the suburbs.’ For them to get great ideas and to form the temporary teams needed to create new software apps or other products, they need to be someplace where they can interact.” Leinberger calculates that it will take at least until 2040 just to fill the pent-up demand for walkable urban environments, and that the market for such development will continue to grow into the late 21st century.

Leinberger predicts demand will be accelerated by the next hot economic trend that will follow the knowledge economy—what he calls the “experience” economy, in which value-added customer service, such as Apple’s walk-in retail stores, and tourism will become even bigger economic engines than they are today. Leinberger says, “70 percent of the travel will be urban tourism. People will want to go to downtown Copenhagen to experience the lifestyle, with everyone biking and eating great food. Or, they’ll go to Manhattan to experience the excitement and the bright lights, or to San Francisco. But they’re not going to go to a suburban mall.” Eventually, he envisions that today’s sprawling, low-density suburbs will evolve into ersatz city spaces, with single-use structures such as shopping centers and office parks being torn down or repurposed for mixed uses. (In recent years, aging malls in Long Beach, California; Lakewood, Colorado; Boca Raton, Florida; and other locations have already been converted in such a fashion.)

In addition to the lifestyle benefits, Leinberger sees walkable urbanism as an imperative because of climate change. “A household in a walkable urban place emits 50 to 75 percent less carbon than a drivable suburban household,” he notes.

Thomas W. Hertzel, a Purdue University professor who studies global land use, essentially agrees with Leinberger that urban cores will remain a focus of development. “My instincts, as well as my observations of the younger generation, are that the tendency to live in urban areas will continue to strengthen,” he says. “The younger generation in the U.S. is less interested in owning their own home or having an automobile. They want to be around other bright, young, energetic people.”

In contrast, Chapman University’s Kotkin predicts a very different dynamic, in which the same free-agent knowledge workers and their families disperse across the map, with many of them fleeing overcrowded megacities and infilling sparsely populated “heartland” regions of the Midwest and Plains states, in search of a higher, more affordable standard of living. “In a high-density urban environment, the only people who can afford to have more than one child and live comfortably are the very wealthy,” he says. “And high density and a small living space is not how most people want to live their lives. They still want to own a house, to have some room.” He sees them fulfilling their dreams in places such as North Dakota, Iowa, and Utah, where new communities will spring up that will blur the traditional boundaries among rural, city, and suburban areas—“micro urban” communities, as the World Future Society has dubbed them. With broadband internet access and telecommunications links to the rest of the world, inhabitants of 21st-century villages will be able to do business without the need to commute to a major city, and they will be conveniently close to sources of food and energy. Kotkin predicts that these new communities will develop cultural and artistic amenities that Americans have come to expect from big cities.

“We’re already seeing this happening,” Kotkin explains. “Places like Fargo and Oklahoma City and Sioux Falls are developing nice urban cores. Twenty years ago, it was hard to get a good meal or a cup of coffee there. You have immigrants coming in, and bringing shops and restaurants. And if you have a good internet connection, you can read the Wall Street Journal or Realclearpolitics.com the same way you could if you were in midtown Manhattan.”

Other futurists foresee variations on Kotkin’s theme. For example, in an article for the Guardian, director Peter Head and global planning leader David Singleton, at the London-based international design firm Arup, said they envision decentralized clusters of mixed-use developments scattered across rural areas, linked by high-speed public transportation and broadband communication. Some of the clusters would evolve over time into centers for education and health care that would provide services to the rest of the network of far-flung mixed-use developments.

One prototype for this sort of development could be Wanzhuang eco-city, a community for 400,000 people that Arup has proposed building in a rural agricultural area in China that has been plagued by water shortages. Arup’s design would replace present wheat and corn fields with vegetable and fruit cultivation, which uses less water but is more labor intensive. Arup also would build homes, offices, and stores on wide, tree-lined streets practically next door to the farms. The intended result would be “100 percent food security” for residents, more agricultural employment with higher incomes, and an opportunity for urban dwellers to benefit from proximity to nature.

Climatopolis and Vertical Farms

Economist and author Kahn sees climate change—rather than economic opportunity or lifestyle aspirations—as the primary driver of 21st-century land use shifts. Just as in previous generations, when Americans migrated from the Rustbelt and the Northeast to the Sunbelt states, Kahn predicts a shift toward inland cities in northern regions with adequate rainfall and cooler summers. “If Americans’ sole goal is to survive in the face of climate change, then we could build new cities far from the coasts and close to the Canadian border, in places such as North Dakota,” Kahn writes in Climatopolis. But he also believes that existing cities may continue to thrive if they morph into “green cities,” where political and business leaders and residents are willing to make the investment needed to cope with climate change.

Such communities would ban building in flood and fire zones and use trees and shade to minimize the urban heat-island effect. Water and electricity would be priced to encourage efficiency and conservation. Residents would install solar panels and take other measures to reduce their carbon output. Also, Kahn envisions some low-density sections of urban areas with the most tolerable climates evolving into high-density areas. For example, parts of west Los Angeles such as Culver City and Santa Monica eventually may look more like the mixed-use skyscraper neighborhoods of Manhattan, where population density is roughly 100 times higher.

Meanwhile, Dickson Despommier, an environmental health professor at Columbia University, has proposed another, even more radical adaptation for cities. In his 2010 book, The Vertical Farm: Feeding the World in the 21st Century, he describes a plan to fill underused spaces in urban areas with “vertical farms”—sprawling multistory structures in which vegetables and fruits would be grown indoors using hydroponic technology that eliminates the need for soil. Because growing conditions could be carefully controlled, Despommier argues that a one-acre (0.4 ha) floor of a vertical farm would be as productive as ten to 20 acres (4 to 8 ha) of conventional farmland. In addition to producing food for local consumption and jobs for urban residents, vertical farms would recycle wastewater used to irrigate plants, he says, since the moisture released by leaves could be harvested and converted to drinking water. “An entire city can choose to become the functional urban equivalent of a natural ecosystem,” Despommier writes.

In urban areas with pricey land, such as Manhattan, it might be difficult for vertical farms to be economically viable. But Kahn thinks urban farming would be a better fit in struggling Rustbelt cities such as Detroit, which has many square miles of vacant land. (Already, the city has agreed to sell 140 acres [56.6 ha] of land for $520,000 to financial services entrepreneur John Hantz, who plans to convert it into an urban tree farm full of maple and oak trees.) In Milwaukee, Growing Power, a nonprofit organization that promotes urban farming, is hoping to erect a nine-story vertical farm in that city. Meanwhile, in other countries, some already are moving ahead with Despommier’s inspiration: In 2011, the first such vertical farm—Sky Greens, a set of 120 30-foot-high (9.1 m) towers planted with organic vegetables mounted on rotating aluminum A-frames that pass through troughs of water—debuted in Singapore. Jack Ng, the inventor and entrepreneur who created Sky Greens, recently told CNN that vertical farming eventually could supply up to 50 percent of Singapore’s food needs.

Again, how many of these possible scenarios and developments will come to fruition 50 years from now is impossible to say. But there are plenty of clues that the future is already starting to arrive in bits and pieces. Tomorrow’s carbon-fiber skyscraper, for example, may be presaged by the ­carbon-fiber-reinforced polymers that are being used to strengthen existing buildings against earthquake shocks (and soon, possibly, against terrorist bombings as well, according to a 2011 ScienceDaily article). But there is also the possibility that some idea that seems far-fetched today—such as using three-dimensional printing to fabricate large building components, or floating offshore cities that use tidal power to achieve energy self-sufficiency—could turn out to be the game-changer that alters the shape of things to come. But that uncertainty makes trying to glimpse into the future all the more tantalizing.