Opinion

The future of cities -- Gergen and Martin

More than half of us now live in cities with urban areas accounting for 80 percent of global GDP, according to the United Nations. Seventy percent of the world’s population is expected to live in cities by 2050, putting huge strains on our current infrastructure – with potential to exacerbate environmental, transportation, health, crime and inequity challenges.

Here in North Carolina, the Raleigh metro area is expected to grow 72 percent in next 25 years from 1.27 million residents to 2.2 million, making it the third-fastest growing metro in the country (behind Austin, Texas, and Fort Myers, Florida) according to a study by American City Business Journals.

Charlotte is expected to grow even more in population (by 1.9 million) but because of its 2.42 million base it is “only” expected to grow 49 percent. The Durham-Chapel Hill metro is expected to grow 36 percent (from 552,000 residents to 753,000).

For many, these are alarming statistics, and, without proper planning, our collective quality of life will be significantly compromised. But with foresight and continuous innovation, there may be opportunities to increase living standards for all.

One potential pathway is to embrace scale rather than reject it.

Research by Geoffrey West and Luis Bettencourt, for example, shows that cities produce more units of output for each unit of input. In other words, a dollar spent on investment produces more than a dollar back on key economic indicators like GDP, wages, and patent creation. Cities are also much more efficient, with residents using less energy per capita and needing fewer capital investments like roads, electric lines, etc.

West and Bettencourt make clear, however, that these benefits will only be gained through innovation versus maintaining the status quo. According to the researchers, there is a “dramatic difference between growth fueled by innovation versus that driven by economies of scale … as population grows, major innovation cycles must be generated at a continually accelerating rate to sustain growth and avoid stagnation or collapse.”

This is particularly true of our most vulnerable communities. Without break-through ideas focused on balancing economic growth with economic inclusion, we risk widening racial wealth gaps and accelerating gentrification and displacement.

A recent study by economists Berkes and Gaetani finds that clustering of high-tech innovation in cities has increased economic segregation – a trend that Richard Florida delves into in his new book "The New Urban Crisis."

But what if innovation can improve equity?

The company Kasita, for example, has created housing units that are stand-alone or can stack to form apartments. These pre-fabricated homes can be assembled and shipped in two to three weeks, measure 352 square feet, are stocked with modern amenities (including voice controlled systems), and cost $139,000. Matched with proper zoning, the right financing opportunities (including helping families and individuals establish stronger credit), and creative urban planning, housing solutions like Kasita could increase opportunities for home ownership.

The reduced cost of solar energy and innovative approaches to storing and distributing energy also provide an exciting opportunity to increase access to renewable energy, create jobs, boost local ownership opportunities (through employee owned coops), and cut the cost of energy. As an example, GRID Alternatives was selected in 2008 to manage California’s $162 million single-family affordable homes incentive program, the country’s first program dedicated to low-income families. The non-profit has since expanded its work nationally.

To date, the sharing economy (eg. Lyft and AirBnB) have principally benefited the wealthy. But there is huge upside to be gained by expanding the shared economy into lower-income communities, including jobs with flexible hours, supplemental income opportunities, and more direct, less expensive transportation options in currently under-connected communities. Recognizing this, Los Angeles introduced a pilot program to put 100 car-share vehicles in low-income communities, and Minneapolis is subsidizing bike-share memberships and driving outreach efforts in poor neighborhoods.

In San Diego, a recent upgrade to 14,000 smart street lights is expected to save $2.4 million per year. It has also spurred the deployment of over 3,000 additional sensor nodes that can support a range of applications, including air quality sensing and gunshot detection – increasing quality of life and public safety across the city. To address disproportionate infant mortality in under-connected communities of color, Columbus, Ohio is leveraging smart technology to improve access to prenatal care. And cities globally are investing in urban farming strategies to create jobs, increase access to healthy food, and serve as learning laboratories.

These are all promising trends. As the United Nation’s New Urban Agenda makes clear: to thrive as a society we need to create sustainable communities for all.

Christopher Gergen is CEO of Forward Cities, a Founding Partner of HQ Community, and author of Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives. Stephen Martin is chief of staff at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro.They can be reached at authors@forwardimpact.info and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.

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