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No Sci-Fi: The Future of Urbanism Is Bright

“The Central Park in New York on a cloudy day” by Mohit Singh on Unsplash

The future of urban living will not be like its past. At all.

In fact, it will be quite the opposite. The 1960’s ‘white flight’ movement of middle classes from inner cities to suburbs has reversed, giving way in America and worldwide to the rebirth of city centers, oftentimes quite spectacularly.

Think Detroit: it filed for Chapter 9 in July 2013, upon the subprime crisis wiping out property values. That lead to the abandonment of 70,000 buildings and the destruction of the city’s tax base. Detroit was the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. However, its downtown, once the symbol of the auto industry crisis, is now a thriving center of Car Tech, dotted with communal table restaurants, a new sports arena and newly built loft buildings. All of this, noticeably, roughly 50 years after the 1967 Detroit Race Riots.

But such revival is the norm in our roll-up-the-sleeves, change-hungry nation. In Los Angeles, part of what was Skid Row (homeless population 18,000) is now the Arts District. In New York, many of the formerly crime-ridden areas are now home to refurbished brownstones and strollers, prized for their Old World charm and backyards –a rarity in Manhattan. Harlem is safe and Bedford-Stuyvesant hosts farmers markets.

America created a trend that spread worldwide. In Western Europe, Paris’ formerly drug-infested Canal Saint-Martin area has turned into a local hot spot. In Belgrade, Serbia coffee and juice shops pop up in socialist era buildings across town. In Bogota, Colombia, art gallery openings have transformed the San Felipe neighborhood.

What will tomorrow look like? Even deeper changes are to come. With self-driving cars, formerly unreachable or uncommutable urban areas will open up, and carpooling could lead to quieter cities along with more social interactions for their inhabitants. Will this generate longer life expectancy?

Large and difficult-to-reach swaths of land will become accessible and developed. That will foster the construction of affordable housing which will enable cities to better retain their middle classes, their vulnerable and their seniors (seniors being priced out of urban areas and isolated being a little noticed, but large and pressing social issue: if you live in San Francisco, do you want your grandmother in Sacramento?).

A lower cost of living, especially for major coastal areas metropolises, would allow urban centers to keep attracting the best and brightest, or just in general, the workforce they need to sustain and healthily grow their economies and ecosystems. It is currently estimated that zoning laws, land-use restrictions and lost opportunities for housing development cost our country $1.5 trillion yearly in lost wages and productivity, with California having the most acute cost of living issues. As Amazon increasingly sets up last-mile delivery warehouses close to downtowns, at some point the commute/pay ratio becomes too low to justify workers staffing them. It has been estimated that lifting barriers to real estate growth could lift the GDP anywhere from 6 to 14%.

So technological progress could enable cities to better keep their human fabric. It will enable communities to interact more and decide of their futures more harmoniously. For instance, CoUrbanize, a Boston startup that fosters exchange between communities, municipalities and real estate developers, can channel residents’ inputs and suggestions to urban builders: log into an app and tell a developer what amenities to feature in a park, what shops to bring into commercial units, etc. A win-win end result.

For all of its inevitable destruction, it is arguable that tech has bettered human interactions. Isn’t your average livery driver nicer since Uber rates him (and he rates you)? Doesn’t your office feel more like a community since WeWork became a worldwide success? Isn’t your average stranger more courteous since you can find him on Facebook, LinkedIn or through an app feeding off geolocalization that you might both use?

And we are also safer than ever before. GPS tracking, facial recognition systems and cameras have led to dramatic reductions in crime rates over the past 20 years. All the while, DNA testing has enabled to lower wrongful imprisonment and miscarriages of justice.

Despite the worries about the ‘robotization’ of our societies, technology has and will continue to bring benefits to urbanism and the way we live. It should increasingly do so, in light of the amount of venture capital money pouring into real estate and urbanism-related tech: from $150 million in 2011 to $3 billion in 2017, with startups of the sector rumored at over 3,000.

The best is yet to come!