The Future of America's Cities Lies in the Past

05/07/2015 10:40 am ET | Updated May 07, 2016
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NEW YORK -- Take America's oldest cities, look ahead a decade and catch a glimpse of our urban past. You won't find horse-drawn carriages, steam trains or gas lamps, but you might well find the kinds of urban centers that once drew waves of immigrants: tightly settled, integrated communities with busy streets, active local commerce and small manufacturing industries.

A decade from now, the hearts of some of our largest cities will no longer be defined by gleaming skyscrapers surrounded by well-manicured corporate plazas. These trophy buildings, and the broad avenues that flank them, will still exist -- but as a secondary part of what draws people to live in a city. The pulse of our metropolitan cores will be found in places where people live, work and play -- mixed-use communities whose combination of old and new buildings, green space and tarmac will redefine life in the central city.

Many of the world's global cities are well on their way to this future -- Paris, London and Berlin to name a few. So, too, are some of America's largest metropolises, including places like Chicago and New York. Their downtown business districts are home to some of the nation's foremost companies, and their retail is second to none. Yet the most vibrant and fast-changing parts of these cities are no longer their shopping corridors or the skyscrapers that define their skylines. They are places like the South Loop in Chicago or downtown Brooklyn in New York -- where the mix of residents and workers means that day turns seamlessly into night with little diminution of activity.

"A decade from now, the hearts of some of our largest cities will no longer be defined by gleaming skyscrapers surrounded by well-manicured corporate plazas."

For students of urban history, these emerging 24/7 communities harken back to colonial times -- when living and working were tied to one and the same place. The merchants and craftsmen of the pre-industrial period -- whether in London or New Amsterdam -- typically sold their wares from storefronts they lived above or behind. The street served as a stage for a never-ending show of people, commerce and movement. So it remained until growing industrialization prompted a separation of the two: those who could afford to live in quieter, cleaner places away from the places of commerce and industry did so, though often only a short carriage or trolley ride away from their office, factory or shop.

The separation of work and home would be expanded greatly in the 19th and 20th centuries -- first with the debut of rail service to outlying areas and then with the introduction of the automobile. The advent of the highway in the mid-20th century made it particularly easy to live far from the dirt and dangers of the city, hollowing out the hearts of some of our greatest cities and leaving behind compromised transit systems and a legacy of fear and poverty.

But the last several decades have seen the pendulum swing back to the city, thanks to increasing congestion on metropolitan roadways, the rise of the environmental movement and the lure of the urban lifestyle. Public and private investment in the regeneration of former industrial areas is transforming city centers and bringing people and commerce to communities and neighborhoods once left for dead. In many of these places, homes and businesses are more seamlessly intertwined than ever before -- no longer segregated by restrictive zoning or by societal mores.

"Investment in the regeneration of former industrial areas is transforming city centers and bringing people and commerce to communities and neighborhoods once left for dead."

The parameters of the 24/7 community of the future are coming into focus in these places. The "eyes on the street" that Jane Jacobs spoke so eloquently of are now present in many of these revitalized communities -- in new and rehabilitated buildings, in reimagined central squares and in more integrated forms of social housing. The results are impressive: the return of families, the growth in the number of older residents, a decline in crime and an intense colonization by youth.

The businesses that make up these central, mixed-use communities are changing as much as the people who now elect to live there. Corporate behemoths once attracted solely to central business districts have increasingly chosen to relocate to cheaper sites outside of central city areas; in their place have come smaller creative, technology and manufacturing companies. Conversion of space from commercial to residential has further diversified the economic base of these areas and given life to new and different forms of retail offerings.

This movement of people back into our older cities is forcing a rethink of the structure and levels of investment in our public transit systems. The legacy transit systems that fell into disrepair as the auto age gained momentum -- buses, trains and other forms of mass transit -- are now seen as heralding a brighter environmental future to young people who have little interest in owning a car. As a result, even older systems like New York's subway are experiencing record volumes -- justifying further investment and helping to further reduce the number of cars on the congested roads of the metropolis.

Other forms of civic infrastructure are changing, too, as they adapt to the new patterns of settlement. Investment in urban parks is on the rise, albeit much of it coming from private sources. These range from pocket parks, adopted by local groups or corporations, to central gathering places, like Millenium Park in Chicago or Central Park in New York, to new linear parks along once-active waterfronts or rail lines. More and more of these once-forgotten spaces will become cherished resources for workers, tourists and residents.

But perhaps the greatest gains to come are in community -- and in the way people feel about the places in which they live. Reclaiming the city for residents has given voice to the need for investment at the local scale -- in street furniture, in trees, in road safety and in transit -- and in the democratization of that voice. The "participatory budgeting" now underway in many cities, in which citizens vote to determine the use of allocations of capital funding in their neighborhood, is still in its infancy, but is nevertheless an important harbinger of things to come.

What does this add up to a decade from now? Urban neighborhoods in our older cities will be greener, with more trees and parks. Retail offerings will be stronger and more diverse, buoyed by the power of the 24/7 economy. The narrow, congested streets of these early cities will be shared more symbiotically -- by more pedestrians and fewer cars. Sidewalks will be wider and cleaner, and bikeways will be more prevalent.

The city will, in short, regain its human scale and emerge once again as a series of communities -- completing a fascinating journey back to the future.

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