I certainly don’t possess a crystal ball that allows me to glance into what 2013 holds for the built environment, but here are a number of trends that received a considerable amount of discussion in 2012 (and that I predict will receive even more attention as we launch into 2013). Admittedly some of these trends have been floating around in urban planning and architecture circles for years… but what makes them important for 2013 is the fact that many of them are continuing to build momentum to the point that we may notice paradigm shift in these areas of the built environment.
McMansions have lost their luster in the post-bubble real estate economy (this trend has certainly been building for some time), but the trend of right-sizing is more than just shrinking homes. If current economic and market trends hold we may see a continued focus on size and use compatibility. There seems to be more of a demand for housing options that fit both personal needs while accommodating our wallets. Alongside housing issues, many retailers are starting to realize that large, inventory laden stores are not entirely competitive with the challenges brought by eCommerce. In addition, retailers are simply out of options when it comes to dense urban areas, in order to capture key markets they are going to have to bend their stores to the location rather than the traditional approach of bending the location to the store. My prediction is that we’ll begin to see more of a focus on location and amenities and less of a focus on “more is better”. In short, with money lacking for long-term infrastructure improvements and additions a number of forces will converge allowing for more dense development of “right-sized” locations for living and working that take advantage of a lack of consumer confidence. At the same time we’ll see businesses try new things as they attempt to stay relevant in a changing economy.
The idea of suburban retrofit got a considerable amount of attention in 2012 alongside reports showing that infill is “in”. What I would expect to see is a focus on capitalizing on suburban frameworks to begin offering the amenities of cities. The suburbs present a model that not everyone wants (or can afford), but infill development offers new opportunities for retrofits and perhaps some creative mixed-used options. In addition, with more baby boomers demanding services that the suburbs can’t offer, perhaps we’ll start to see some creative tinkering with land use policies. Suburban retrofit creates solutions for many of the issues that we now consider problems while preventing the specter of “suburban blight” from becoming a reality. The biggest issue with the suburban context is that when something fails (like a mall, a subdivision, a big box store) it fails big; suburban retrofit offers creative solutions to take advantage of some of our more vexing problems while curbing further sprawl. With the volatility in commercial real estate financing, I would expect retrofit projects to become increasingly attractive as it offers advantages for the banks and developers.
Whether you’re a prepper or part of the hacktivist culture or you just like to eat, urban agriculture is most likely a trend that’s important to you. Urban agriculture fits right in there with Right-Sizing and Suburban Retrofit. There’s a lot of focus on the fact that our food systems aren’t meeting our demands which pairs with a realization that urban agriculture can put us as individuals in control of what we eat. Urban farms also present an opportunity to put food right at the point of consumption presenting both marketing and economic advantages over traditional agriculture. A number of factors point to more growth in urban agriculture including interest among Millennials, programs intended to train returning veterans to run their own farms, retro farm-focused start-ups, and new technology-enabled sources of putting fresh, healthy produce on tables. Looking to 2013, it appears that the desire for urban agriculture is still strong (and studies are being commissioned to understand exactly what the demand is). I’d expect us to see even more growth in urban agriculture as people continue to be concerned about topics such as GMOs and as we demand to know where our food comes from.
We saw a number of trends in 2012 that push the limits of our current land use policies. Whether its tactical urbanism, complete streets, walkability, pocket neighborhoods, or other issues we haven’t yet engaged, we are seeing a demand for new land use paradigms. If these trends hold, policies such as form-based codes may receive more attention as Euclidian-style zoning creates more hurdles for more vibrant built environments. In 2013 we’re going to see some push back against the long held tenets of land use planning as we continue to unravel obstacles that prevent new paradigms from emerging. This trend tends to get me a bit preachy, but I’d challenge planners and other professionals responsible for maintaining land use policies to really work to understand the potential of new ideas and innovations rather than hiding in the comfort of the status quo. If we want to fix some our current built environment problems than flexibility is going to have to be one of the defining trends in 2013.
Social Media and City Love
I had the opportunity to reach out and engage with a number of others in 2012 via social media about their cities… the experience was great and it really showed me that people are excited to talk about the potential of their cities. My hope is that 2013 will see a higher level of engagement and that our elected officials will take an opportunity to tap into the conversation. Cory Booker has been a role model for social media use as Mayor of Newark, NJ. There are a number of brilliant minds out there on the web and politicians really need to seize the advantages of crowdsourcing to understand exactly what their constituents want and need. Social media and general enthusiasm about cities and place provide a constant flow of ideas that move us away from the one-way dialogues of public hearings and the ugly monster of NIMBYism.
Overall, 2013 is still very much ours to define and we should take advantage of that fact to craft cities and places that match our visions, our dreams, and our desires. Place is a dynamic concept that is subject to constant revision and improvement. The trends captured above demonstrate that we have a significant amount of power to keep pushing the conversation in a way that creates places that we truly love.