Fact: More than one billion people are expected to move to cities in the next few decades. In China, two-thirds of the population already lives in cities. As the populations shifts to these urban habitats, we have to make sure they are livable, sustainable, and truly smart.
People, and their ability to connect, are at the center of innovation, growth, and prosperity. Cities enhance that ability by connecting people at a massive scale — and their influence on productivity reflects that: according to the World Bank, more than 80% of the global GDP is generated in cities today. At the workplace scale, 100% of the top performing companies recognize the value of connecting people and are actively deploying strategies to maximize knowledge sharing every day.
As we consider the future of cities, we must also be cognizant of the forces of change that will impact how we design and plan for connectivity between people. Among them are: the gig and sharing economies, resource scarcity, aging societies, climate change, and the fourth industrial revolution.
The rise of autonomous vehicles is the most top-of-mind potential disrupter for many people. With our historically auto-centric approach to cities, we have clearly done the opposite of people-first design. Autonomous vehicles may be the catalyst that help us shift the focus back to human experience, but we must also be careful to design with an eye toward a future that will be impacted by further advances in technology and the new ways of inhabiting and moving about our cities that come with them.
The Efficiency Trap
We must establish a set of first principles at the very onset that align with these objectives: to create great urban experiences for people, to connect people in order that they may do great things, and to have enriched people’s lives in all respects. If we don’t establish these first principals, we cede those decisions to less people-centric functions like vehicular infrastructure or utility rights of way.
By the time the broader design and real estate community — the advocates for individuals — join the discussion, those foundational elements are set. There is often very little we can do given their scale and the energy required for alterations.
The Pro Forma Pitfall
The infrastructure phase is usually followed by a Pro Forma phase — another potential misstep in the name of efficiency. This is particularly true in new cities that give us wide-open opportunities to make impressive, but sometimes banal, places that stakeholders love because they are “pro forma perfect” and seemingly low-risk with “predictable” returns that are based on yesterday’s impressions.
If we evaluated everything solely on economics, there are many incredible and rewarding places that would never have had a business case to be built. We should not let expediency and certainty short circuit our aspirations and deny us the impactful results we seek.
In other words, we have to balance economy of scale, clean, and efficient with customized, messy, and purposefully chaotic. To do this would be to resist a financial climate that is pressing for higher returns.
The Harder Road Less Travelled
By consciously making things easier, we are also giving ourselves a pass to be less creative and perhaps less interesting. Some keys to great placemaking in cities include diversity, culture, community, authenticity, and the opportunity to encounter something unexpected. There’s nothing more exciting than discovering a quality experience. While some great moments are skillfully orchestrated, many have been borne out of constraints either natural or contextual. In the green-fields of new worlds, we can’t have “boring” or worse… “soulless.”
This is a particular challenge today where we see whole cities or new districts being designed at once, without the benefit of organic growth over time. Organic growth provides new opportunities to evaluate prior decisions and make adjustments that can lead to memorable moments of creative rule-breaking and unexpected results.
This is not a call for the return of ego-driven architecture. It is a plea to put more burden on infrastructure planning and depart from the rigidity of the pro forma. Rather than adhering to a prescribed set of principles, we have an opportunity to embrace real data about the ways in which people use successful spaces — allowing us to make informed decisions and predictable impacts without limiting the creative and random aspects.
This is particularly relevant to people-centric design. The Gensler Experience Index helps to quantify the key attributes of successful spaces — ranging from public spaces at the city scale to specific user environments, such as retail stores. The Experience Index provides designers, developers, and stakeholders valuable understanding on what key elements to utilize for maximum effect.
For sure, it is attractive to avoid the angst of a challenging process, or the risk of uncertainty. But through research and the skilled application of that research, we can make informed decisions as opposed to guesswork.
Therefore, we must have the willingness to seek more person-to-person connections through compelling urban experiences. Being responsibly efficient shouldn’t trump taking an informed leap of faith in order to transform our city outputs from waste, pollution, and urban sprawl to energy, knowledge, and skills. These are the byproducts of a truly “people first” city.
Article written by Peter Weingarten