There's a good news number to hang onto: One hundred million. That's the expected increase in U.S. population over the next 35 years. All these people will need places to live, work and shop, and obviously the country's existing building stock will not be sufficient to house them. So although most developers can barely raise a pulse today, they have a future here. That's not as true everywhere.
Rising population numbers are not a given in other parts of the developed world--Germany and Italy will suffer sharp declines over the next generation. Japan's population also is expected to drop by nearly 40 million over the next 40 years to about 90 million thanks to a low birth rate and low immigration numbers. These countries populations will also skew noticeably gray, profoundly changing real estate requirements, lowering overall demand and increasing need for senior oriented living environments.
As American developers resuscitate over the next five years, it won't be back to business as usual either. Edge development runs out of steam. Infill suburbs will turn more urban and vertical. The McMansion era recedes in favor of more compact infill development--apartments and townhouses. Town center and smart growth projects get mainstreamed--shopping environments integrate with residential and other commercial uses. Planners and developers will orient projects around mass transit out of necessity. We won't be able to accommodate all those new people in major metros if people are car dependent. Highways are already too congested and there's no room for adding more roads--people will look for greater convenience and seek less car dependency. Not only will we lose more time on more gridlocked roads, but also driving will continue to become more expensive as government adds taxes and/or tolls to pay for deteriorating road systems and encourages greater conservation. And families may have noticed that keeping two, three or four cars now means that transportation expenses equal housing costs in many regions. Cars won't be disappearing, but people living in metropolitan areas will want other transport options, including the ability to walk to grocery stores and other necessity retail.
Technology advances, meanwhile, will enable more working and shopping from home. That translates into more measured growth in shopping centers and office districts.
In short, people will be using less space per capita--less home space, office space, retail space, and road space. But if we plan and develop right, we will be able to accommodate more people--those 100 million--more efficiently and productively.
Developers have a future, but they will have to adapt to a new 21st century model.