Phillips says challenges faced now
are not so different than 75 years ago.

[Phillips is the chief executive officer of the Urban Land Institute. His organization celebrates its 75th Anniversary today.]

In this post-recession environment, much is being made about great forces of change – population and demographic shifts, economic drivers, environmental concerns – that will dramatically reshape community building for the rest of the century. However, as dramatic as this change is, the land use industry faced circumstances just as daunting in early part of the 20th century.

Seventy-five years ago, on December 14, 1936, the Urban Land Institute was chartered in Chicago, during a time of  great uncertainty in financial markets, shifting economic growth engines, changing demographics and household composition, and an ongoing influx of immigrants. Cities around the country were trying to recover from the Great Depression and position themselves as leaders in an economy then dominated by manufacturing. They were grappling with inner-city neighborhoods in decay as well as new suburbs that would soon face rapid growth.

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At this milestone in the organization’s history, it is difficult to predict what our cities will look like when ULI reaches its next 75-year mark. However, a new ULI publication, What’s Next: Real Estate in the New Economy, offers some clues on how the built environment will be affected in decades to come by how we’ll live, work, use energy, and get around; and how what we build will be financed. This much is clear: Where we’ve been is not where we are headed. 

As documented in What’s Next, these are just some of the reasons why:   

  • The U.S. population will grow by an additional 150 million by 2050.
  • The first wave of baby boomers is hitting 65 — most will shun retirement and stay in the workforce, either by necessity or choice. Many, if healthy now, could still be alive in 40 years.
  • Generation Y (the largest, most environmentally conscious and most tech-savvy generation in history) has started to enter the housing market and workforce.
  • Household size is shrinking, due to more people living alone, delaying marriage and childbirth, and having fewer children.
  • Technology is reshaping work space — office tenants will decrease space per employee, and new office environments will need to promote interaction and dialogue, with offices serving more as a meeting space than a work space. 
  • The U.S. is now the largest importer of oil, rather than the largest exporter, leading to stepped up efforts to develop alternate sources of energy.  
  • The U.S. transportation infrastructure system, once a world leader due to the new interstate highway system, is now falling behind Asia and Europe in terms of transportation investments.
  • Concerns over climate change have resulted in an increasing number of government mandates aimed at limiting carbon emissions from vehicles and buildings.
  • The worst economic downturn since the Great Depression has 1) thrown credit markets into prolonged turmoil; and 2) left many markets with unprecedented housing foreclosures, causing a decline in the homeownership rate and a long-term change in the perception of homeownership as the American Dream.
  • The U.S. has become an urban nation, with the majority of its residents living in urban areas that have evolved into multiple nodes of employment, housing and recreation.

The challenge for ULI members is to figure out what these factors mean for future community building, and how future development can help position our cities as progressive and innovative for the 21st century.

What won’t work: piecemeal, haphazard, poorly connected, sprawling development. Research from the Center for Neighborhood Technology tells us that in city after city, households in the suburbs (where the majority of urban residents live) spend more than 45% of their income on housing and transportation alone. Most drive more than 18,000 miles per year for work and errands, and most have seen their auto gas costs double, even quadruple, since 2000. This is simply not a sustainable growth model.

What will work: building in a way that conserves land and energy, de-emphasizes auto dependency, and enhances the natural environment. What is likely: less new construction and a greater emphasis on reusing and adapting existing space in a way that reflects the changing needs and desires of a much more mobile society – a society in which many are likely to rent longer and change jobs much more frequently.

For ULI, December 14, 2011 could be considered a pivot point — a date to think ahead about what’s to be accomplished over the next 75 years. As ULI Founder J.C. Nichols once wrote, “An intelligent city plan…does not forget the greater needs of tomorrow in the press of today. It is simply good, practical sense.”

Building on the organization’s roots of land use leadership, ULI is uniquely positioned to lead — not by responding or reacting, but by anticipating how the impact of urban design and development will meet expectations of 21st century consumers for livability, amenities, flexibility and choice. Land development is, by nature, a forward-looking enterprise. The neighborhoods, communities, cities and urban regions we shape now will be the urban America of tomorrow. Whether we’ve learned from the past will be measured by how much of today’s work remains relevant, appealing and worth preserving in 75 more years.