The Fall and Rise of U.S. Cities

Urban areas around the world are growing at rates not seen since the throes of the Industrial Revolution, and they're facing pressures never experienced before.

In the midst of growth and change, civic leaders in the United States are rising to the challenges posed by modern cities. How can urban communities balance the push and pull of new versus old; preservation versus innovation? What can be done to improve the lives of all urban residents in a world increasingly defined by inequality? No one's sure yet what the city of the 21st century will look like, but leading minds across disciplines are coming together to start the conversation.

Is innovation the new manufacturing?

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Bruce Katz 2013
“There really is no American economy; what we really have is a network of metropolitan economies.”
There really is no American economy; what we really have is a network of metropolitan economies.
— Bruce Katz, Brookings Institution

Although the days of cities as manufacturing bases are gone (maybe for good), the 21st century has seen a new breed of companies root themselves in cities across the country. Ever since Amazon set up shop in Seattle and Google put their headquarters in San Francisco, those cities have seen radical changes to almost every aspect of their economies and cultures. The biggest question is just how many cities can compete in the innovation space as part of a globalized economy. 

The potential for innovative solutions to both the stagnation and growing pains felt by many American cities seems to be limitless — think along the lines of co-working spaces, ride-share apps, etc. But many innovations touted as solutions are new and untested. As cities seek to understand their impacts, some struggle to balance the freedom that spawned these innovations with the need for regulations. A panel at Aspen Ideas 2015 discussed just this:

Does in with the new mean out with the old?

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Google is being much less innovative with cars than they were with computers. They asked the question, ‘how can we make the car better’ instead of, ‘how can we get around better?'
Jeff Speck

As cities grow and redefine themselves in a new era of urbanism, some cities struggle with retaining a sense of shared identity while planning for growing populations and rapid technological change. For cities designed with car travel in mind, how can exciting new developments in public transportation be worked into a maze of roadways and historic buildings?

The rapid expansion of new industries had led to both growing pains and creative partnerships. When online shoes retailer Zappos moved its headquarters to downtown Las Vegas, CEO Tony Hsieh made a $350 million investment in revitalizing the downtown area. He calculated that a healthy, thriving downtown would attract not just talent for Zappos, but a whole ecosystem of innovation and creativity.

What does a healthy city actually mean?

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According to Jed Bernstein, former head of Lincoln Center, Broadway alone is contributing $3-4 billion into New York City's economy.

More and more cities are starting to think creatively about what a healthy city really means. When cities start considering human, economic, cultural, and environmental health as both important and interconnected, the results can be staggering. Jed Bernstein, during a 2014 panel about how the arts can fuel a city's growth, reminded us that Broadway not only feeds New Yorkers' souls but also their pocketbooks.

Some are starting to expand the idea of urban planning in innovative ways as well. Landscape architect Kate Orff works with urban landscapes to reshape both the urban and natural environments in complementary ways. Healthier natural ecosystems in and around urban areas can translate into energy conservation, flood mitigation, and greater human health outcomes.

The Takeaway

Cities are destined for massive changes in the 21st century, and civic leaders and experts agree that understanding and getting ahead of those changes will have massive implications for social, economic, and environmental health of cities. Every sector of civic life is ripe with potential for innovation, but the trick will be finding the correct balance balance between disruptive solutions and existing systems.

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