From the Publisher

Who Is Designing the 21st-Century City?

From CEOs to professors, from New Jersey to California, smart minds are thinking about America’s urban future.

Aerial view of Richmond, California, home of the Berkeley Global Campus (Credit: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

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Coast to coast, from Newark, New Jersey, to Berkeley, California, and in between, great minds are considering the future of cities — and sharing their thoughts, hopes and concerns. In my October travels for Next City, I saw the future, and can report back that the state of our cities is promising.

In Newark, the NJ Spotlight on Cities event kicked off with Toni Griffin digging into the concept of “Just Cities.” From a design perspective, Griffin, who’s an architecture professor and director of the J. Max Bond Center on Design for the Just City at the City College of New York, highlighted urban equality where it succeeds as well as where it fails. Inherent in her presentation was the belief that all people deserve good design. We should not accept Newark’s so-called “Bayonne boxes,” newer prefab housing stamped out in the city over the last decade that’s been criticized as at best, lacking imagination, and at worst, an eye sore. We must design communities that provide a range of services and are affordable and accessible.

I heard corporate executives who are bullish on cities too. Panasonic Chairman Joe Taylor anticipates many new employees at their new corporate headquarters in downtown Newark. The company’s relocation was prompted by state incentives, and Taylor said, “I think tax credits are critically important.” However, PSEG Chairman Ralph Izzo argued against tax breaks to lure companies, saying he favors states and cities investing in people and infrastructure. Former State Senator Gordon MacInnes, president of New Jersey Policy Perspective, went one step further, citing solid research that calls for reining in corporate welfare. Beyond the glamour of shiny new buildings, the true and total costs of these financial incentives will have long-term consequences that aren’t being addressed.

Mayors from Newark, Plainfield and Trenton commiserated about declining state aid, while advancing ideas for bringing people and jobs back to cities. The next generation of mayors has fiscal challenges, but strong natural and cultural assets can inspire new ways of thinking. Retaining young households and ensuring quality schools and safe neighborhoods can be prescriptions for success.

On the other side of the country, in California, San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley and Richmond provide new lessons for addressing growth, inequality and environmental constraints. Angela Glover Blackwell and her staff at PolicyLink in Oakland are researching the myriad ways that communities can and must address racism as well as other social, environmental and economic challenges. Across the Bay in San Francisco, SPUR is leading the charge for metropolitan planning.

It was in Richmond, though, at the Meeting of the Minds, that I saw physical manifestations of the next wave of urbanization. Plans are underway to convert underutilized facilities and land into the Berkeley Global Campus, a 130-acre mixed-use waterfront site that incorporates naturally reclaimed lands with state-of-the-art facilities and services. UC Berkeley anticipates that this will be their new northern campus, as well as a hub of innovation. A post-industrial site seeking to reclaim nature while nurturing the next big thing, BGC has the potential to become an international center for research and development, focusing on sustainability and resiliency.

Toyota unveiled the Mirai at the event. The first mass-production hydrogen fuel cell cars were delivered in California, and I had the opportunity to test-drive one for a smooth ride. Whatever its pep and efficiency, the Mirai will likely face an interested but skeptical audience, as the lack of refueling stations and a hefty initial price tag might limit sales. The promise of lower emissions and cleaner fuel could overcome these concerns. Coolest feature: The only “option” on a well-equipped base model is a generator connection that enables the Mirai to power your house for up to a week.

I also heard foundation voices at the Meeting of the Minds, including the Kresge Foundation and the Barr Foundation. Again, the central theme was addressing inequality and resiliency for an urbanizing world. Considering how Global South cities in Latin American and Africa are developing and implementing bus rapid transit. Barr’s Mary Skelton Roberts asked the quintessential question: “Who is BRT being built for?” Kresge’s Rip Rapson reminded us of the chronic mismanagement between costs and revenues in Detroit. The next huge civic challenge, according to Rapson, is education. I am glad to see Kresge, Barr and other foundations stepping up to the plate.

On my last stop before returning to the East Coast, in Kalamazoo, Michigan, I saw the Michigan Downtown Association’s downtown redevelopment projects in Detroit, Dearborn, Grand Rapids and Pontiac. Lofts are booming in Michigan. Thousands of units are being built in downtowns, by reusing iconic schools, municipal buildings and stores — and reminding us that more dense living is both affordable and attractive to a new generation of urban dwellers.

The biggest takeaway from my latest coast-to-coast exploration of urbanism is the power and necessity of leadership, which can take many forms but must be manifest in people willing to make change. The good news is that from Newark through Kalamazoo to Berkeley, pro-urban change is affirmatively being sought. Time will tell if it is enough.

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Tom was president, CEO and publisher of Next City from May 2015 until April 2018. Before joining Next City, he directed the Center for Resilient Design at the College of Architecture and Design at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. Prior to that, he ran the Regional Plan Association’s New Jersey office, and served as a senior adviser on land use for two New Jersey governors. Tom is a licensed professional planner, and a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners, as well as an adjunct professor at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, where he teaches land use planning and infrastructure planning.

Tags: urban planningurban designsustainable cities

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