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City of the Future

Futurist Thomas Frey and others have written about the city of the future, with descriptions of amazing cityscapes, confluences of lovely people, and an emerging richness of life after peak oil. Echoing Richard Florida’s declaration that great cities emerge around great people who work in superior organizations, he advocates establishing magnetic incubators that attract talent. Those geographic areas and existing cities that are successful making the transition are those that will have the greatest opportunity for long-term sustainability.

Of course, what of the mayors who approached me some months back, asking what other options they had if their cities were not close to water, did not have an adjacent major highway, no airport, and no natural scenic wonders or national parks that might appeal to travelers or conventioneers?  This group was concerned about the difficulty of attracting the best and brightest, along with new enterprises when their communities had little to offer, based on the latest criteria for sustainable cities. What if these smaller cities are just great places to live and raise a family? What if one can find peace, harmony, space, and friendship there? Does that count for something? Certainly, but the question was about creating growing, vibrant, sustainable cities. Can you have it both ways? Not always.

Ten years ago, Governing Magazine published a story about Loudoun County, Virginia entitled, Rendezvous with Density. This cute title did not fully reveal deep issues imbedded in that county’s struggle to attract commerce while balancing quality of life associated with its rural nature. As noted by author Christopher Swope, the only thing people like less than suburban sprawl is urban density. Especially those suburbanites who have grown up on cheap gas and a willingness to make the trek to work from rural settings, the idea of urbanizing the rural landscape remains a foreign concept.

However, as Daniel Pink noted in his landmark book, Free Agent Nation, more people will telecommute and more will work as free agents. Technology allows more freedom to choose how one earns a living, which in turn may offer opportunities to either hunker down in the suburbs or travel while working remotely at various locales. More than anything, technology has brought latitude and choice (along with efficiency, capability and capacity).

Frey reminds us that technology allows (but does not necessarily encourage) greater collaboration among free agents or distributed employees and more shared tasks. Significant questions arise when one ponders how all of this can be managed effectively and what other than central support or service organizations can operate under this model. Do those working remotely contribute as much as those on site?  Do they collaborate as readily and are they as efficient? And, of course, how will performance be measured?

The larger question seems to be about evolving to a model using a complex equation that factors in higher transportation costs, defines quality of life, and establishes parameters that are proven to attract commerce. Growth must be sustained as citizens move or die. What keeps people around? Good schools, opportunity, harmony, good neighbors, beautiful landscapes, or fear?  All might apply here, but one set of criteria does not fit all communities.

In 1820 the population of Loudoun County was 23,000; it was only 24,549 in 1960. It is now 288,556 (2010).  Growth has been equated to its proximity to Washington D.C., the beautiful countryside, Dulles International Airport, and growth in new high tech businesses. But it is also attributable to the balance achieved between its rural DNA, evolution toward more urbanism, and sensible collaboration that attempts to meet the greatest common interest. Using contemporary marketing and economic development language, note how Loudoun characterizes itself:

  • A young, affluent, family-oriented, highly educated, and fast-growing population
  • A breadth of housing options including contemporary master-planned communities, historic homes, rural estates, and family farms
  • Schools that consistently rank among the best in the state and nation
  • Beautiful rural landscapes and open countryside that include DC’s Wine Country and Virginia horse country
  • A full spectrum of amenities including hotels, retail shops, restaurants, wineries, bed-and-breakfasts, pick-your-own fruit and vegetable gardens, historic small-towns, golf courses and equestrian facilities
  • Easy access to Washington, D.C., a culturally rich world capital

Pretty sweet place! It has a lot to offer…unlike other areas that may have fewer attributes to showcase.

The message here is complex. Communities are evolving. Some will devolve over time due to their inability to meet citizen and business needs. While somewhat Darwinian, communities suffer the same fate of species unable to adapt to a changing world. It’s not good or bad…it just is.

Has your community conducted assessments and scenario planning to determine various preferred futures? This is far different than comprehensive planning, which often plows forward with unsustainable plans that are bound to disappoint. Is there ample collaboration in your community? Are all players at the table and are they taking the long view? There is change in the air and the next three to five years will be critical.  Are you Prepared for Challenge?

With over three decades working in and with federal, state and local government, John Luthy understands public agencies.  Known for his real world, straight talking style, he is a leading futurist specializing in city, county, state, and federal long-range thinking and planning. John is the author of Operations Planning: A Guide for Public Officials and Managers in Troubled Times, and The Strategic Planning Guide, both published by the International City/ County Management Association (ICMA). His new book, Planning the Future – A Guide to Strategic Thinking and Planning for Elected Officials, Public Administrators and Community Leaders, was released in October 2010. An innovative and dynamic presenter, John is frequently asked to speak and consult on how to prepare public organizations and communities for emerging challenges (public futures at http://www.futurescorp.com).

2 Responses

  1. I like this idea of a nice city with plenty of young affluent educated families. But I wonder, what about the old poor uneducated or just poor and uneducated? How do we make them disappear? Or at least hide them from our view.
    A solution for cities of the future must keep in mind that some people are different. We cannot ignore the poor, those without a motivation, without an opportunity to be educated (in America there are more than 100 million that could be included in this list — several billions worldwide). These cities must provide a solution for everybody.

  2. A very thought provoking article. Prompted me to think about how using the river and springs can be used in marketing a city as a good site to host conventions with river or spring-fly fishing activity-being an activity for attendees. This is an article that would be excellent for inclusion in a Chamber of Commerce magazine.

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