What Will Cities Look Like in the Future?

June 18, 2021

The COVID pandemic has had a huge impact on all of us, even if we stayed healthy and kept our jobs.  It’s fair to say, that getting “back to normal” is an unlikely future outcome. With innovation and technology leading the way, changes are certainly coming. The Wall Street Journal has issued a series of articles entitled “The Future of Everything” which covers the likely transformations for the way we “live, work and play.”  This month’s focus is on cities and real estate. This week’s blog is a synopsis of their article.

As we know, the pandemic has accelerated the movement of people from big cities to the suburbs and from the Northeast and California to the South. The outflow was greatest among metro areas with the most COVID deaths and those with jobs that could be handled remotely. Individuals and families are moving to less-dense, more-affordable areas.  Big cities are losing residents. New York City saw more net losses in residents in 2020 than it did during 2018 and 2019 combined.  Suburbs, particularly those next to Dallas, Nashville, and Charlotte and across the Hudson River in New Jersey have experienced sharp increases in newcomers.  Developers are accelerating the shift by providing “suburban” communities, which feature fresh-air spaces, fitness facilities, local food and other amenities.  It’s become a “quality of life” issue across our country.

New York City is struggling. Property tax revenues are down $2.5 billion, as assessed values of office buildings and hotels has declined. It’s the biggest drop in revenue since 1996.  The monthly cost for an apartment in Manhattan fell 21%.  The city has only recovered 50% of the jobs it lost since the pandemic came.  About 20% of the 150,000 households that left NY last year moved to Florida.  One recent transplant to FL, Bobby Boyer, 43, put it this way, “I really wanted to get down here-it’s a change of scenery- the palm trees, lakes everywhere, all the wildlife.”

Midsize cities, like Greenville (SC), Des Moines (IA), Madison (WI), Fort Myers (FL) and Provo (UT) are leading the economic rebound in America. Cities like these are drawing workers and businesses with affordable homes, outdoor space and less congestion.  They have a mix of high-tech, manufacturing and finance companies and low unemployment. Venture-capitalist Cliff Holekamp moved his company from St. Louis to Greenville, being sold by Greenville’s Falls Park, bike paths, waterfalls and greenery.  Michelin came to Greenville in 1975 and in 1992 BMW built is first manufacturing plant nearby Greenville in Greer, SC.

Provo, Utah is located on the western edge of the Rockies and a 45 minute drive from Salt Lake City.  It now has a flourishing tech industry as well as being near mountains and state parks and being a less-expensive place to live.  Provo has seen a shortage of workers, particularly tech professionals. But remote work has made it possible for them to bring in staff who live elsewhere.  Some of these remote workers then move to Provo.

With all of this going on, here are 10 new ideas being tested in small and midsize cities across the U.S. to improve life for their residents:

  1. Self-driving shuttles. Arlington, TX is testing self-driving shuttles under its public ride-share program. Arlington has been the largest U.S. city without a public transit system.  Now it hopes to be the first with self-driving shuttles.
  2. Universal income. In 2019, Stockton, CA tried an experiment. They gave 125 residents of low-income neighborhoods $500 a month for two years. The recipients reported few signs of anxiety and depression and were more likely to end up with full-time work.  Stockton has increased the program and other cities, including St. Paul, MN and Richmond, VA are testing the program.  Some economists rightly worry that the payments are too expensive and will lead people to stop working.
  3. Affordable housing in your backyard. Pasadena, CA is encouraging residents to build a second small home in their backyard and rent it to tenants with housing vouchers.
  4. Cash for remote workers. As more Americans work remotely, cities are vying for them to move there.  Savannah, GA, will give tech workers $2,000 to cover moving expenses.  Tulsa, OK is offering $10,000 to workers relocating. The concept is that employees-not employers- will decide where they work.
  5. Online job training for job seekers. Louisville, KY, in partnership with Microsoft, Humana, the Louisville Healthcare CEO council and the University of Louisville is providing those who lost their jobs in the pandemic to free online classes in software engineering, data analysis, and others subjects.
  6. Reparations. Evanston, IL, was the first U.S. city to provide reparations, using taxes on the sale of marijuana for the funding.  Black residents and their descendants are eligible for $25,000 grants if they were victims of housing discrimination in Evanston from 1919 to 1969. Lawmakers in Amherst, MA are looking at a similar program.
  7. Smart Sewers. South Bend, IN, installed sensors and valves that detect when the system is in danger of overflowing and redirects wastewater so less of it escapes the sewers.  Today about 340 million gallons of wastewater flows into the river, while 12 years ago, 2 billion gallons did.
  8. Smart delivery zones. Aspen, CO, is attempting to reduce their downtown filled with delivery vehicles blocking traffic by “smart zones.” These are dedicated curb and alleyway space that delivery drivers can reserve with their phones.  Aspen collects data on hourly usage and charges drivers for stops-similar to a parking meter.  It provides additional revenue to the city and reduces congestion.
  9. Tiny homes as homeless shelters. Salt Lake City, UT plans to build a tiny-home village for residents who are chronically homeless, thereby encouraging them to come indoors. Austin, TX, has a similar project, home to 220 people currently.
  10. Cleaner streets, better lives. Palo Alto, CA and other CA communities are putting homeless people to work cleaning streets and picking up loose garbage. Participants get vouchers that can be used for groceries and transportation.  16 cities are now doing this.

No one knows the future. Yet, we all know that things will change in many ways in the next 20 years.  It will be interesting to watch what innovative small and midsize cities do to improve the lives of their residents, those already living there and those they hope to attract.



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