Cities are humanity’s greatest invention, believes Edward Glaeser, a Harvard University professor of urban and social economics. They make us “richer, smarter, greener, healthier and happier,” he writes in Triumph of the City, published in 2011. Yet a decade later, the pandemic has uprooted how we live and work and accelerated an exodus from city centers to the suburbs and regional towns. As central business districts gradually reopen and recover, the future of urban life is likely to remain split between the core and suburban towns, paving the way for cities that are polycentric, with more than one center. So, now there is an urgent need to revamp and recalibrate town centers as well as community high streets on the peripheries of cities to ensure they have the facilities and connectivity to make them a focus of everyday life. Innovative, sustainable solutions to create resurgent urban centers are required today to create a brighter tomorrow.
More than 4.5 billion people—57 percent of the global population—live in towns or cities today, and the United Nations predicts this will grow to 60 percent by 2030. However, rapid urbanization and unchecked city sprawl have often overwhelmed inadequate services and infrastructure such as roads and waste systems, and increased pollution. And while cities contribute approximately 60 percent of global GDP, they also account for 70 percent of carbon emissions and 60 percent of resource use.
More frequent dry seasons with low rainfall are increasing reliance on seawater desalination, which consumes more energy than other water treatment methods. Even during seasons of heavy rainfall, the amount of rainwater and stormwater that can be collected and treated into potable water is limited by the availability of containments within Singapore’s land area.
Cities are often also hotspots of poverty. For instance, 27 percent of people live below the poverty line in London, compared with 21 percent across the rest of England.Now, after 18 months of being locked down, minds have been opened and determination to tackle the effects of inequities on physical and mental health has been galvanized. Building back for a more balanced future must cause us to reflect on how we have developed our urban areas over the last century or so.
As the continued acceleration of digital working enables us to live our lives more locally, we must focus on how to help urban centers evolve to become smarter and more connected, better serving all citizens. To truly fit with post-pandemic realities, a new vision, bold thinking and a concerted, multi-stakeholder approach are required. A balance must be struck between traditional central business district (CBDs) and suburban centers to accommodate hybrid-working lifestyles, allowing a wide variety to thrive.
Sustainable living: reimagining urban centers
The answer to this complex challenge won’t be found overnight. At AECOM, we believe the best way to attempt to solve it is to look deep into the future. Imagine how urban centers and the surrounding regions should look, feel and connect—and work back from that point to understand the steps we must take today to be prepared for the future.
For example, in recent white papers—including London 2070 and the SPUR Regional Strategy’s Model Places for the San Francisco Bay Area—we have deliberately thought well beyond the horizon of most policymakers. The idea is to show the art of the possible and highlight opportunities that could (and should) form part of a long-term collaborative project to improve quality of life and open up opportunities for economic growth with a lower impact on natural resources, allowing all place types to mature into better versions of themselves.
AECOM believes that by 2070, with careful planning, the heart of urban centers as well as neighborhood high streets and suburban corners could evolve to become what we label “civic hubs” and act as destinations and focal points for communities to interact face-to-face and digitally. This would provide a more inclusive and equitable way of living, working and learning, and be catalysts for balanced growth within the wider region.
To better understand our concept of civic hubs, consider the Roman Forum, the celebrated meeting place of ancient Rome and a center for trade and exchange. Or town halls and how they have evolved over the years, from a base for administration or merchant trade into community hubs hosting a variety of activities. As well as workplaces, they house a variety of social infrastructure functions. from child care to skills and training facilities.
Our idea of civic hubs emerged from the concept of the 20-minute neighbourhood as we sought to re-imagine town centers as catalysts for growth that is balanced environmentally and socially. Anchoring a range of activities – from childcare to healthcare to co-working spaces – and ranging in size from a corner-shop-cum-café on a suburban parade to a landmark building in the metropolitan center or market town, they will be connected digitally and physically to their appropriate economic and social networks.
In the civic hubs of the future, data-driven healthcare will enable the provision of proactive public services and happier citizens. The civic hubs would house what we call “wellbeing hives,” which would complement at-home remote diagnosis and treatment through telemedicine, wearables and artificial intelligence (AI), drawing together healthcare professionals and community workers to assist in keeping the vulnerable, isolated, old and young both healthy and connected with society.
Furthermore, residents of all ages, abilities and backgrounds will be able to collaborate and connect with colleagues or interact socially. Lower real-estate costs and shared workspaces can accommodate corporate workers who have relocated due to the surge in hybrid working. Housing will be varied, affordable and climate-positive, featuring heat recovery, solar energy and water recovery systems as standard, and with access to local sustainable transport nodes.
Moreover, these civic hubs will be vibrant places, rather than hollowed-out areas where shops and offices sit empty. The decline of retail on the high street is well documented, but these localized hubs will bring new life to town centers by expending their offer beyond the commercial experience of a shopping center.
As a central, cohesive force, civic hubs could offer smaller but diverse shopping cores compared with 2021, featuring local produce as well as specialty retail and “try before you click” shopping. In addition, they will create opportunities for communities to come alive, and host a range of services such as local co-working and development spaces, bars, cafés and entertainment spaces at the heart of 20-minute neighborhoods —complete, compact and connected areas where citizens can meet their everyday needs within a short radius. These are also greener, as they feature more public parks along with urban greening projects.
Connectivity boost: integrated mobility centers
We see civic hubs as a key stage in the move towards more sustainable living. With the convenience of having almost everything people require to live and work a mere bicycle ride or walk away, at the core of 20-minute neighborhoods. CO2 emissions will be reduced, resulting in cleaner air and healthier citizens.
Additionally, civic hubs will be super-transit nodes: integrated mobility stations at the center of local, sustainable transport networks that comprise walking, cycling and mass transit systems. The rise of Mobility-as-a-Service, which integrates various transport modes into an accessible, on-demand service, contactless ticketing and autonomous vehicles, plus the prospect of high-speed trains and even futuristic mass-transit solutions, such as the air-resistant hyperloop pods currently being piloted, should all be considered in the design phase of civic hubs to ensure maximum accessibility and flexibility as the way we move inside and outside urban centers changes drastically.
Crucially, civic hubs will function as integrated and connected mobility centers for local, city and regional transport networks. Investment in interconnected mobility systems will supercharge cities, towns and suburbs, empowering local citizens to take advantage of the broader cultural agglomeration. It’s important to stress that while you can create an ideal civic hub, it will not flourish and realize its potential unless it, in turn, connects to the larger world.
A rapidly changing world: overcoming challenges for a brighter tomorrow
The pandemic has necessitated the acceleration of digital transformation and other trends, but these have left large cohorts of people behind, especially in ill-served suburbs and towns now absorbed into our larger cities, and deepened inequities globally. Moreover, the unrelenting pace of change means the disconnect between the haves and the have-nots will only expand.
There is now a unique opportunity to rethink how we live, work and learn. In the coming decades, the most successful urban areas will seek to better serve all citizens.
Civic hubs can be at the heart of tomorrow’s communities—but urgent action is required to realize their potential. A long-term, multi-stakeholder approach is vital to achieving these civic hubs of the future. Several bold steps must be taken today to collaborate, coordinate and align objectives between investors, agencies and—last but certainly not least—the communities they will serve.
Action points include:
- Creating the conditions for all citizens access to value-added jobs
- Investing in schools and lifelong learning
- Creatively repurposing former retail and commercial real estate
- Designing and funding better travel connections between civic hubs across a region and beyond
Such civic hubs have the potential to be more sustainable and significantly more equitable. But the bold choices that will enable them must be made today.
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