Hi and Happy New Year!
My firm, Urban3, turned ten years old last year. According to the Small Business Administration, more than 20% of new businesses fail in the first year and 50% will fail within five years. By the tenth year, 70% will have failed. Beating these odds takes a cocktail of numerous variables – luck being one of them.
The most obvious and important reason, of course, is the people who work here. When I look around our office today, I see a growing and increasingly youthful band of researchers, analysts, planners, and visionaries, coming from a wildly varying set of backgrounds, hometowns, and lived experiences, all focused on trying to help cities make better decisions about their money and their land. Every day, they teach me, challenge my thinking, and help me see fresh new applications for what we do. We share a belief in the profound power of innovation and visualization.
We often say that our clients are people who work for cities: mayors, planning directors, downtown association directors, and developers. In truth, the people we work for are the countless families, business owners, taxpayers, senior citizens, children, and others whose destinies are linked to the long-term success — or failure — of the city where they live. If our work benefits anyone, we hope it’s them, and no one gets that better than my colleagues at Urban3.
That said, if it weren’t for the courageous clients that stuck their necks out to hire us, we wouldn’t have the body of work that we have built with them. Data transparency and financial performance visualizations are illuminating and sometimes actually scary. We love working with people who know that the cost of change is often high, but the cost of doing nothing is actually ruinous. Leaders who trust the data and trust themselves are capable of amazing things, and we are honored that so many have chosen to trust us.
I’m thinking of places like Indianapolis, where our research helped lead to the passage of a new transit-oriented development plan, or Rancho Cucamonga, CA, where our work led to a complete re-thinking of their economic development incentives and development approvals process. In our own home of Buncombe County, North Carolina, a deep look at public property tax data found alarming inequities and imbalances in ways our highest and lowest-valued homes were being taxed.
There are also partners we have worked within traditional city planning work, like Gould Evans, Halff, Duany Plater-Zyberk; to name a few. Mission-aligned partners like the Local Government Commission, the Congress for the New Urbanism, Sonoran Institute, and Strong Towns have all shown faith in our method of analysis. None of this could be accomplished without the visualization fireworks that Esri® software provides for us!
As we cross the ten-year mark, we’ve worked in over 170 cities in 37 states. The size and depth of our client portfolio both humbles me and energizes me. In so many ways, we’re just getting started.
In honor of our ten years as a firm, I’ll close with a top ten list. Here are my best guesses about the forces and fallacies that could change urban life in America in 2022 and beyond:
- We’re in for a lot of media hype about the coming of the metaverse, but that will only make real-life cities more appealing and necessary. Just as the advent of streaming led to increases in the sale of vinyl records and turntables, people will find themselves craving experiences that are tactile, thoughtful, unique, and genuine. The metaverse may or may not happen; the sensation of walking down a great urban street or exploring a great public park is already here. People seek synthetic experiences because our built environment has become banal and hostile in most communities – but these same people will realize that the built environment is well within their control and take it back. I have hope!
- America’s diversity will become even more diverse. Already in the 2020 Census, we saw more Black families moving to the suburbs and more Hispanic families moving into cities. Meanwhile, more and more baby boomers are retiring every year; the sheer size and wealth of this generation gives them disproportionate political influence, which will show up in the planning and development of our cities and suburbs. This can and should be positive, as more seniors will need more walkable communities at a variety of price points.
- Traditional political identities will continue to dissolve because the old partisan labels simply don’t stick on today’s problems. The crises in today’s America are ones of inequality and financial instability, and people will move in the direction of whichever leader — not whichever party — seems to understand this best. This gives a huge opportunity to urbanists, who have typically found allies among both the left and the right, to pursue political office at all levels and commit to agendas of equitable, fair, and intelligent placemaking.
- Maps matter! Obviously I have a bias here because of what we do to communicate municipal data on Esri® software. This is because it is a ridiculously powerful software and most communities underutilize it. We live in a geospatial environment, and data is spatial, so it needs to be communicated as such. Understanding maps and geography will be critical to understanding political equity (anyone heard of gerrymandering?) as much as how our tax system separates our valuations and bakes in economic inequities. Our experience has discovered that little known and measured ‘Neighborhood Codes’ may be as economically weaponized as redlining.
- The pandemic will recede, and with it, local governments will want to end most of the great #COVIDstreets interventions that they were suddenly courageous enough to prototype. Restaurateurs and merchants, seeing revenue opportunities that didn’t exist before, will have to fight back to make space for customers, not cars, as they should.
- Electric cars will become affordable and commonplace; it’s entirely possible that if you bought a car this year, you may never buy another gas-powered vehicle. These may be great for reducing carbon emissions, but to the degree that they must travel on paved roads and highways, the long-term implications for sprawl and its devastating cost implications will be bad. Simply put, most cities can’t afford the roads they have, and electric cars won’t solve that. Electric vehicle hype has also failed to put forward a solution for asphalt, which is oil-based – a limited and dwindling commodity.
- Big tech will continue to become more a part of municipal decision making. For communities that get all jazzed about having smart car meters and other tech-gizmos, it may be better to look at your existing hardware and data before you move on to the next techno savior. In community after community, we still aren’t seeing leaders being honest and transparent about their existing liabilities. Before we move to new tech, how about using what you have?
- The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) will begin to take more deserved blame for its abject failures in preventing the degradation of the natural environment at the hands of narrow-minded and over-funded transportation planners (engineers, really). Environmental justice advocates will begin to clamor for real changes and — finally — consistent and substantive enforcement of its provisions.
- We haven’t really learned from the Great Recession. The real estate market has shifted immeasurably in the last five years, and the way we talk about “the market” is almost laughable. We are playing checkers against a system that is playing chess. Most communities don’t adequately understand the disruption of AirBnB and VRBO, nor the consequences of artificially suppressed interest rates and the zoning processes that have become a circus in many communities. As fast as zoning spread across the U.S. in the 1920s, we will see the expedited interrogation of zoning as an impediment to municipal economic equity throughout the rest of the 2020s.
- I could be wrong about some of these, but I am confident in my tenth prediction: we begin another year of Urban3 as we began ten years ago — passionate in the belief that every single thing that we do in our city should be to create places that are so insanely great we cannot wait to share them with others. Nothing else is worth designing, planning, paying for, or building. I predict that in the year ahead, we’re going to connect with more and more people who share this passion.
Our work together is just beginning. If you think we can help your community build a stronger and more stable financial future, please be in touch. We’d love to help.