Urban Next Summit – Some Context

I have now been home from the Urban Next Summit for a week and have finally been able to sift through the wealth of information and inspiration that I gathered over the two days.  The conference was fantastic.  Picture a room with 100 people from different backgrounds and specialties (planners, consultants, designers, architects, municipal officials, students, non-profits) all working together and sharing ideas on how to make cities prosper into the next 50 years.

The Urban Next Summit was put on by CEOs for Cities and SPUR with the expressed goal of getting cities back on the national agenda and making them function better for everyone – both through ideas and actions.  There are only a few times in my life that I have been engaged in discussions as positive and collaborative as this was – it was refreshing to say the least.  I will be writing several posts of what came out of the conference, but today I am going to present the context and purpose.

In her opening talk, “Why Cities Matter: Delivering the Next American Dream”, Carol Coletta, the president and CEO of CEOs for Cities, strongly made the case that if the US and Canada are going to succeed nationally it is going to be through the success of cities.  And this stands to reason – 80% of people live in cities (1/3 of all Americans live in only 16 cities)!  In addition to this, cities have higher concentrations of health, educational, and cultural organizations, and there is greater access to jobs and various forms of education.  Trends also show higher concentrations of new industries, higher wages, productivity, and entrepreneurship in cities.  Further, the production and consumption of goods (reflected in the GDP) are greatly driven by urban populations.  So, cities really do drive the nation.

However, the current narrative in Canada and the US is not reflective of the importance of cities and dense development: we still think in terms of “traditional households” in single family homes; community as a geographical place where you live; and that as long as you have a car, the location of your necessities is inconsequential regarding where you choose to live.  City living under this narrative is therefore perceived as unnecessary or even undesirable.  A few presenters at the conference joked that if you add “urban” onto something, the perception instantly gets worse: “urban poverty”, “urban crime” – as though urban poverty is somehow worse than poverty.

But this narrative is not indicative of the current state of affairs and does not acknowledge that there has been a cultural shift in values in the population.  Few families (less than 30%) are truly traditional, with many households comprised of singles, power couples, single parents, and same sex families; the notion of community has grown from simple geography to encompass the diverse network of people and services a person encounters; and many people will not simply move anywhere for a job – they expect to have accessibility to services, alternative modes of transportation available, and their desire for community is due to things like social offerings and aesthetics.

Here are a few amazing trends that exemplify this change in values: 51,000 New Yorkers started biking in the last year (overall a 28% increase in one year); nationally (US) there was a 16% increase in farmers markets in one year; from 1990-2000 the percentage of 25-34 year olds that were more likely to live in cities jumped 21%; and trends show that home value increases with walkbility.

So, the need is such that cities and urbanism needs to be reconnected to their successes in order to allow them to continue to be productive and prosperous.  But how do we accelerate the move towards cities?  How to we bring something that is perceived as fringe to the center?  How do we stop using outdated models to solve 21st century problems and increase the capacity of cities to deal with uncertain futures while allowing us all to collectively achieve our goals?

In response to these questions, CEOs for Cities has recently launched an initiative called The US Initiative.

The ambitions of The US Initiative are no small feat.  The Urban Next Summit was created to bring together 100 urban thinkers to brainstorm and hash out ways to make the five ambitions of The US Initiative reality. CEOs for Cities is then hosting a series of challenge events in different US cities to test out some of the actions and ideas on the ground. The overall goal is to move towards cities where all people can:

1)   develop all of their talents and put them to use (Opportunity);

2)   engage and participate in a robust public life (Community);

3)   go anywhere they needed to without a car (Connectivity);

4)   enjoy art, design, and nature everyday (Livability); and

5)   believe in a better future for themselves and their neighbours (Optimism)

Grand ambitions to be sure, but nothing worth having was ever easy to get.

Participants at the Summit were broken up into groups to work through these ambitions – my following posts are going to present some of the discussion my group had around each, and I hope also to delve into a few other ideas that floated to the surface.

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Urban Next Summit – Some Context

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