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What Do We Want Our Future Cities to Look Like?

child looking out with binoculars at a city skyline

Published on January 13, 2020

Evergreen CEO Geoff Cape on planning today for what the cities want and need in 30 years

The future has arrived.

Over the last 30 years we’ve been told that climate change will become one of the most critical challenges facing cities. Increased flooding, rising sea levels, longer periods of drought and severe weather are already affecting our ecosystems, economies and our cities around the world.

Meanwhile, cities are growing and changing at a remarkable rate -- faster than ever before. New buildings, new public transit, new energy systems, new parks, new roads and new technologies aimed to assist us as we navigate our communities. 

In the last decade we’ve seen an ever expanding list of new ideas – new energy production and storage solutions, personal mobility options, smart home devices, and apps to help us manage every facet of our lives. For most of us, it is really hard to keep track of all this change. How are people making decisions in a world moving so fast? What should the decision making parameters be for all of these emerging innovations? Who gets to make the big decisions?  

At the end of the day the question we should be asking is: Are these changes improving our quality of life -- individually and collectively?

The answers lie in our ability to look into the future and all of the intersecting changes happening around us. We need to map the drivers of change, then apply some probabilistic thinking to estimate the likelihood of various specific outcomes and their impacts on climate change, immigration, economic dislocation, wealth distribution (or lack there of), and technological disruption.

At Evergreen we believe that looking to the future is the best way to plan for today. We believe that we should connect across sectors and across the country to make sense of the possible futures, and the preferred future we want. In doing so we will be better able to advance the right decisions, more confidently -- to improve the quality of life for all.

Innovation is the key to the survival of cities, and it’s critical that we get innovation right to provoke new thinking and approaches to age-old city-building.

What we’re planning for:

DENSIFICATION: Globally, urbanization is set to grow substantially over the next 30 years. In the Canadian context, the shift from rural to urban centres will be even greater. While we aspire to cities that can support this density, we need to make sure that density is done right. We must find ways to advance mid-rise developments along transit corridors, higher density at transit hubs, and low impact infill development in traditional neighbourhoods – such as laneway suites, and smart community hubs that facilitate community economic development. This work must be balanced with investments in great public spaces. Think about Toronto’s vast network of ravines as the city’s backyard, think about the transforming unused rail corridors into linear greenways, and think about the adaptive reuse of former industrial lands and factories into lush places for ideas and hope.

IMMIGRATON: Canada may continue to be one of the most attractive destinations for people from other countries. In 2019, Canada welcomed over 330,000 newcomers. In 30 years, it is forecasted that we could be one of the world’s biggest destination for climate refugees. With a continual influx of populations to our urban centres, how can we build cities that are truly inclusive and be a global leader in making diversity a big competitive advantage for success?

RESILIENCY: Coping with major shocks to our cities is not enough. Building cities that are resilient will keep the economy strong, civic institutions inclusive and the natural environment protected. This requires looking for signals and designing solutions that address not just climate change, but disruptive technology, changing demographics and job markets. Cities like Calgary and Vancouver have recently launched their cities’ strategies which bring together experts from across sectors to understand and plan for stresses in a more holistic way. If there is a flood, yes, we need to respond to the influx of water, but will we have plans in place to deal with the economic and social impacts?

EXPERIMENTATION: Testing new approaches to advance innovation needs to be the norm. In 2050, projects like the King Street Pilot in Toronto, which aims to improve transit reliability, speed, and capacity by giving priority to streetcars over private vehicles, will have taken hold. Initiatives, like in Vancouver, which require that all re-zoning applications meet either net zero or low-emissions standards, will have expanded to municipalities across the country.

DATA AND TECH: Fast-forward 30 years and more and more residents will have access to the Internet, digital learning and government services online. But at what cost? Taking privacy very seriously starts now. Residents, institutions and the private sector need to work together and advance projects that protect public interest with regards to privacy and the economic interest of the city, region and nation. These processes are already taking shape around the world, such as in Europe with its General Data Protection Regulation. Canada needs to accelerate its efforts to set standards to organize our complicated and evolving relationship with data.

INVESTMENTS TO INFRASTRUCTURE: As part of Future Cities Canada, a national initiative of which we are a founding partner, we have been collaborating with Deloitte to provide an evidence-based case for infrastructure expenditures in Canada in the next 50 years. The result is a study of projected infrastructure and real estate spending based on current patterns of investment to 2067. The answer – Canada will spend an estimated $17 to $22 trillion by 2067 on structures and real estate. This presents a big opportunity to shift the way we think about this investment, away from older patterns to new, innovative ideas that set us up for the future we want to see. But who will we engage in funding our future? And what will we spend the money on?

The innovation agenda in Canada is strong and growing. Already as we embark on a new decade, we’re seeing urban leaders, developers, academics, private sector, and urban innovators all nudging the system in their own way to advance positive change in their sectors and in their communities. Together we need to be asking the right questions now so we can prepare us for the great cities we will need - cities that are low carbon, inclusive and well adapted to the climate change in motion.