Predictions of the future are often tricky. It requires an extrapolation of a trend from today to some kind of logical conclusion, taking into account how the object changing connects to the rest of the world. There’s a real showmanship to it all, too, when you start from the logical conclusion and then explain yourself backwards.
Cities will be radically different by 2050, with zoning codes and concepts that are more flexible and the corresponding buildings will have many uses on top of each other. Suburbs, as we know them now, will require extensive rehabilitation that will work well in some places but create wastelands in others.
See how it works? This is simply the logical conclusion of a flexible workforce and a fast-paced economy with people changing careers often. Should all that come to pass, our cities will have to have more flexible structures and more agile concepts of zoning. We can easily imagine how that might look because that is what cities were like before zoning came along about 100 years ago.
The state of American cities is something that is worth fretting about, even if we tend to do it too much. They are the driving engines of our economy as places where diverse skills can come together and create a skill set defined by “coopertition” – camaraderie among peers where ideas are shared even as they compete. New students learn the craft and add their own touches, advancing the technology in the truest sense of the word, which is literally “the study of skill” in Greek.
More and more, workers are flexible and come onto defined projects as freelancers. They come for the immediate need and then leave when it is over. The social and legal framework that will make this a stable, resilient career has yet to be worked out and is another problem altogether.
But for buildings, the workspace needs are clear. The classic image of a start-up company with workers coming and going is set in an old warehouse for a good reason. Buildings used to be essentially barns of various sizes, with large open spaces that are flexible and can easily be re-used.
You don’t have to watch too many remodeling shows to see how this plays out in residences, too. The “open concept” home with no dividing walls is very popular, and the construction and reconstruction business is fueled by the large engineered beams which make this possible. Construction methods are returning to those practiced a century ago because open, airy, and flexible spaces only make sense.
Combine all of these trends together in housing and we can see how a flexible townhouse might be built. An open shell where walls are easily installed or moved helps to create space as needed for low cost – including a home office or perhaps even a new bedroom as the family expands.
Take this concept one more step and the combination of professional services in the neighborhood becomes valuable. A house that can expand and contract with the size of the family, say a duplex that provides income to a young family turning into a large single-family with somewhat separated space for the teens or elders has a tremendous added value.
More to the point, this is how buildings used to be built before fashions and zoning changed them.
Before there was zoning, buildings were routinely changed from residential to commercial uses as necessary. Houses were duplexed and converted back. They were even moved if the uses around them became too onerous, as a built house was too valuable to simply tear down. All of these trends are coming back as zoning concepts relax, too.
The first wave of zoning, from circa 1920-1980, was very rigid. St Paul had zones that included “R” zones for residential where offices were not allowed. Huge swaths of West Seventh, with apartments above commercial space, were essentially criminalized outside of how they were grandfathered in.
This has been replaced with a growing use of “TN” or Traditional Neighborhood. Many of these uses are allowed in TN1, but conversion to duplex and back would not be allowed. The trend is towards more flexibility, but it still has limits.
Meanwhile, large hunks of the city are seeing market-rate investment in large apartment buildings built along the lines of the middle twentieth century. What if the demand for apartments falls as Boomers age and Millenials want more space for their growing families, as we can expect before 2030? Are we in fact building the slums of tomorrow with buildings that will be functionally obsolete in a relatively short time? Is the city really being invested in with these new developments?
Current zoning for RM, or multiple family, encourages uses like this. Even in TN zones the market favors such apartments while the demand is high. But they are not likely the buildings that will define the city of tomorrow.
Changes in building materials, work and family life, and the overall economy will almost certainly create new and more flexible structures tomorrow. Office spaces will necessarily be more like the old warehouses that are so attractive as spaces for a start-up, and larger buildings with high central overhead may also become functionally obsolete.
If you extrapolate all the trends that are happening now forward, the cities of tomorrow look a lot like the cities of a century ago – large flexible structures with many different uses that are relatively low-slung and part of a walkable urban fabric. Zoning and construction will necessarily change to make this happen in many places. And it will be a good thing.