What is the future of the edge?

When it comes to city building, nothing stays the same forever. Things change. Except for one thing: growth. Growth drove the traditional city building model and it will drive the future model. As we now know, for the first time in history more people live in cities than in rural areas and this is ever-increasing, which means how growth is managed will define future cities and separate the successful ones from the unsuccessful.

We also know suburban communities have existed for some time, and have enjoyed a great deal of acceptance in the 20th century. But now, their future is questionable, with many thinkers arguing that traditional suburbs are no longer sustainable in the long term. As sprawl creeps ever further, gobbling up farmland and relying solely on new infrastructure to connect them to employment and services, their sustainability comes into question. With oil and transportation costs eating up more than can be saved in exurb housing prices, the collapse of many communities seems a distinct possibility, if not inevitability.

Some planners and thinkers imagine a world in which the traditional yet unsustainable suburb disappears. But buyers seem to continue to prefer single-family homes. Suburban planners and suburban residents often have differing views of how best to plan developments — as with everything, there are always those who will push for change and those who will push for the status quo. Both parties say they are interested in protecting the environment and maintaining long-term community sustainability, but how to achieve this is fraught with disputes on both sides.

Cities traditionally relied on three factors over the past five decades to grow: an abundance of relatively inexpensive raw land, cheap fossil fuels and easy access to the automobile. But the rise of New Urbanism has shed light on how many of the suburban planning practices currently employed cannot be sustained. With loss of farmland, wildlife habitat, and the health of a suburban population dependent on their automobile for the most basic needs, a few brave cities and towns — like Richmond and Surrey in B.C., as Rhys Phillips discusses in this issue — are trying to reverse 50 years of destructive planning.

While it’s true we are inherently suspect of anything “instant,” we’ve come to the point where we need some form of instant urbanism. We are experiencing a convergence of significant local and global factors that is rapidly making the traditional growth model obsolete. Cities need to significantly change how they manage growth if they hope to achieve sustainability in the future.

City growth isn’t slowing down, and in the coming decades we can safely expect millions of square feet of new space to be built, for everything from homes to offices, shopping malls, industrial buildings, and all the good stuff like new hospitals, libraries and museums. In fact, a recent U.S. study estimates that in 2030, around half of the buildings in which Americans live their lives will have been built after 2000 (the majority of which would be residential structures). Think about that for a second — it means that half of the built environment of 2030 doesn’t exist yet. This gives us a profound opportunity to reshape the future for the better.

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