The Sustainable City Circa 2040

The first in a series.

Jonathan F.P. Rose, founder of the green real estate and development Jonathan Rose Companies, delivered an inspirational capstone address at the Executive Council Sustainable Cities leadership forum earlier this week. I served as editorial director for the event.

Rose asked participants to close their eyes and imagine the city they’d like to live in in 2040. A few minutes later, people reported back what they’d “seen”: green space, children playing unsupervised, transportation that was accessible but not intrusive, successful locally owned businesses, a short distance between work and home (“No one ever visualizes a long commute,” Rose quipped when hearing that last contribution.).

What was interesting was that though the participants came from different industries and geographies, their sustainable urban ideals were remarkably similar. They were human scale and community oriented.

Rose explained that we all have three hard-wired motivational “systems” in our brains. The first is triggered by fear: the amygdala-controlled response to a threat that generates a fight-flight-or-freeze response. The second is incentive-based: the delight one gets from buying a new car or getting a raise. The pleasure is intense but short-lived: for example, a person getting a raise will reset their expectations about pay in approximately two weeks and the raise will no longer be a source of pleasure. The third is affiliative. It is where we feel love and comfort. This is where we get the pleasure from being with a family member or pet — or in a community. It is long-lasting and satisfying.

Unfortunately, Rose said, the processes used for most urban planning do little to engage that last system and may be why we get so many unsatisfying urban spaces. Regulations — from height restrictions to open-space requirements — operate in the “fear” space. Incentives like tax breaks operate in, you guessed it, the incentive space. That’s where things most often stop. Rose mentioned that his development often have higher-than-market-average occupancy rates because they actively work to operate in the affiliative space through community building.

Rose echoed what Neil Takemoto, founder of Cooltown Beta Communities, had said on the Sustainable by Design session earlier in the day. Takemoto crowd sources urban spaces which, he explained, is all about understanding the values of the people who will use a space and then incorporating those values into the design (for some examples of what this looks like, check out Neil’s Cooltown Studios blog — he tracks projects around the country that live into this approach).

Most urban development is an engagement between institutions: city agencies interact with development companies who in turn engage with big banks, retail chains, and other large entities with little investment in the people who will inhabit a particular space. They are concerned with maximizing the revenue per square foot or building and leasing a structure as efficiently as possible. Making money and being efficient are not bad things, in fact they are essential to community viability, but they cannot be pursued to the exclusion of the human factors that will ultimately determine the vibrancy and sustainability of a community.

Close your eyes and imagine your ideal urban community. What do you see?

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