COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | ROBIN MADAFFER

A new start for how and where S.D. grows

In this postrecession environment, much is being made about great forces of change — population and demographic shifts, economic drivers, environmental concerns — that will dramatically reshape community building for the rest of the century. However, as dramatic as this change is, the land use industry faced circumstances just as daunting in the early part of the 20th century.

Seventy-five years ago, on Dec. 14, 1936, the Urban Land Institute was chartered in Chicago during a time of great uncertainty in financial markets, shifting economic growth engines, changing demographics and household composition, and an ongoing influx of immigrants. Cities around the country were trying to recover from the Great Depression and position themselves as leaders in an economy then dominated by manufacturing. They were grappling with inner-city neighborhoods in decay as well as new suburbs that would soon face rapid growth.

At the time, no organization existed in the United States to research, analyze or encourage responsible patterns for long-term urban growth, or to explore what constitutes sound real estate development projects and practices.

The Urban Land Institute was founded to fill that knowledge gap, starting an unprecedented process of sharing information about community building that would, over three-quarters of a century, span the post-World War II migration to the suburbs, and the subsequent revival of urban downtowns in the 1990s and early 2000s. During this time, the institute’s membership grew from 200 developers to nearly 30,000 land use professionals worldwide — including the 500 members of San Diego/Tijuana — representing all aspects of the industry. Together we’ve guided a body of work shaped by learning from both achievements as well as mistakes.

At this milestone in the organization’s history, it is difficult to predict what the San Diego/Tijuana region, or any city, will look like when the Urban Land Institute reaches its next 75-year mark. However, a new Urban Land Institute publication, "What’s Next: Real Estate in the New Economy,” offers some clues on how the built environment will be affected in decades to come by how we’ll live, work, use energy and get around. It also looks at how what we build will be financed. This much is clear: Where we’ve been is not where we are headed.

As documented in "What’s Next," these are just some of the reasons why:

  • The U.S. population will grow by an additional 150 million by 2050.
  • The United States has become an urban nation, with the majority of its residents living in urban areas that have evolved into multiple nodes of employment, housing and recreation.
  • The first wave of baby boomers is hitting 65, and most will shun retirement and stay in the work force, either by necessity or choice. Many, if healthy now, could still be alive in 40 years.
  • Generation Y (the largest, most environmentally conscious and most tech-savvy generation in history) has started to enter the housing market and work force.
  • Household size is shrinking because of more people living alone, delaying marriage and childbirth, and having fewer children.
  • Technology is reshaping work space. Office tenants will decrease space per employee, and new office environments will need to promote interaction and dialogue, with offices serving more as a meeting space than a work space.
  • The U.S. transportation infrastructure system, once a world leader because of the new interstate highway system, is now falling behind Asia and Europe in terms of transportation investments.
  • Concerns over climate change have resulted in an increasing number of government mandates aimed at limiting carbon emissions from vehicles and buildings. The federal government is leading efforts in “green” retrofitting to cut its $25 billion energy bill by 28 percent by 2020.
  • The worst economic downturn since the Great Depression has thrown credit markets into prolonged turmoil and left many markets with unprecedented housing foreclosures, causing a decline in the homeownership rate and a long-term change in the perception of homeownership as the American Dream.
The challenge for the Urban Land Institute San Diego/Tijuana is to figure out what these factors mean for future development in our city.

How much of the anticipated population growth for the United States will be happening in the San Diego/Tijuana region? Is the San Diego/Tijuana region appealing to talented workers, including young professionals as well as baby boomers starting their “encore” careers? Does the San Diego/Tijuana region have an adequate supply of housing that is both affordable and close to jobs? Is the San Diego/Tijuana region sufficiently leveraging its public space to catalyze private investment? Is the San Diego/Tijuana region maximizing the economic development potential of anchor institutions, such as higher education and medical facilities, alternative energy-related industries, and arts and culture facilities? And how can future development help position San Diego/Tijuana as being progressive and innovative for the 21st century?

What won’t work: piecemeal, haphazard, poorly connected, sprawling development. Research from the Center for Neighborhood Technology tells us that in the San Diego/Tijuana region, residents in outer suburbs (where the majority of San Diegans live) spend more than 45 percent of their income on housing and transportation alone. Most drive more than 18,000 miles per year for work and errands, and most have seen their auto gas costs double, even quadruple, since 2000. This is simply not a sustainable growth model.

What will work: building the San Diego/Tijuana region in a way that conserves land and energy, de-emphasizes auto dependency, and enhances the natural environment. What is likely: less new construction and a greater emphasis on reusing and adapting existing space in a way that reflects the changing needs and desires of a much more mobile society — a society in which many are likely to rent longer and change jobs much more frequently.

For the Urban Land Institute San Diego/Tijuana, Dec. 14, 2011, could be considered a new starting point, a date to think ahead about what’s to be accomplished for the next 75 years. As Urban Land Institute founder J.C. Nichols once wrote, “An intelligent city plan … does not forget the greater needs of tomorrow in the press of today. It is simply good, practical sense.”

The Urban Land Institute San Diego/Tijuana is positioned to lead in this time of change by anticipating how the impact of urban design and development will meet expectations of the San Diego/Tijuana region residents for livability, amenities, flexibility and choice. Land development is, by nature, a forward-looking enterprise. The work we start now will become the San Diego/Tijuana region of tomorrow. Whether we’ve learned from the past will be measured by how much of what we build remains relevant, appealing and worth preserving in 75 more years.

Madaffer is the chairman of the Urban Land Institute San Diego/Tijuana.

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