This article was originally published in the BREAKGROUND app, an application for iPhone and iPad. The quarterly digital magazine highlights the intersection between technology and design by featuring industry leaders who advance and change how our future is built.
I am glad to have been included in the discussion on Minneapolis-St. Paul and the Towerside Innovation District. This was a wonderful project to help usher through their first phase of development.
THREE GROWING CITIES ARE PLANNING MUNICIPAL TECH INNOVATIONS THAT COULD SOON CHANGE URBAN LIFE AS WE KNOW IT
For nearly a century, the suburbs were king. That archetype of the American dream — the white picket fence, lush lawns, a quiet and safe tree-lined street, and an expansive four-bedroom house — has lingered in the nation’s consciousness since the 1920s as the aspirational ideal.
But the tide is shifting.
“Right now is the first time millennials have been self-consciously interested in cities,” said Lisa Schweitzer, an associate professor at the university of southern California’s price school of public policy. “Urban is being sold as a lifestyle. A lot of my students think suburbs are old and boring and stupid.”
Driven by an influx of millennials, gen xers, and baby boomers, large cities are exploding. In the past five years, they grew at twice the rate of the preceding decade and much faster than their surrounding sprawl. Many people are no longer seeking an unnecessarily spacious home in suburbia, preferring instead to be able to walk to lunch, bike to a park, and hop on the light rail to catch a concert, all in the same day.
People from across the generational spectrum want new transportation alternatives, high-speed internet and tech-connected spaces, and more shared economics like Uber and Airbnb, according to a survey by the American planning association.
Three American cities — Los Angeles, Houston, and Minneapolis–St. Paul — are seeking a competitive edge in the race to attract urbanites by fostering innovation and entrepreneurial growth. Implementing new technologies that make it easier for city dwellers to interact with and benefit from their urban environment has led all three to be counted among the nation’s metropolises best poised to take advantage of the digital and tech era.
Although they differ in terms of their built environment, geography, and historical trends, these three regions are all emphasizing connectivity and tech savvy in a bid to become the next great American city.
In Los Angeles, planners are challenged by an aging infrastructure as they try to revitalize the downtown corridor as a technology hub. To foster this Silicon Valley of the south and attract young tech-savvy professionals, a primary goal is improving high-speed internet connectivity throughout the city’s urban core.
“In this era, one could certainly argue that internet is as essential to businesses as any other utility,” said Ted Ross, chief information officer and general manager of the city’s Information Technology Agency. “We want Los Angeles to be competitive. We want it to be a place where people go to set up businesses.”
Dozens of startups and tech firms are already situating themselves in the region’s resurgent Arts District, where they are reclaiming abandoned and run-down industrial buildings for creative office space.
Although many entrepreneurs are encouraged by Mayor Eric Garcetti’s outreach to the startup community and embrace of technology in general, they are hoping for more proactive planning efforts to improve the atmosphere for up-and-coming businesses.
“At this stage, the city is a bit reactive,” said Ani Okkasian, managing director of Impact Hub Los Angeles, a community incubator, accelerator, and resource for entrepreneurs. “There was not an intentional plan to spur this area to be a creative hub for millennials.”
In places like Chattanooga and Kansas City, businesses can shuttle data back and forth at 1 gigabit per second for around $70 a month, whereas in Los Angeles, companies are likely paying a lot more for lower-grade connections. A 2014 report by the Open Technology Institute placed the blame for this disparity at the feet of low population density and limited options in terms of service providers; pricing is controlled by a few corporate giants that are slow to step up their speeds.
Addressing sluggish internet connections is the goal of CityLinkLA, an initiative to make high-speed internet available throughout the city along with a free baseline level of wireless service at a lower speed.
To attract new vendors like Google Fiber and encourage existing players in the market to boost their bandwidth, the city is offering up incentives like a streamlined and expedited permitting process, access to utility poles and park property to install WiFi equipment, and freedom to tie into the city’s subway tunnels and sewer conduits to install fiber optic cables. City officials are also developing an open-access inventory of public property that might help vendors determine where they could rent city-owned land for tech infrastructure such as a fiber hub.
Another motivation for internet providers is the city’s offer to be an anchor client, committing an estimated $1 billion over 10 years for high-speed fiber services in municipal facilities. The city is currently reviewing responses to a request for proposals it issued last year and envisions a five-year buildout of the revamped network once a contract is awarded. Ross said all options are on the table.
“Whether it’s fiber to the home or business, whether it’s wireless, whether it’s cellular, we want to improve connectivity in general in the city of Los Angeles,” he said.
Unlike older, more established cities, Houston is a relatively uncluttered canvas. Thanks to its thriving industry, affordable housing, and light regulatory touch, the low-density behemoth has the potential to become one of nation’s next great urban centers.
To keep the gravy train rolling, however, the metropolis needs to toss aside its reputation as the blob that ate East Texas — at approximately 600 square miles, the city is one of the most sprawling in the nation — and focus on creating compact, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods and an integrated, multimodal transit system.
Houston has truly reinvented itself in the past few decades. Although the region’s petrochemical sector is alive and well, the painful collapse of the oil boom in the 1980s prompted an economic restructuring that emphasized industries like aeronautics, business, manufacturing, research, and health care. Quality of life, given little thought by many of the blue-collar roughnecks working the oil fields, has become increasingly important as companies strive to attract the best and brightest.
Although suburban sprawl continues to eat up great swaths of prairie, Houstonians are starting to seek a shorter and less-congested commute and more local amenities. A recent survey found half of the region’s residents, about 3.4 million people, would prefer to live in a smaller home in a denser neighborhood if they had more options to walk, bike, or take public transit to nearby destinations.
As a result, the city is moving away from widening streets and adding freeway lanes as the primary strategy to address congestion, which gratifies Jay Blazek Crossley, who recently left his post as executive director of urban think tank Houston Tomorrow.
“We have added a lot of dense housing and better transit,” he said. “We’ve started down the road toward complete streets and quality-of-life improvements that make it possible to have more density.”
That vision is reflected in the city’s first general plan, adopted just last year, with its emphasis on walkable neighborhoods, green space, and light rail, bus, and bike infrastructure. Houston is also embracing tech as it invests in connectivity, developing apps that are making the job of urban planners and developers much easier.
“There is so much going on in Houston right now as it relates to thinking smarter about how we evolve and redevelop,” said Patrick Walsh, the city’s director of planning and development.
Although it is readily apparent that some areas are prime for this type of denser redevelopment, particularly along transit lines and near large employment centers, planners are benefiting from the advent of sophisticated computer mapping tools and open and accessible city data.
These high-tech creations include the Planning Coordination Tool, an interactive web-based app that displays state, regional, and local planning activities in one place. Users can activate layers such as bikeways, park boundaries, freeways, major roads, wastewater utilities, and hundreds of other municipal plans and projects. Developers can drop a pin on the app’s digital map and see what projects are occurring in a specific neighborhood, from street improvements to building permits to bike lane enhancements.
A separate mapping program developed by the Houston-Galveston Area Council, known as Blue Map, uses a hexagonal grid system and six indicators — households, household population, jobs, activity population, job–household balance, and number of intersections — to highlight areas of the city that are ripe for walkable neighborhoods and streets.
Other apps include the Connectivity Tool, which helps planners and developers determine how increased density affects traffic and transportation needs, and the Fiscal Impact Tool, which estimates potential revenue and economic effects associated with creating denser, connected neighborhoods.
“We are hoping that having these sorts of technologies will help people see potential in places where this revitalization hasn’t been happening,” said Jeff Taebel, the council’s director of community and environmental planning. “Let’s look at the places where all the arrows are pointing in the right direction.”
As cities across the country begin to toy with the idea of denser urban living, one locale is garnering attention for taking the concept to the nth degree. In Minneapolis–St. Paul, urban planners are experimenting with an innovation district that is stretching the limits of shared infrastructure.
“This is an opportunity to be a living laboratory where we can demonstrate what 21st century urban living can and should be,” said Dick Gilyard, an architect and president of Prospect Park 2020, a group focused on guiding redevelopment in the region.
The 370-acre district known as Towerside — located along the seam of the Twin Cities and anchored by the University of Minnesota and the light rail system’s Green Line — historically featured a mix of industrial, business, and student housing. One of the city’s older neighborhoods, it is prime for development but needs serious investment in infrastructure.
Rather than just a standard upgrade, however, Gilyard and a group of community stakeholders are envisioning a districtwide merging of systems like heating, cooling, water, and energy that emphasizes sustainability and stewardship of the environment.
Shared parking reservoirs will serve multiple properties. A stormwater system will collect runoff to be reused for irrigation. A “green spine” along Fourth Street with intimate plazas and pedestrian amenities will emphasize walking and biking and merely tolerate cars.
“It’s a fairly bold concept for a historic neighborhood to embrace,” Gilyard said.
One of Towerside’s most innovative approaches is its vision for the district’s energy infrastructure, which will rely on the latent power stored in wastewater. A heat exchanger will draw energy from that untapped resource to raise or lower water temperature at a central plant. That water will then be used to pull heat from buildings during the summer or pump it back in during the winter.
Compared to the cheapest standalone heating and cooling system on the market, the wastewater approach will be less expensive and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 19 percent. Adding other renewable sources of energy like solar and thermal will enhance the system’s environmental and economic benefits.
The main challenge for Towerside is that these systems are all voluntary. Developers have no mandate to tie into the district stormwater system, for example, or to embrace the wastewater energy approach.
“Everything we are doing is through collaboration and consensus with the property owners in the area,” said Julie Kimble, a planning consultant who is leading the Towerside implementation process. “That means everything we do has to have value for them.”
This modular approach to replacing older infrastructure systems can be difficult, particularly trying to convince building owners and developers to plan for a piped heating and cooling system that doesn’t exist yet. But as the district is reborn and these shared systems expand, Gilyard is confident that plugging into the network will be a natural part of redevelopment in the neighborhood.
He is also hopeful that the innovation district will ultimately serve as a model for urban planning throughout the Twin Cities and elsewhere.
“Like any city, we have our challenges,” Gilyard said. “But I think we have the benefit of great civic leadership. Our job is to do things that are inspired and just as important as our leaders did 100 years ago.”
Making these kinds of improvements in Minneapolis–St. Paul, Houston, Los Angeles, and elsewhere is undoubtedly an incremental process. If Rome wasn’t built in a day, it certainly couldn’t be rebuilt and reimagined in a day either.
Rather than trying to spawn the high-tech metropolis of the future as reflected in films like Akira, Minority Report, and Logan’s Run, planners and developers will need to acknowledge practical realities and limitations, particularly the challenges of working with existing infrastructure and geography. In this process of rebirth and growth, imagination and technology can serve as stimulants to guide the future of the city.