WHAT MAKES A CITY GREAT?
Urbanites across the country agree on a few things: they want great food, they love waterfronts, and they value historical architecture. As planners and designers, our job is to understand what people want and balance these desires with the big picture—economic realities, cultural needs, environmental concerns, and design opportunities—ultimately helping to shape a more satisfying and sustainable urban experience.
In this report, Sasaki outlines the results of a survey of 1,000 people who both live and work in one of six dynamic US cities—Boston, Chicago, New York, Austin, San Francisco, and Washington DC. We asked what they like and what they don’t like about their built environment in four key areas: architecture, activities, parks and open space, and transportation, and what their personal outlook is for staying in a city long-term. Our participants’ answers show that while we may be in the “century of the city” there is still much work to be done to improve urban life through thoughtful planning and innovation.
PARKS + OPEN SPACE
The Great (Urban) Outdoors
While it’s true that a city’s skyline defines its character in the postcard sense, at the human scale, we identify with the spaces between buildings.
Recent research also suggests that open spaces and a high quality public realm add significant value (think real estate along Central Park in New York).
But making room for open space can be a significant challenge—especially for major, dense metropolises. Not everyone can recreate New York’s Central Park.
Clearly, there are huge opportunities in existing underutilized spaces to transform them into parks. Often, these spaces are linear, like New York’s High Line and Chicago’s Riverwalk. These projects require design innovation and engineering ingenuity, but ultimately provide unique outdoor experiences and connective tissue between different parts of the city.
Coastal and riverfront cities are examining their waterfronts, which are a major draw when it comes to types of outdoor space. Transforming these often industrial and/or underutilized spaces can elevate the reputation of a city, enhance the well-being of its residents, and create major revenue drivers through a variety of programming options.
When we asked urban residents what they liked least about living and working in a city, traffic was the unsurprising winner.
Breaking Americans of their car habit has been an ongoing battle. Transit-oriented development is the most-cited solution to encourage a less auto-centric society. (An anomaly, New York has the city-wide density to support a robust transit network.)
However, the numbers (here and elsewhere) speak loud and clear: we are still auto-dependent. We need to plan and design differently—in a way that will enhance mobility options while still acknowledging our love for the automobile.
We think new technologies offer a huge opportunity to rethink how cars can be more efficient and effective, both in terms of commuting and sustainability. Driverless cars, for example, promise safer and faster trips—and could be hitting the market in only 5 to 10 years. Driverless cars also address the issue of parking. Whereas traditional cars need multiple spaces throughout the day (home, work, gym, grocery store, home), driverless cars can park in a mega garage or further away while not in use—or even serve someone else during what would otherwise be parked time.
Ultimately, integrating mobility in the ever-expanding Internet of Things will help improve the city experience—and reduce our carbon emissions.
Back to the Future
The planet is becoming increasingly urban. And of those we surveyed, most urbanites see themselves staying in a city: a total of 60% said they plan on either living where they do now or in a different part of the city.
From an urban planning perspective, this is a great thing. In regions in which we’ve done the analysis, density and transit-oriented development have the best outcomes economically, environmentally, and socially.
However, some places in the US are struggling with shrinking cities. This phenomenon finds its roots in the 1956 Interstate Highway Act, which has proved to be the single largest force in shaping the development of urban centers across America. The highway program, which was intended to improve access to our great cities, also made it easier to sprawl outside of our urban confines. Once-thriving industrial cities like Detroit and St. Louis have seen more than 60% of their populations leave since 1950. The list of 36 US cities that have seen a population decrease of 20% or more over that same time period also includes places like Boston and Washington DC, though that trend is now reversing.
Collaboration is one of today’s biggest buzzwords—but at Sasaki, it’s at the core of what we do. We see it not just as a working style, but as one of the fundamentals of innovation. Our practice comprises architecture, interior design, planning, urban design, landscape architecture, graphic design, and civil engineering, as well as financial planning and software development. From our
headquarters in Watertown, Massachusetts, we work in a variety of settings—locally, nationally, and globally.