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John Hennessy III,

What’s Next for U.S. Cities?

Posted by Content Coordinator on Thursday, August 25th, 2011


A Summary of Major Themes from the April 25, 2011 Convening at the Rockefeller Foundation About Future Trends That Will Affect American Cities and Those Who Live in Them

Executive Summary

On April 25, 2011, the Center for an Urban Future and the Rockefeller Foundation convened a small, private roundtable discussion with more than a dozen of the nation’s thought leaders to discuss the key trends, opportunities and challenges that U.S. cities face over the next two decades—with a particular focus on the critical issues expected to impact the most vulnerable urban residents. The purpose of the conversation was to help the Rockefeller Foundation, and the larger philanthropic community, identify the key megatrends, challenges and opportunities that will affect those living in U.S. cities over the next 20 years.

This report summarizes our key takeaways from the convening. While the discussion produced a plethora of interesting ideas, this document provides our analysis of what stood out and which ideas and themes merit a closer look from major philanthropic organizations. It also discusses a handful of additional topics that were not discussed at the convening in detail but which we believe also deserve further examination by the philanthropic funders that are interesting in understanding some of the key challenges and opportunities facing city dwellers in the decades ahead.

Background: Scope of Discussion

The past two decades have been a remarkable comeback period for many of America’s cities. After years when the nation’s urban areas were bleeding jobs and population, many cities have bounced back in a way that few could have envisioned in the early 1990s. The Rockefeller Foundation and the larger philanthropic community clearly contributed to this resiliency, devoting ample resources to target some of the biggest problems facing cities and invest in innovative programs, policies and research.

As much as conditions have improved in some cities, however, it’s abundantly clear that critical challenges remain. At the same time, the years ahead will undoubtedly bring additional challenges and opportunities as cities deal with a host of new demographic, economic, technological and political trends.

To get ahead of the curve in understanding the most important trends that will affect cities in the next two decades and where strategic investments by the philanthropic community could make a difference, the Center for and Urban Future and the Rockefeller Foundation invited more than a dozen prominent urban experts to discuss the future of U.S. cities. We brought together thought leaders with substantial expertise in a range of policy areas, from housing and immigration to poverty and demographics. The goal of the discussion was to hear what the participants believe are the key megatrends shaping the future of U.S. cities over the next two decades, what opportunities or challenges these trends will create and how these trends will affect the most vulnerable urban populations. We asked these questions in the hope that we could gather ideas on what the philanthropic community should be paying attention to in the years to come and gain insight on whether philanthropic organizations could leverage any of the trends affecting cities to encourage more resilience and growth with equity.

Purposely, we asked our diverse group of participants to approach the discussion with “blue-sky thinking” about the substantive key challenges and issues facing urban cities over the next two decades.

Primary Themes and CUF Analysis

The six-hour discussion produced a wealth of compelling observations, insights and ideas. It featured thoughtful suggestions about opportunities, such as the potential for IT-based innovation to help cities address key problems; challenges, including the growing gap between the more highly educated individuals moving to cities and those already living in cities who often lack the skills to fully participate in the area’s economic progress; trends, like the rapidly aging population in many cities; and suggestions for further study, such as investigating what accounts for resiliency in cities that were previously in decline.

While the convening resulted in a number of potential takeaways for the philanthropic community, there was no clear consensus of the one or two most pressing issues facing cities over the next 20 years. Perhaps this is not surprising given the broad range of challenging issues facing cities today and the difficulty of predicting trends far out into the future. For instance, a similar discussion taking place in New York City in 1991 probably would not have imagined the profound changes that have reshaped so many of America’s largest cities over these past two decades. Indeed, many of the issues that cities are grappling with today were not on the radar of urban thinkers 20 years ago.

Meanwhile, some issues that we expected to generate significant debate—like the alarming growth in the working poor, the troubling deficits in skills and educational attainment among many low-income city residents at a time when so many more jobs today require at least some college experience, and the proliferation of low-wage jobs among many city dwellers—were barely mentioned in the course of our conversation.

Download full version (PDF): What’s Next for U.S. Cities?

About the Center for an Urban Future
“The Center for an Urban Future is a public policy organization dedicated to improving the overall health of New York City and serving its long-term interests by targeting problems facing low-income and working-class neighborhoods in all five boroughs.”

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