As cities grow, the real estate industry faces a number of emerging shifts in urban planning which will define the way people interact with their lived environments. Rethinking the cities of tomorrow in the light of sustainability and community building allows urban planners to create resilient places, where people can live in harmony with the natural ecosystem and with each other.
This article hones in on current real estate trends, in Canada and globally, while speculating on some of the effects these changes could have on the way our cities look or function.
“Placemaking” – Imagining public spaces that facilitate conversation, interaction, learning, and play.
In PWC’s most recent report on Canadian real estate trends, placemaking is identified as a key concept in the evolution of the real estate industry. As urban centres grow, developers and urban planners look for ways to facilitate community building through design, by creating an environment where residents feel motivated to spend time outdoors, in each other’s company. Models of urban planning influence the way people work, live and move, so innovative thinking in this field has the power to transform social interactions within a city’s shared spaces.
For example, the Civic Innovation YCC initiative in Calgary provides citizens and business with a platform to share ideas on how best to improve their city’s services. The program aims to re-invigorate Calgary after a particularly crippling financial downturn, by “increasing economic diversification to support our innovation ecosystem and partnering to integrate smart city technologies and data into affordable housing initiatives – creating more jobs and opportunities for all.”
In Montreal, 375 public spaces such as parks and streets were renamed in honour of significant women that have shaped the city’s history, in an attempt to redistribute gender representation in the urban landscape. Although it may seem trivial, the language used to describe urban spaces can have profound effects on how welcomed, safe or included people feel within them.
In her article “If I Were A Man,” Rebecca Solnit writes: “Gender shapes the spaces – social, conversational, professional, as well as literal – that we are given to occupy. Who we are, I realised as I co-created an atlas of New York City, is even built into the landscape, in which many things are named after men, few after women, from streets and buildings – Lafayette Street, Madison Avenue, Lincoln Center, Rockefeller Center – to boroughs – nearby Paterson, Levittown, Morristown. The nomenclature of the city seemed to encourage men to imagine greatness for themselves as generals, captains of industry, presidents, senators. My collaborators and I made a map in which all the subway stops in New York were renamed after the city’s great women. Last year, when I discussed it with students at Columbia university (named after Christopher Columbus, of course), a young woman of colour remarked that she had slouched all her life; that in a city where things were named after people like her she might stand up straight. Another wondered whether she would be sexually harassed on boulevards named after women. The world is an uneven surface, with plenty to trip on and room to reinvent.”
Unclogging a city’s arteries with effective and accessible public transportation
Transit connections between a city’s core and its peripheral neighbourhoods is vital for urban success. “Transit-oriented” development is gaining traction in metropolitan cities such as Montreal and Toronto, where gridlock lengthens the commute time for suburban residents and increases air pollution.
In response, a growing number private developers are collaborating with local governments to integrate effective infrastructure for public transportation into their urbanization plans. Montreal’s STM system (the public transit network) recently launched their plans to develop a mixed-use housing project adjacent to Frontenac Metro station. The chairman of STM’s Board of Directors describes the project’s goals in his public statement: “Prepared in partnership with the SHDM, the project contributes to revitalization of the Sainte-Marie neighbourhood and enhancement of the housing stock, in line with the STM’s sustainable development vision, greater accessibility of public transit and elimination of a heat island.”
STM’s announcement comes in conjunction with an extension to the Blue metro line, talks of an extensive transit network called “Le Grand Déblocage” (The Great Unblocking) and a proposal for an innovative light rail train connecting 26 stations within the Greater Montreal Area.
As housing prices increase within a city’s nucleus, it is essential for residents to have access to reliable transportation options linking the business centre to more affordable residential neighbourhoods.
Another speculation in urban planning is the possibility of cities trafficked by autonomous vehicles. In such a model, city streets would be designed to put pedestrians first; with wider sidewalks, more green spaces, and larger public areas. The idea of switching to self-driving communal vehicles comes in line with a boom in the sharing economy, which has resulted in co-working spaces, shared kitchens, communal retirement, and even shared parking spots in cities.
Paint the town green, with breakthrough sustainable design
Cities produce an estimated 70% of the world’s energy-related greenhouse gases while occupying just 2% of its land. (PWC)
With urbanization comes the pressing need for more environmentally sustainable and eco-efficient cities. Sustainable real estate development factors public parks and other green spaces, ecological conservation, fresh air, clean water and safe waste management into all of its plans.
An increasing number of Canadian real estate developers are including LEED certifications with their residential housing projects. Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) provides a verification that the building meets sustainable performance metrics in the categories of energy saving, water efficiency, CO2 emissions reduction, improved indoor environmental quality, and stewardship of resources and sensitivity to impacts. Hopefully, in the near future, all urban developments will need to adhere to sustainability ratings before launching into construction.
Developers are also repurposing old building structures – a sustainable trend which is growing in popularity among Canadian home buyers. Repurposed lofts, mills, factories, and even warehouses now represent prime real estate opportunities in formerly industrial areas, such as Montreal’s Griffintown neighbourhood.
Converted industrial spaces can also be used as public spaces for recreation or learning. The Evergreen Brick Works in Toronto, a former brick factory, now hosts a large scale community environmental centre (the first of its kind in the country) which targets carbon neutrality, and educates people about sustainable practices.
What will housing affordability look like in 10 years?
There’s no use designing a perfect city if no one can afford to live there.
As population grows, it is inevitable that affordability will become even more of a hot topic, with more urban density and less square footage per residential unit. In response, developers will need to make use of new innovations to keep prices within the limits of consumer purchasing power, without compromising on quality. This might mean finding fast and cheap building solutions, such as prefab and 3D copying, or it could involve creative ways of using space more efficiently.
Beside design innovation, urban affordability in the next decade will rely on more stringent policy on municipal, provincial and national levels. New homeownership programs and financial incentives must be devised to help low and middle-income residents purchase homes amidst rising interest rates and property prices.
Housing shortages could also call for financial incentives rewarding developers meeting affordable urban housing goals, or environmental goals.
Urban planners can draw inspiration from Boston’s Mayor’s Housing Innovation Lab, which carries out housing affordability work in the areas of:
- Sourcing ideas from architects, developers, and contractors regarding the effective design of compact-living apartments
- Accelerating non-profit and grassroots organizations dedicated to community stewardship of land)
- Developing online tools connecting first-time homebuyers to affordable homes and loan programs.
The controversial rise of “smart cities”
Lately, marge Canadian cities have thrown around the idea of becoming a ‘smart city,’ also referred to as a “digital city,” “intelligent city,” or “cyberville” – but what does that actually mean?
When municipalities talk about “smart” cities, they are usually saying that the area is monitored by data collection sensors, which automate the management and control of urban resources. With automation human error is eliminated and resources are managed more efficiently.
Many urban transportation systems are already controlled by data on how traffic flows within the city, which is collected by traffic sensors, induction loops, or video detection. The bigger the data set used to inform the transportation system, the more coordinated and efficient the system will be. Data can similarly be monitored to improve the functioning of waste management systems, schools, hospitals, workplaces, power plants, law enforcement and water supply networks.
In a smart city, information and communication technology allows the community to gain information about day to day happenings and the evolution of their cities, directly from municipal officials or with the help of automated tools. It could also regulate consumption of resources of an individual level. For example, building managers could communicate with their lighting systems through the Internet of Things (IoT) to improve energy efficiency and reduce their overhead costs.
Developers are already designing properties with connectivity in mind, using smart elements in their security, lighting, temperature regulation, and appliances.
With urban centres growing in size and population, there has been interest across every industry regarding the use of data to better meet the needs of urban consumers. It is estimated that the global market for services related to smart urban design will reach $400 billion by 2010.
“Smart cities” are often used as buzzwords in reference to efficient, utopian societies, where the urban system improves upon itself, and generates no waste. Yet there are dystopian critiques of the smart city model too. Some have voiced concerns around how data will be secured, used and governed. Who will have access to this vast arena of data, and to whom does it belong? Privacy risks surrounding surveillance are an issue in the mind of the public, as well as the lack of transparency surrounding the ways in which data manipulates consumer decision making.
Striking a balance between improving the economic and ecological sustainability of a city and protecting the privacy of its citizens will doubtless pose a challenge as advancements are made in data collection technologies.
What else can we expect in the next decade?
2020 will usher in the coming of age of the first cohorts of the Generation C (“C” for connected), who have lived their entire lives connected to the digital world. As the world goes digital, homes workplaces, and cities are transformed accordingly. The labor force is becoming increasingly remote, with more employees working from home or at co-working hubs instead of in traditional offices. This is sure to affect not only the design of public spaces, but also interior design trends of the future.
The need for brick and mortar retail spaces is also likely to diminish, as consumer shopping patterns move online. The shopping spaces that survive will need to amplify the shopping ‘experience’ in order to compete – for example, by using virtual reality to test products in store before purchasing them.
Whether it be for sustainability or efficiency, affordability or community building, urban planners and real estate players will need to harness technological innovations in their industries over the next decade.