Downtown Austin, Texas

2011: Cities and Urbanism in Review

2011 continued to show that these are exciting times for cities and urbanism. The Earth’s population was estimated to reach 7 billion by the United Nations on October 31, 2011. New York City endured the back and forth vitriol in the so-called “bike wars”. The pioneering city magazine, Next American City, is shedding its hardcopy and focusing on online content, where it will join the newly launched (and aleady heavyweight), Atlantic Cities.

Looking back, here are a few of the year’s other big stories that will affect our cities:

High-Speed Rail
Photo by loudtiger (Creative Commons license)
High-speed rail in Taiwan.

Setbacks for High-Speed Rail

High-speed rail suffered two major setbacks in 2011. Critics of China’s high-speed rail network were proven right in July when a train rear-ended another train resulting in a crash that killed 40 and injured 172. The general consensus, even from the Chinese government, has been that their high-speed rail network has been expanded too fast at the expense of safety.

While progress on a national high-speed rail system has been too fast in China, the  United States continues to face the opposite problem. Despite the potential benefits of modernizing our transportation infrastructure, President Obama’s 2009 plan for a United States high-speed rail network were derailed this year when Congress eliminated the high-speed rail budget. While a national high-speed rail system has certainly been pushed further to the future, progress continues on both the California and Northeast Corridor routes.

Chicago Forever
Photo by Trey Ratcliff (Creative Commons license)
Chicago Forever.

Smart Cities

The integration of technology in cities continued to gain ground and major financial investment in 2011. The Pegasus Global Holdings announced and is moving forward with building a 20-square mile test city in New Mexico. The unpopulated city will be testing ground for technology such as wireless networks, cybersecurity, intelligent traffic systems, and smart energy grids.

Other ground-up smart city projects moving forward include PlanIT in Portugal (backed Microsoft)  and Songdo International Business District, South Korea (backed by Cisco), which are building hundreds of thousands of sensors into every object and creating urban operating systems (UOS). There is big money to be made in smart city technology, so watch for global technology firms to continue to invest in impressive projects. The real progress will be made though when cities like Dubuque, Iowa successfully integrate the new technology (in their case, backed by IBM) with their existing infrastructure.

Tents in Zuccotti ParkPhoto by Malcolm Logan (Creative Commons license)
Tents in Zuccotti Park.

Protests and Public Spaces

2011 was certainly a year of protests – everything from the Arab Spring revolutions to global demonstrations against austerity measures. On October 15, 2011, protests were held in more than 950 cities around the world.

In the United States, the Occupy Wall Street movement has highlighted the importance of public spaces in freedom of speech and democracy. The site of the original Occupy Wall Street location, Zuccotti Park, has also drawn new attention to the inherent problems with privately-owned public spaces. Ordinances prohibiting the use of bullhorns without permits were creatively circumvented by crowd “human microphone” systems. Other rules, like encampment on public spaces after hours, were broken and then eventually enforced in many areas when elected officials lost patience. Expect public space rules to be clarified and tightened in response to the protests.

Downtown Austin, TexasPhoto by Matthew Whitehead (Creative Commons license)
Downtown Austin, Texas at dusk.

Suburbs not so Dead and Downtowns not so Resurgent

Downtown development across the country were impressive and blog posts of “zombie suburbs” continued to make the rounds in 2011, feeding into the story that the suburbs are dead and downtowns are back. The 2010 Census results showed a different reality as far as population growth though. The census data revealed that only 8.6% of the population growth in the 2000′s took place in core cities of metropolitan areas of more than 1 million, down from 15.4% in the 1990′s. The Great Recession has slowed movement in all directions, but it appears that suburbs are not so dead and downtowns are not so resurgent.

Why I Love ULI Videos

The Urban Land Institute is concluding its Why I Love ULI short video contest tonight, and there are some really great entries so far. The entry that gets the most Facebook likes will win an all-expense-paid trip to Los Angeles for the upcoming ULI Fall Meeting. Sweet deal!

Here are the top three entries I’m loving so far:

Why Rachel Headings Loves ULI

Rachel takes the “love” of ULI to a whole new level in this hilarious video. Someone needs to book this ULI logo for the Fall Conference, I want a picture with it!

Why Stephanie Darden Loves ULI

If ULI was to run an ad campaign, this would be the video. Stephanie’s video is professional, whimsical, and even features a cameo by Orlando Mayor, Buddy Dyer. I’m definitely pointing prospective ULI members to this video in the future.

Why Rob Voigt Loves ULI

Rob made a really creative paper craft video that gets into the meat of why ULI is awesome:

  • Unprecedented resources
  • Leadership, and
  • Inspiration


The winner and honorable mentions have been announced on the ULI Fall website, congratulations to all the creative entries!


what's next for cities & urbanism