Urban Futures, explained

March 14, 2020

We break down one of the centerpieces of UM-Dearborn's strategic planning effort.

An aerial view of the Downtown Detroit on a sunny day.
An aerial view of the Downtown Detroit on a sunny day.
Credit: Alex Hancook via Flickr/Creative Commons

The topic of Urban Futures has emerged as a critical piece of UM-Dearborn’s strategic plan, but don’t worry if you’re a little unfamiliar with what it means. It’s a relatively new concept with a big scope, though you may recognize many of the elements as familiar components of UM-Dearborn’s Metropolitan Vision. In fact, our long history of working on metropolitan issues gives us a strong platform to build on.

To help get you started, we’ve broken down the core concepts, with a few examples. And to understand its potential for our campus, we’ve also included some ideas about how Urban Futures could take shape at UM-Dearborn.

So what is Urban Futures? 

Urban Futures has two main components. The first is the fact that the world is becoming a much more urban place. For several decades, cities and suburbs worldwide have seen steady — and in some cases, explosive — population growth. In 1990, 75 percent of Americans lived in urban places; today that number is 84 percent and growing. Globally, this trend means that nearly two-thirds of people will likely be urban dwellers by 2050. 

A second key concept in Urban Futures is the idea that human settlements will increasingly be defined by emerging technologies. We’re talking about things like new information and communications technology, big data, artificial intelligence and connected and autonomous vehicles — and the power these things have to dramatically change the way we live.

It’s no secret that rapid change in both of these areas poses challenges for our cities. You’ll recognize many of the issues already. Traffic congestion, pollution, urban sprawl, access to transportation, shortages of affordable housing, aging water and utility systems, homelessness, segregation, and inequities in healthcare and education are among today’s biggest urban challenges. Add to that new issues, like surveillance technologies, cyberthreats, the breakdown of trusted sources of information, threats to democracy, and impacts from climate change, and you might start to wonder just how livable our future cities will be — especially as they continue to grow. In fact, many of these issues impact not just cities but all types and sizes of human settlements, including very small rural towns.

With Urban Futures, everything is connected

Even with these issues, the future of our cities and towns is hardly all doom and gloom. Over the past several years, major universities, think tanks, urban planners, local governments and community leaders have begun thinking about how to creatively address these challenges and make our cities smart, efficient, sustainable, safe, affordable, enjoyable and equitable places to live. Collectively, these ideas have become the basis for the Urban Futures Movement (UFM). The perspectives are diverse, but a common thread uniting UFM folks is their view that cities are complex systems made up of many interconnected pieces that often yield unexpected consequences. In practice, this means thinking a lot about how the strategies and policies we use to shape our communities can have ripple effects throughout that system — and even across our nation and globe.

To understand this idea, let’s take an example we’ll all be familiar with: The rise of suburbs. Suburbs really started to define the urban landscape during the middle part of the 20th century. It was a trend that was driven by many interconnected factors, including the creation of the interstate highway system, new government and banking policies, new construction methods  — and fundamentally, the fact that cities themselves were running out of cheap land for new development. Once this process of suburbanization reached a certain scale, however, it had some pretty big ripple effects. First and foremost, more of us started traveling longer distances for work, which in turn, resulted in more congested highways. Sitting for longer periods in our cars, trapped by slow-moving traffic became a fact of life. That, in turn, gave us less quality time to spend with our families and had negative impacts on our health and environment. All this driving also meant our ever-growing network of roads needed more regular repair, which strained government budgets. Connect the dots, and you can see how what started out as a simple desire for more space, quickly became a transportation problem, then a health and environmental problem, then a money problem.

Teasing out this kind of interconnectedness isn’t just good for understanding how past urban development created some unintended consequences. Urban Futures thinkers also use it as a tool to design new strategies for improving the places we live. 

Take, for example, the issue of increased flooding from big storms. It’s something we’re likely to see more of as climate change progresses, including here in metro Detroit. One traditional way of solving that problem would be to build bigger stormwater storage systems. Someone coming from an Urban Futures perspective might, however, propose a more holistic solution. For example, by creating green, wetlandlike spaces all across our cities, we could harness the power of nature to mitigate flooding. Further, we could build this “green infrastructure” on vacant land or old industrial sites to improve blighted property. If we designed them well, some of them could double as park spaces. We might even look for opportunities to build the largest projects where neighborhoods border heavy industry — thereby creating green buffers that blunt the impacts of noise and pollution on residents. Best of all, this approach would be cheaper than traditional stormwater systems.

In this example, you can see how the solution not only addresses the intended problem; it does it in a way that ripples throughout the city to promote health, equity and fiscal responsibility. It’s exactly these kinds of ideas that inspire Urban Futures thinkers, and you can see right away that it’s a team effort. To pull off something like the above example, you need to enlist the talents of engineers, technology experts, botanists, environmental scientists, public health leaders, designers, community organizers and neighborhood residents — just to name a few. In other words, the work of Urban Futures is by nature collaborative, inclusive, imaginative and practical. Succeeding on multiple fronts means we must engage all segments of society, all aspects of a community, and all disciplines. And by doing so, we think we can be far more optimistic about the future of our cities.

Using technology to manage complexity

As you can see in the above examples, understanding the complexity and interconnectedness of our urban spaces is a core part of the Urban Futures approach. Naturally, this may leave you wondering: How can we manage this complexity — especially as our cities continue to grow and get even more complicated?

When it comes to these issues, Urban Futures thinkers see a lot of potential in emerging technologies, especially the so-called “Internet of Things” (IOT). This refers to the practice of connecting everyday objects to the internet so they can send and receive data and communicate with each other. If you have a smart thermostat, a smart TV, or a smart meter from your electric utility hanging on the side of your house, you’re already living with some of these IOT technologies. Now imagine a future where this network of connected devices is fully deployed throughout a community. Smart traffic signals will dynamically change the length of red and green lights to match traffic flow during different times of the day. With a smart electric grid, our homes can store solar energy in batteries during the day, and feed it back out to the grid at night. Real-time data from city services would help us conserve water, optimize trash routes, fight crime and figure out where to place new transit. These are just a few of the possibilities of how the “smart city” can help us manage the increasing complexity of our urban environments. Even more importantly, Urban Futures folks are constantly thinking about how these new technologies can be deployed to serve the interests of the broader community — not just those seeking to profit from them. 

Urban Futures at UM-Dearborn

So why does an Urban Futures initiative make sense for UM-Dearborn? First of all, on a macro-level, it is extremely important for institutions like universities to establish themselves as go-to resources for communities facing these kinds of emerging challenges. Many of today’s urban issues are simply too complex for traditional governments or community organizations to tackle all by themselves. This is especially the case with issues involving new technologies. When it comes time to design new roadways for connected vehicles, buy cybersecurity solutions for our local law enforcement, or deploy street-level surveillance systems, we want to make sure those solutions are properly vetted, don’t waste taxpayer money, and serve the public interest. As centers of wide-ranging expertise and with missions rooted in serving the public good, universities are perhaps better suited than anyone to serve this role. Likewise, we’re uniquely equipped to train students for careers in this space — and to help them build the interdisciplinary mindset that allows them to adapt to roles that don’t yet exist and innovative business models that align with the common good.

It’s not difficult to envision a future version of UM-Dearborn where we’ve emerged as a leader in the Urban Futures Movement. As part of one of the world’s leading centers of learning and research, we have expertise that spans all the key disciplines. And our own campus is more nimble than many bigger universities — with little friction between disciplines, colleges and departments — giving us exactly the right atmosphere to create the interdisciplinary teams and holistic solutions that are the hallmark of Urban Futures. In fact, we already have dozens of active urban-focused scholars and a decades-long tradition of prioritizing research rooted in addressing real community problems. Moreover, the wide range of cities in our region, from Ann Arbor to Flint, Detroit to Dearborn, Dexter to Highland Park, serves up diverse opportunities for on-the-ground community collaborations. We see vast opportunities for student internships and co-ops with city departments, nonprofits and other players who are working on the ground to redefine our urban landscapes. Where we call home just happens to be one of the most complex urban laboratories around.

So what exactly will this look like? Could Urban Futures be a new college? A new center? A new degree program? A new university institute? Those are all great questions, and for now, how the Urban Futures enterprise takes shape at UM-Dearborn is an exciting work in progress. To help jumpstart our efforts, we’re doing a comprehensive survey of all the work we’re already doing in this area, and considering hiring a senior colleague or two to join our team. And whatever form Urban Futures ultimately takes at UM-Dearborn, the goal will be creating an environment that brings faculty, students, governments, businesses and community members together to solve real-world urban challenges and improve quality of life for everyone. In doing so, we hope to not only discover practical solutions that make our own cities more equitable and livable, but help others across the world do the same.  


Want to learn more about Urban Futures? Check out the university’s Urban Futures white paper

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