Can We Even Begin To Imagine What Our Cities Will Look Like In The Year 2050?

That’s the question I kept asking myself during last week’s the Future of Cities 2015 conference in Riverside, CA. The one-day gathering of about 300 mayors and elected officials, urban planners, and state agency representatives was hosted by the University of California at Riverside’s Center for Sustainable Suburban Development (CSSD) and the Western Riverside Council of Governments (WRCOG). Experts came from across the U.S. to share ideas, experiences, and discuss the challenges and opportunities in shaping the future of their cities in today’s era of intense change with our economy, lifestyles, the ways we consume (or share) resources, and our climate. More city governments are partnering with the private industry, institutions of learning, and motivated citizenry to move beyond the talk of greening our cities to actually getting it done.

Cities are indeed where the action is: for the first time in history, the majority of the world’s population lives in cities; by 2050 66% of us will be urban dwellers as the global population swells to more than 9 billion. This intense growth presents tremendous challenges, but when it comes to managing change and finding solutions, cities are the engines of innovation and the proving grounds for global sustainability.

Although the conference was focused on what is happening with cities in Inland Southern California, the presentations and discussions were a microcosm of larger trends in city planning across the country. Cities are leading the transformation to a future that is more urban, less dependent on the automobile, and much less resource-intensive. This corresponds to a growing awareness that sustainability is as much about community, quality of life, and a healthy economy that delivers local benefits, as it is about preserving the environment for future generations. Thought leaders from CSSD, WRCOG, the Urban Land Institute (ULI), Institute for Local Government (ILG), STAR Communities, and Urban Sustainability Directors Network (USDN) were among many who echoed repeating themes of healthy and enduring communities, collaboration and inclusion, place-making, and the necessity (like never before) for good planning. In fact, in many places the concept of “sustainability” has been replaced with more tangible concepts like “quality of life” that can easily generate support and understanding from the larger community.

I’m leading a team at ESA that is working with the City of Riverside (City) on their Riverside Restorative Growthprint (RRG), an innovative climate action plan that recognizes the local economy as a critical component to the City’s long-term greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction strategy. We are helping Riverside lead California’s sprawling “Inland Empire” region in depicting how a future of growth and prosperity can be synonymous with “green.” The City expects its population to grow by more than 25% between now and 2035, and views its efforts to reduce GHG emissions as a fundamental opportunity to inspire economic development through investment in urban development, urban infrastructure, urban mobility systems, and entrepreneurship. Our hope is the RRG will be a roadmap for a sustainable future, integrating economic, social and environmental needs with the City’s vision to be a center of innovation and a steward of its community and natural resources.

For more information about the Future of Cities 2015 conference, the Riverside RRG or for help tackling urban sustainability challenges, contact Jeff Caton, PE, LEED AP at or at (415) 896-5900.

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