CityAge's Top 10 Forces Shaping Cities

CityAge's Top 10 Forces Shaping Cities

Cities have a lot to think about as 2021 comes to an end.

The last 11 months have been defined by recovery from the on-going pandemic, grappling with the systemic inequities COVID-19 revealed, and a worsening climate emergency. All accompanied by incredible bursts of innovation to adapt to the crisis.

Below is our list of the 10 central trends, technologies, designs, and policies that we believe will shape cities as we head into a new year.

CityAge's Top 10 Forces Shaping Cities:

10. Blockchain and Cryptocurrency

9. Rethinking Work

8. The 15-Minute City

7. America's Infrastructure Bill

6. Urban Agriculture

5. Cities’ Return to Nature

4. Autonomous and Connected Vehicles

3. Universal Design

2. Cybersafety

1. Fighting Climate Change


10. Blockchain and Cryptocurrency

Cryptocurrency isn’t just relegated to a niche corner of the web anymore - it’s showing signs of moving into our city centers, changing how they operate. S&P’s Global Ratings indicate growing interest in cryptocurrency among American cities in pension plans, taxes, and other city services. Williston, North Dakota accepts crypto for utilities. Pension plans in New Jersey and Virginia both have investments in cryptocurrency. Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve has launched an NFT project to fund public art. 

Over 100 businesses in crypto-hotspot San Francisco accept bitcoin, Wyoming and Texas are working to attract more cryptocurrency companies, Vancouver, home to the first bitcoin ATM, has 50 businesses that accept bitcoin, and Amsterdam has more than 40

Cities are facing remarkable challenges. We’re heading into a post-pandemic era, defined by natural disasters and aging public infrastructure. Public and private industries are digitizing, automating, and streamlining their processes to address the needs of our time. Blockchain technology - a digital, decentralized, and public ledger that records transactions - could be a key ingredient to those efforts, increasing transparency, trust, and efficiency.

That’s why Smart City expert Dr. Jonathan Reichental will be releasing a book on cryptocurrency and blockchain in early 2022, and just launched a LinkedIn Learning course on blockchain basics, on December 1st. 

“The unique qualities of blockchain make it a truly 21st century disruptor that must be understood,” Dr. Jonathan Reichental, Author of Smart Cities for Dummies and CityAge speaker, in the introduction to his new course on LinkedIn.

9. Rethinking Work

Remote work has reshaped many of our careers and personal lives, but it’s reshaping cities too. While the so-called urban exodus may not have been all it was predicted to be, work won’t be returning to pre-pandemic normal. Working from home, and the digital connectivity that came along with it, has changed how employers think about the office. They’re rethinking how much they pay for commercial downtown space, and the flow of public transit and even the 9 to 5 work day could change as a result. It’s also changing what kind of jobs employees will take in the first place.

LinkedIn reported that as of August 2021, remote jobs accounted for 30.2 percent of applications to U.S based positions - three times higher than the rate as of August 2020 (9.8 percent). In a survey done by Cisco Canada, released in October 2021, 77 percent said “flexibility” would be a deciding factor when choosing a workplace, and 72 percent said their company was implementing hybrid arrangements. That means cities need to attract people in new, innovative ways. There’s opportunity for city’s with lower costs of living, and there’s opportunity for new urban design and real estate investments around this new way of working. 

Cities like Bend, OR, have seen a significant influx of remote workers, partly because of its wide array of co-working spaces and access to the outdoors. Common, a company that designs, leases, and manages multifamily residential properties, announced finalists for their Remote Work Hub RFP in January 2021, showcasing one of the new urban design ventures made possible in this new world. Remote work will continue to shape demographic patterns, and the ways we design cities, as we head into 2022.

“The last 18 months have made people reassess who they are, what they’re working for, what quality of life means to them, and they’re reassessing their commute times, they’re reassessing their housing costs, they’re reassessing the opportunities for remote work.” - Paul TenHaken, Mayor of Sioux Falls, to the Breakout Cities audience on October 19.

8. The 15-Minute City

The 15-Minute City, an urban model where all of life’s necessities are within a 15-minute walk, is gaining traction around the world from Portland to Paris. The 15-Minute City could reduce car traffic, and enhance community health and equity by increasing accessibility to public services, as well as opportunities for fresh air, exercise, and social interaction. 

The pandemic has supercharged The 15-Minute City concept. As many of us spent more time at home than ever before, access to green spaces and walking trails became a defining factor in how well people coped. People who didn’t have access to cars were forced to take a health risk by riding public transit during the pandemic, when they needed groceries, or to go to a doctor’s appointment. Isolation proved detrimental to physical and mental health. With remote work and the absence of travel, our neighborhoods took on new found importance. 

That is part of the reason Professor Carlos Moreno, who came up with the 15-Minute City idea back in 2016, won the Obel Award in October 2021, for "outstanding architectural contributions to human development". 

In response to the concept gaining popularity in mainstream media and at the policy level, Moreno released a report in January 2021, detailing the origins of the 15-Minute City and its potential to shape our post-pandemic future. 

“The physical city has an enormous impact on education and people’s lives, and if you can’t talk about it and acknowledge it, then it’s hard to move forward.” - Ryan Gravel, Founder of Sixpitch, to the audience at Building a Complete American Neighborhood on Dec. 8. 

7. America's Infrastructure Bill

It’s the trillion dollars that made headline after headline in 2021. It’s enabling investments in rail, bridges, roads, buildings, and water systems across the country. It can expand public transit and broadband, upgrade and improve ports, fund high-tech smart city solutions, and move the country closer to net zero. 

It’s federal legislation, but when it comes to handling it wisely? That’s on state and city leaders. 

It’s an unusual challenge for local governments: they’ve got the money, they just need to decide what to do with it. Investments that are smart, and that come out of carefully crafted plans will have the most impact. Cities that involve public, private, and citizen organizations in the decision making process will see the best results. That’s what Bruce Katz, founder of the New Localism, told CityAge earlier this year.

This historic investment isn’t just about America. The bill is rewriting the playbook for urban innovation and setting a precedent for how to build infrastructure for the challenges of our times in a way that builds equity and sustainability. It’s revealing what’s possible when cities have more capital. 

If invested correctly, it could turn out to be a master class in 21st century problem solving for cities. The world is watching what American cities do with it. 

“Capital is not the constraint anymore - we have more public and private capital than we've ever seen. Organizing that capital is the binding constraint. Can you envision a future where there's growth, but also inclusive growth and sustainable growth? Can you unlock the innovative assets you have? Be the best 21st century version of who you are?” - Bruze Katz in conversation with CityAge in October 2021. 

Listen to Bruce speak to the Breakout Cities audience on Oct. 19, here.

6. Urban Agriculture

Rapid urbanization, extended days of food transport, over ordering, equipment malfunction, and confusing standards around spoilage are generating food waste and shortages at the same time. We waste one third of our global food supply, while 10 percent of North American households don’t have enough to eat. 

Urban agriculture is part of the solution: indoor and vertical farming, greenhouses, community gardens, personal plots of land, and any other farming done in the city, like the urban farmers using hydro corridors in Toronto, to grow fresh local food for nearby residents. 

Indoor farming is expected to grow by over $624 million from 2021-2025 globally.

Urban agriculture isn’t just changing the way we grow food, it is changing our cities too. It’s creating new community jobs, new gathering spaces, and transforming the relationship city dwellers have with their food. As a result, diets are shifting, the culture of eating is in flux, and the food ecosystems in cities are changing. 

One Canadian expert predicts a lettuce revolution. Leafy greens will come from new urban farms in the same day, getting rid of long tail and truck rides from California that leave consumers with food that isn’t as fresh as it could be. 

“For a very long time, the adoption of indoor agriculture has been a question of scale and economics, and those are starting to really swing in favor of these technologies. I think we're about to have a bit of a lettuce renaissance in Canada. That's my hope.” - Lenore Newman, to the Food’s Future Episode 2: Better Agriculture to Feed 10 Billion People audience, Nov. 9 

5. Cities' Return to Nature

On the heels of the pandemic, in the midst of a mental health crisis, and in the race to net zero, 21st century cities are finding their way back to nature.

Spending time outdoors was one of the most common ways people coped  during COVID-19. Ninety-four percent of Canadians said nature had reduced their stress during the pandemic, and ninety one percent said protecting nature is more important now than ever before, according to the Nature Conservancy Canada survey. Six in 10 Americans said they have more appreciation for nature post-pandemic. None of that is a surprise - spending time in nature has undeniable positive health outcomes. It seems we had just forgotten, until the pandemic reminded us. More cities are building and prioritizing green spaces as a result.

Not only did nature play a key role in how many of us experienced and coped with COVID-19, but cities are also realizing that a closer relationship with nature can help address climate change. Cities are integrating the natural world right into their built environment as a result.

It’s called green infrastructure, but it isn’t just one thing. It’s a variety of tools and practices that allow a city’s structures to imitate nature and live with it, instead of off or in opposition to it. It includes water infrastructure that mimics natural water cycles, tree-planting, building wetlands, pavement that catches and stores water, allowing it to nourish soil underneath, and green roofs and walls that produce oxygen, and control temperature. Cities that embrace this ‘natural  ecosystem’ infrastructure offer nature’s health benefits to their residents, and drive down carbon emissions, while facilitating urban growth at the same time.

This urban technology combined with our renewed appreciation for the outdoors, and the reminder that it makes us feel better, is building cities that have nature at their core. They are The Natural City. 

“We learned, once again, how important our open space is, and the connection to our river, parks, and importantly the foothills of the Rockies. We saw three times the usage in the parks along our greenbelt, and that didn’t let up once everybody went back to work.” - Lauren McLean, Mayor of Boise, to the Breakout Cities audience Oct. 19

4. Autonomous and Connected Vehicles

Self-driving cars aren’t in some far-off urban utopia anymore. In fact, this year Ohio State University engineers predicted that they’ll be in regular commercial use by 2030. Earlier this year McKinsey & Company reported a growing consumer interest in autonomous and electric vehicles post-pandemic, too.

Autonomous vehicles will of course push us closer to net zero and make our air healthier to breathe, but they’ll do much more than that. They’ll completely reconfigure our roads, reduce collisions, alleviate traffic, and free up all the time we’re spending behind the wheel.

If these new devices allow us to reimagine our roads, we can reimagine our cities as a whole. We won’t need as many traffic lights. Pedestrians, cyclists and cars can travel on the same roads because autonomous vehicles will recognize people nearby automatically. Sidewalks and bike lanes can be wider because autonomous vehicles can travel closer to each other. Commuting could become more popular. Public transit and rates of car ownership will change, as well as delivery services and jobs. People with physical disabilities will be able to more easily move throughout the city too, building more equity and accessibility. In fact, on Dec 6 New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy announced an on-demand autonomous vehicles public network in Trenton, with a distinct focus on serving disadvantaged communities. 

Then there’s the carbon footprint and congestion reductions. Autonomous cars are likely to be electric, so they don’t have GHG and particulate emissions. The driverless car is also likely to be used almost constantly — a big difference from the private automobile, which is parked 95 percent of the time. That means the autonomous vehicle will transport at least 20 times more people a day, which means less congestion, less idling of gas-powered cars, fewer cars on the road, and we will be free to use the space that public parking lots take up for something else.

The reduction in carbon emissions, increases in safety, cleaner air, transformation of urban transit, and more flexible use of urban space will make autonomous vehicles one of the most powerful tools for cities in coming years. That’s because when our vehicles become smarter, we’ll be free to design cities that revolve around people instead of the car.

“It’s been said that autonomous vehicles will be the most impactful urban technology in the first 50 years of the 21st century, and the more evidence I see the more I begin to believe that data point myself. When all cars are autonomous you can think differently about city planning.” - Dr. Jonathan Reichental, to the audience at Breakout Cities Episode 2: The Trillion Dollar Buy

3. Universal Design

COVID-19 revealed long-standing, systemic, and discriminatory inequities in our cities. Now local and federal leaders are rebuilding around the idea of universal design  — recognizing that inclusive infrastructure is no longer just the right thing to do, but necessary to withstand the challenges we face. Poorer and socially marginalized people were the hardest hit by the pandemic, studies reveal they’re the most severely impacted by the climate crisis, and they have less access to broadband and digital tools. People with accessibility issues — those with disabilities, our aging population, and those dealing with language and economic barriers — need to be prioritized in the future design of our cities.

Washington’s post-pandemic strategy is pushing the universal design movement with an emphasis on equity and a response to racial injustice. In a statement from the White House, released on March 31, the current administration promised to address the racism and accessibility issues long ingrained into American public infrastructure, from the highway system to neighborhood design. Canada’s federal recovery strategy embraces universal design, too, with inclusivity, accessibility and equity identified as priorities in future investments.

Universal Design simply means designing and building cities that are universally accessible, empowering all citizens with the ability to unlock their human potential regardless of physical ability, financial standing, or social prejudice.

That means transit that’s affordable, clean, safe, and convenient, public spaces that are physically, socially, financially, and culturally accessible, utilities and housing that are affordable, and neighborhoods that are built around people who have historically been underserved. 

No conversation about urban innovation can ignore universal design. Now that the pandemic has laid bare all the inequities that cities have harboured, the drive towards universal design  will be one of the most defining, and corrective, forces shaping urban life in coming years. At CityAge, we’re calling it the rise of The Universal City, an idea we’ll be highlighting in 2022.

“The pandemic has unveiled every vulnerability in our social welfare system...when we talk about Building Back Better, in my mind we’re talking about building equity.” - Van R. Johnson, Mayor of Savannah, to the Breakout Cities audience on October 19. 

2. Cybersafety

Tech was evolving at a breakneck speed before the pandemic, but the last 18 months have accelerated the digital revolution by years. Getting cybersafety caught up to this accelerated digital reality is a priority for every city, business and individual. 

It’s not just about personal privacy and safety — our individual identifications, banking information, or our locations, personal relationships and conversations that can all be tracked. We’re digitizing our food and water systems, too, embracing autonomous vehicles, and streamlining government processes using AI. Cities are at the epicenter of this shift: as they become smarter, more and more processes are going digital, and we’re becoming vulnerable to greater risk. 

That’s why faulty cybersecurity threatens public safety. Take the hackers in Florida, who got into a town’s water supply and threw off the chemical balance, making it unsafe to drink. There’s no shortage of examples, and experts say we can expect more in 2022.

We need strong cybersecurity in order to unlock the full potential of digitization in the first place, too. People need to trust the new tools and systems that private industries and cities alike are adopting in order to embrace them. That trust will lead to more, and better, data. Good data can give us insights into everything from systemic inequities to opportunities for investment and innovation, to advances in climate science and resiliency. We’ll only get enough of that data if people buy into the digital systems and tools that generate it, because they feel confident that their city will use their information without impinging on privacy rights. 

Right now, much of the general public doesn’t have that confidence in digital tools. Some experts are calling it the trust gap, and it’s limiting adoption. A clear commitment to cybersecurity and cybersafety can help build that trust, and increase tech adoption. That is why cybersafety is essential to our cities. 

Cities that want to embrace smart tech are the leaders in cybersafety. It’s the essential ingredient to tap into the power of data to advance in virtually every area of city life.

“We need the rules of the road in order to allow technologies to be embraced by the city…we can then focus on the technology and what it offers, as opposed to the fears about how it might be used against us.” - Rohit Aggarwala, Senior Urban Tech Fellow at Cornell Tech, on the importance of cybersecurity and data privacy at the Big Spend Episode 5, on June 15.

1. Fighting Climate Change

The chilling warning from this year’s UN Climate Report tops our list of defining forces: It’s Code Red for Humanity.

At CityAge we know that means Code Red for cities, and the billions who live in them. 

Heatwaves, wildfires, flooding, droughts, tornados, and hurricanes destroyed homes, wiped out crops, and pummeled city infrastructure this year. The devastation in Kentucky is just the most recent in this year’s string of disastrous weather events. They swept across North America from British Columbia — where the town of Lytton burned down after hitting the highest temperature ever — to New York, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut — where Hurricane Ida killed almost 50 people. These weather events are coming at a pace that leaves little to no time for recovery in between. 

New research from this summer is showing that 5 million deaths a year can be linked to climate change, as a result of extreme temperature. 

Here is the top-line message: the leaders at COP26 — leaders of countries, global businesses and ordinary citizens — referred to the conference as our “last, best hope” to save earth. 

But we are more optimistic than ever before. Cities — and the people who build them — are amazing forces rethinking how we can live with our planet. Cities — where 70 percent of us live — are where solutions happen. 

Cities are where we redesign and update roads, bridges, residential and commercial buildings, food and water systems, with new standards. This is where we change consumption patterns and transition away from fossil fuels. 

Just look at Copenhagen’s approach, which brings together private business, academics, government, and citizens to drive down emissions. A global coalition of mayors, C40, has begun coordinating efforts to address the effects of climate change with a particular focus on equity. Private industry is responding too, as companies become more incentivized to drive down emissions.

Cities are facing no shortage of powerful, paradigm-shifting forces right now - but building cities that can endure extreme weather and reduce emissions at the same time will be the defining project of our lifetimes.

“I actually think that we are moving to a new normal, as opposed to really having the elasticity to go back to a previous time…We’ve had these reports since 1990. I think of them visually like a bell choir. We started out with small bells. With every report they got bigger and stronger. This 2021 report jumped to the equivalent of a church bell.” - Cindy Wallis Lage, Black & Veatch President, in conversation with CityAge


Vancouver | Las Vegas

cityage newsletter: 
how to build the future

follow us