Urban Livability for the 21st Century

A phenomenon that may become the main driver of future urbanisation and reconfigure the cities as we know them.

So, has peak urbanisation been reached in the developed world? Will urbanisation stagnate, or will we perhaps enter a period of ‘de-urbanisation’? Perhaps not. It may be true that the search for economic opportunity will lose its status as the chief driver of urbanisation as proximity to work and the need for in-person services become less important. Instead, the phenomenon may continue thanks to an oft overlooked (but essential) factor: liveability.  

A liveable city is one that provides a decent life for all its inhabitants, including a high degree of physical and mental wellbeing. What would it take for liveability to become the primary reason for choosing to live in the city in the future? The potential answers are many, but three may turn out to be particularly important in the decades to come: Proximity, convenience, and sustainable (or regenerative) living spaces. This list of factors is not exhaustive, nor does it strictly follow WEF’s definition of liveability, which doesn’t take into account that what defines liveability today may change in the future. Regenerative urban spaces, for instance, is not included in this definition, but can be expected to play a greater role in the push toward liveability. How big that role will be naturally depends on the degree to which regenerative principles are integrated into the future design of cities and urban planning. With COVID-19 lock- downs having severely impeded liveability in many cities (by as much as 70% according to some estimates). We could also speculate if pandemic preparedness could be counted as a factor in future urban liveability. This inclusion would not have made much sense until recently.  

21st century life is said to have been built on proximity and convenience, and cities are no exception. Living in a dense urban area comes with a significant number of perks, such as ease of mobility, and more immediate access to goods and services. It also comes with the sense of community that follows close proximity with one’s neighbours, colleagues and friends. Unlike in previous decades, the high population density which necessitates this proximity may not detract from a city’s liveability in the future. Instead, it may enhance it due to how digital ecosystems centred around convenience can empower ease-of- access to services. Across Asia, for example, widespread and affordable food delivery services as well as multi- purpose mobile apps like WeChat have developed in large part thanks to the sheer number of people capable of using such services in a limited space.

In the future, densely populated urban areas will continue to be testing grounds for innovative new ways of servicing the needs of populations. With the ongoing optimisation of urban delivery systems (which will eventually be autonomous), coupled with the ability of goods providers to operate at scale in dense urban areas, we are rapidly moving toward 1-hour delivery of most goods in cities. Within long, we may even see physical retail ‘go mobile’, with Toyota, Amazon, Chinese Didi Chu- xing, Uber, Pizza Hut and others already developing mobile urban ecosystems (‘stores on wheels’) expected to be operational in select cities by 2030.5 Although the autonomous and digital goods and service economies will thrive in densely populated areas, they will not be confined to cities.  

Yet cities will have another edge compared to rural and suburban life when it comes to liveability derived from convenience and easy access to goods and services: While urban brick-and-mortar shops may lesson in number as digital commerce continues to expand and grow, the ones that will win out will be those that have managed to optimise their offerings around their unique selling point: a presence in the physical space. With the ‘shopping experience’ once again being put front-and-centre in physical retail’s competition for customers, city residents will thus have access to something that neither the digital service-economy nor rural living can compete with. Naturally, cities will also continue to be important centres for cultural experiences such as art events, museums, and theatres as well as specialised shops and restaurants, as is also the case today.

If there is one area where urban living cannot currently compete with the countryside, it is access to nature and all that comes with it, including clean air and green recreational spaces. Future liveability in cities, especially when compared to rural life, will therefore depend greatly on cities’ ability to create more sustainable (and regenerative) urban flows and green living spaces for their residents. This will include rethinking the distribution and repurposing of resources such as water, food and energy, tackling challenges relating to pollution and congestion, and rethinking the city’s relationship with its hinterland. It will also mean rethinking and optimising how buildings and spaces are utilised, perhaps relying on smart city solutions or drawing on the principles of the 15- minute city, where everything, including most amenities, daily needs, and green recreational areas, is within easy access of most residents. Urban dwellers will then get the best of both worlds: a cleaner, greener living space with all the conveniences of modern life.  

Of course, all these things are easier said than done. A key question is how capable city governance will be of integrating key elements of liveability into our future cities. Truly liveable cities will be ones where this integration hap- pens in a way where services offered are accessible to most, if not all, of the city’s residents. There are also open questions relating to how cities will compete between each other to attract the best talent and retain residents who might otherwise migrate, with ’liveability rankings’ already being published yearly and used actively as a PR tool by cities high on the lists.

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