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Top Built Environment Trends from 2012

The past year has sparked a number of conversations about cities and the built environment; it seems that more than ever we are seeing people engage the places they live rather than waiting for community to form on its own. Here are a handful topics that received considerable attention in 2012. While this is of course an entirely unscientific approach and none of these topics were new in 2012, these topics will likely drive the conversation as we launch into 2013 simply because they represent shifting paradigms in what we demand from cities. One major feature of trends in 2012 is that they largely look to the desires of Generation Y. Now that the first wave of the cohort is beginning to age into its 30s Generations Yers are now grasping for the reins driving urban policy. While Generation Y is becoming more boisterous about their concerns, many of the trends that rose to the top in 2012 also have the dual purpose of creating a built environment that not only allows those coming of age but also those who need creative solutions to age in place(pleasurably and safely).


According to the Metropolitan Planning Council of Chicago:

'Placemaking' is both an overarching idea and a hands-on tool for improving a neighborhood, city or region. It has the potential to be one of the most transformative ideas of this century.

In 2012 there were a variety of pushes for placemaking which built upon existing energies while honing new techniques. This trend is ripe to continue forward in its momentum particularly as Generation Y rejects previous suburban migration trends and heads back toward the city. If the current editorials are correct, Generation Y doesn't derive the same level of comfort from the blandness of the suburbs they're going to continue to demand a more nuanced and socially connected sense of place - even if they have to provide it themselves. For more information on placemaking and how it functions check out "A Guide to Neighborhood Placemaking in Chicago" from the Metropolitan Planning Council of Chicago.

Tactical Urbanism

Tactical Urbanism certainly received its share of publicity in 2012 as the concept forced itself into minds of notable city planning leaders such as Mitchell Silver . The "how-to" manual "Tactical Urbanism 2" was also released in 2012. Tactical Urbanism resonates as a particularly important concept because it enables investments in cities and in placemaking that don't require weaving through the standard bureaucratic channels. Tactical Urbanism can be instant, open source, scalable, and extremely flexible. It's likely that we'll see this concept gain even more traction in 2013 with more broad acceptance by municipalities (thus making it less "guerrilla" in nature). Tactical Urbanism and other such means of creative placemaking are certainly not without their decriersbut the concept has received enough attention to allow us to continue an ongoing dialogue.

The Smart City

The concept of a "smart city" is relatively generic, but overall we're continuing to demand that our cities be more interactive and more technologically enabled for efficiency (in almost every manner of the concept). We demand that we be able to get information about the urban environment instantaneously and we expect that the city evolve beyond a simple human interaction with an inert object to something far more fluid. In addition to enabling social interaction, there is an expectation that cities use the plethora of available technologies for continuous monitoring, communication, and conservation. On top of all this open datahas become an integral part of urban life where citizens and companies have become part of the solution in executing bottom-up approaches to improving urban life. We've seen these ideas of a smart city circulate in 2012 and I would expect that this trend will be built upon for years to come.

Infill Development

Infill development is certainly not new to 2012, but as Generation Y continues to flock to cities, it's a trend that received considerable discussion in 2012 and one that will likely continue to remain important into the coming decades. We saw a lot of build-up prior to 2012 regarding concerns over whether the suburbs might become America's next slums particularly in the face of a rapidly aging suburban population. Infill development offers new opportunities for developers to capitalize on Generation Y's desire for mobility while offering new housing types that can be wedged into existing urban frameworks without requiring new infrastructure provision. The key element in the rise of infill really balances on the future mobility of Generation Y. We don't yet understand whether Generation Y will one day settle down and yearn for home ownership as did their parents or whether the pop of the real estate bubble has made lifelong rental a more desirable option. Certainly many critics refute long-term infill development trendshoping that improved economic outlooks will cast Gen Y out to the suburbs, but it's going to be well-beyond 2013 before we know for sure.


Walkability received tons of attention in 2012 from reports on the economics of walkability, the attractiveness of walkability, the health merits of walkability... walkability was all over the map. As we close out 2012, I think its safe to conclude that walkability will remain a priority in the coming years. Cities that improve on walkability not only improve the lives of their citizens through a variety of means, but they also protect their own bottom line through potential reductions to long-term infrastructure costs. Walkability has in many ways become a "superfix" for cities because it allows for cities to become more granular while enabling placemaking (you can actually make "place" through walkability whereas cars tend to just speed by place). Walkability also offers deliberate advantages for infill development in that focusing on pedestrian-scale development enhances the economic viability of infill projects. Overall 2012 prompted a number of great conversations about cities and the built environment. My hope is that as we roll toward 2013 we understand the importance of keeping these conversations going while also ensuring that we open up old debates and explore new concepts. The built environment is ultimately our home and the more we participate in its creation and evolution the more connection we feel to where we live and to each other.