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Generation Why Not

To design for the future you must think of the worst-case scenario and then try to solve it before it ever happens. A professor told me this when I was researching my graduate thesis in architecture school, and the thought has absorbed me ever since. What is the role of my generation in the architecture of the future?

We are the ones who witnessed a transition to a global society. As the world moves forward, so does our awareness of the problems that must be tackled. Social media has acted as a platform for revolutions around the world, for people who are no longer complacent with their social, political, or economic situations. Recent uprisings in Turkey and Brazil began with disputes over public urban spaces, so architects clearly have a role in creating peaceful, stable societies.

As our way of thinking shifts toward a more open perspective, we begin to realize that the idea of the “American dream” — in essence, the suburban life — is inefficient, both culturally and economically, and that a societal shift should occur. Numerous factors will figure into this. For example, my generation is nowhere near as auto-dependent as previous generations. A recent study found a sharp decline over the last decade in the number of 20- to 34-year-olds who even have a driver’s license.

As attitudes shift about privacy, social interactions, and cultural values, many in my generation no longer wish to be isolated within the privacy of suburban homes. Cities have become safer and more culturally rich, and, as young professionals, we have a new desire to embrace more socially engaging living situations.

These factors lead to a scenario where the suburbs become phased out. Imagine a situation where the suburbs as we know them no longer exist, and most Americans live in a denser, urban environment. What would happen to the buildings that are vacated? Would they be demolished or left to nature to reclaim, or would they just decay and become run-down areas where people who could not afford the shift to urban living would congregate? It’s unlikely that everyone will be able to afford the cost of urban living, so what can architecture do to assist in affordable and innovative housing solutions?

Would the massive influx of people cause a return to the crammed cities of the prewar era, with issues of overcrowding and stresses on resources such as water, sanitation, and energy? Or would the new technologies that we’ve been developing over the past 30 years — from green roofs and intelligent façades to flexible microunits — help us maintain such a dense urban environment? I like to be hopeful and think about how we could solve such a problem before it starts — by learning from the failures of the past and using current and future innovative technologies. How can architecture avoid the negative effects of over-crowded environments and still sustain a high quality of living?

A distinction must be made between a dense urban fabric and overcrowding. Density suggests a high ratio of people, activities, and amenities, while overcrowded environments bring along undesirable characteristics such as unsanitary conditions. There are many dense European cities that we could emulate, such as Copenhagen and Amsterdam. Our cities will be successful if architecture and urban design promote social and cultural activities through density and a blending of building uses. Modern building systems, improved public transportation, and flexible living spaces can assist in managing this large growth in urban population.

By 2030, according to the United Nations, more than 60 percent of the world’s population will be living in cities — some 5 billion people. Whether the cities of the future are a joy to live in or a “worst-case scenario” depends on how well my generation plans for the worst while always striving for the best.