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What the cities of tomorrow will need

An aerial view of the Roosevelt Island waterfront

An aerial view of the Roosevelt Island waterfront in New York City. Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto / MBPROJEKT_Maciej_Bledowski

Klaus Desmet, a Southern Methodist University economics professor, spoke with William McKenzie, editor of The Catalyst: A Journal of Ideas from the Bush Institute, about how cities across the country are competing to offer parks, green spaces and other urban amenities as a way to attract residents and jobs. The challenge is an increasingly competitive one in the service economy.

Question: As you look at places like Dallas, Brooklyn and Denver, people are talking about making cities more livable, walkable and enjoyable. How did this renewed focus on parks, greenbelts and public spaces come about?

Desmet: One factor is a shift toward a more comprehensive view of wellbeing that is not simply based on income. We are becoming more focused on quality of life, and that includes a healthy lifestyle. People want to go outside. They enjoy the outdoors and like being in nature. And they want to have these possibilities not just in the countryside, but also in urban settings.

A second factor is that in a service-based economy businesses are freer to go where people want to live. In the past, say during the Industrial Revolution, there often was a disconnection between places that might be nice for living and places that might be good for production. Factories had to go to areas where they had easy, cheap access to energy. Industries were sprouting up in the coalfields of northern England. Whether those locations were pleasant places to live was secondary.

In a service-based economy, things are different. Companies can produce anywhere, so cities compete vigorously to attract residents and employment. One dimension they are increasingly competing on is these urban amenities.

A third factor is more generally related to the revival of the central city. Crime rates in the United States peaked at the beginning of the ’90s. Many city centers were not very attractive places to live, independently of whether there were many parks. Since then, crime rates started to experience a rapid decline. City centers are again more livable and people are coming back. As they do, they want these amenities.

Question: Is this a luxury for a more affluent America? Or is this some return to a human need to connect with nature?

Desmet: You could view the increasing emphasis on quality of life and healthy lifestyle as a bit of a luxury. But the growing emphasis on urban amenities is not limited to the affluent. It is a much broader phenomenon that recovers the idea that cities have always been built around public spaces. If you go back to the Greek cities of antiquity, they were built around public spaces.

Parks and greenbelts bring people together. They create community and there’s a human need for that. We like nature for its own purpose, but also as a place that brings people together.

Question: Is there evidence that this focus on conservation is helping cities grow economically?

Desmet: There definitely is. A good illustration is the competition for the second headquarters of Amazon. They have set forth a number of criteria and one is quality of life — think of outdoor recreational opportunities, hiking trails, bike paths. Amazon itself does not need this to be productive, but that’s what their employees want.

Cities that are able to compete on those dimensions will be able to attract more employment and residents. This game of competition between cities and locations is connected to urban amenities and future employment.

Question: More people across the world are living in cities. So, how do cities accommodate the need for housing and jobs and yet have some room for greenbelts, parks and urban amenities?

Desmet: I am a strong believer that these two objectives are not in contradiction with each other. In fact, when cities chose to ignore urban amenities, things did not always work out well. In the 1950s and 1960s, highways were built to connect the central business district to the suburbs. This may have been an efficient way to bring people to work, but it made the downtown area very inhospitable as a place to live. Not surprisingly, people fled the city center.

But in recent decades things have started to turn. The objectives of accommodating jobs and allowing for green spaces and other amenities are not in opposition to each other — quite the contrary.

Question: So what role will conservation and natural resources play as cities plan for the future?

Desmet: When you talk about large cities, you’re talking about the geographic concentration of many people on a fairly small space. That will always put some type of pressure on resources, such as water.

This implies that we need to think about how to make our cities as sustainable as possible. That includes thinking about native plants and landscapes and incorporating those into our green spaces and parks for the simple reason that they don’t disrupt the overall ecosystem and they will be more adapted to the local climate and soil. They will be less demanding on the environment.

A longer version of this essay originally appeared in The Catalyst: A Journal of Ideas from the Bush Institute at It is distributed by