The Future of the American City

It's always strange to see oneself on a bigger screen

For part of Spontaneous Interventions, the U.S. Pavilion's exhibition at this year's Venice Biennale for Architecture, I was asked to participate in the exhibition film. The exercise involved writing a short essay answering the question, "what do you think will be the future city of America," and I was asked to address specifically infrastructure, planning, etc. The conceit was that individuals in the film would read their essay as though addressing fellow Americans... but I think everyone decided that this might be a little boring to watch.

Since we never had to read our statements, I thought it would be fun to share the essay here. It's not based on research, it's just an outline of thoughts I've been having over the last few years working on small-scale interventions with community groups via PlanningCorps and tackling large-scale - national, state, or city-wide - policy with my day jobs. When I was working on it, I thought, it's not futuristic-sounding enough! But I love humanity and its foibles too much (the future may not be so futuristic anyway.) Here it is:

Future of the American City
I am disarmed by a city’s wonderfully messy diversity. I love how cities permit people of different stripes to share space and still lead their own lives. Watching the ordered chaos unfold every day on the streets and public spaces of my city, it seems that cities allow us to express some of our best qualities. It also seems that we need to be at our best given the environmental and economic challenges of the 21st century. How can cities sustain this priceless social dynamic? 
Cities that withstand the ages are the ones that evolve by protecting existing infrastructure while absorbing ongoing shifts in population, economy, and the environment. As cities grow and age, infrastructure inevitably becomes more brittle. Infrastructure could encompass everything from the physical such as roads, parks, water systems and energy systems to the political like the rule of law and the social found in culture and community. 
The government and the governed should collaborate on the stewardship of the city to counter brittleness. Both sides should embrace change and diversity of thought, and indulge in experiments and interventions. We will need to accept an accelerated rate of change given our global constraints. 
Moving forward, collaborative governance will enable change and quickly. Emerging tools like open-source mapping and approaches like participatory budgeting deepen civic engagement. A stable of new tools are being developed and it will be up to us to apply them. 
In American cities of the future, imagine the many ways the public and its government can work together to solve problems. Government still provides leadership to uphold the law, but it also facilitates public participation and develops societal priorities with the public through open data. The public shares the responsibility for participating and holds some accountability for decisions. Instead of wondering about a policy’s impact, there are direct links between government and citizens for input and dialogue. Citizens suggest policies or solutions more readily, test and assess them in real-time in the city, and move them up the decision-making ladder. Cities in the United States especially benefit from the American entrepreneurial instinct. 
The results are that change becomes easier to accept, infrastructure gains flexibility, and cities withstand the challenges of our time. Might environmental concerns be wholly integrated with economic decisions – finally – because fuller public participation imparts a stronger appreciation for the global commons? Ultimately, empowering more people to have a hand in crafting their cities would not only ensure that cities withstand the challenges of the century, it would also ensure that the messy diversity of the social life of our cities endures.