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How cities are changing

The definition of a successful city has changed over time as cities have evolved. So how are the cities of today changing? Prof Greg Clark, Group Advisor, Future Cities and New Industries at HSBC explains.

“Cities have clearly changed and developed their roles at different periods of history,” says Greg.

“In the recent past, we thought a successful city was a city that a major cluster of office jobs in the centre, suburban housing on the fringes, and an attractive set of amenities, facilities, services and public space,” says Greg. And while all these things remain important, our priorities are changing. 

According to Greg, our awareness of the planetary imperative of climate change is forcing cities to be cleaner, greener and more compact. They also need to be better connected. While the impacts of population growth, decarbonisation, and digitisation, are that cities are becoming places where transitions to new platforms and new technologies are being accelerated and deepened.

Population growth in cities has been accelerating since the 1980s in both the developed and developing world, says Greg. The choice is not between whether we want this urbanisation or not, but rather the quality of cities and towns that we get, how much we invest in them and their planning and management.
“One of the unexpected impacts of the use of digital platforms in the way people work, consume and travel, is that our cities are starting to feel a bit different,” says Greg. The changes to the way we consume will see more distribution activity, such as data centres, fulfilment hubs, and dark kitchens in cities, and many more delivery vans, cargo bikes, and ‘last mile solutions’ as people increasingly shop online. Logistics is now a growing urban industry. Trains and buses may be less full than they used to be on certain days and times, as more people work from home more often, or commute at different times. As part of this, offices are reinventing themselves so that they become places of social bonding, brand promotion, collaborative creativity and pioneering innovations, as flexible and hybrid work becomes the norm.

One effect of these changes in working practices is that smaller and larger cities are now more inter-dependent. Workers with flexible jobs can now live in a smaller city or large town whilst having a job that is based in a big city, as long as the places are well enough connected. That means a series of overlaps are staring to occur between the housing markets and labour markets of well-connected neighbouring cities. Historically we have seen this in places like the Bay Area and North East Corridor in the USA, Tokyo-Osaka in Japan, the Rhine-Rhur in Germany, the Randstad in Netherlands or the Greater South East in the UK, and more recently in the Chinese City super clusters, such as the Greater Bay Area or Yangtze River Delta. These are areas where multiple cities have formed a tight network and now operate as a single connected region of multiple cities. We’ll see more of this now - the Sandstone Region around Sydney in Australia is one new example.  

Another big change we’re seeing in cities is an acceleration of “mixed use” approaches. Given the finite land resources available, more agile land use is gaining a lot more traction with investors and planners around the world.

Greg explains, “we used to think a good city separated different activities into defined ‘zones’, but now when we talk about agile land uses, we mean a much richer mix in the way land and buildings are used within our cities, providing for more activities in the same space. This means our city centres will not simply be office districts, they'll be multipurpose experience districts, less focused on corporates and consumption and more about habitat, innovation, and experience, all mixed up together. While our suburbs will not just be places to live, but they'll also be places where we work, consume, and have a high quality of amenities and experiences.” These changes will take time but there is potentially a win-win here for both city centres and suburbs. 

Greg also expects that different cities will adjust in specific ways. “Some countries are still in a rapid urbanisation phase (eg India, Africa, China), but others have more mature settlement patterns that can now be adjusted (e.g. Europe and North America). Equally, cities have different geographies, infrastructure patterns, and inherited buildings. These make new mixes and behaviours more or less feasible.” 

Similarly, the sector mix varies in each city, with a different percentage of jobs that can be done flexibly. Moreover, different regions of the world have distinct patterns of population mobility (willingness to move home) and technology utilisation. These variables mean that we will see somewhat different patterns in each city, despite common drivers.” 

When asked if we’re seeing an exodus from cities, Greg was clear. “There's no clear exodus from cities. Rather cities are developing new shapes and forms.’’

"There's no exodus from the city.

Rather cities are taking new shapes and forms.”