Cities and regions that are able to adapt to rapid change will have a competitive advantage over their peers in staying relevant for the long haul.

The 21st century will be the century of the city. In 1900, only 10 percent of the world’s population lived in cities. By 2007, that had reached 50 percent, and by 2050 more than 75 percent of the world’s population is projected to live in cities. Why? Cities are the land of opportunity, the place where people can go to improve their status and quality of life. That’s as true for those newly arrived in the slums that surround many emerging world cities as it is for fresh-faced newcomers hoping to hit it big in New York City. Cities are the land of dreams and reinvention.

Cities have long been cultural and political centers, but they are also increasingly the world’s economic locus in this fully globalized age. Economist Richard Florida estimated that the 10 urban regions with the largest economic output accounted for more than 20 percent of global economic activity though accounting for only 2.6 percent of the world’s population. The increasing importance of the city to world affairs recently caused international relations expert Parag Khanna to boldly predict, “The 21st century will not be dominated by America or China, Brazil or India, but by the city. In an age that appears increasingly unmanageable, cities rather than states are becoming the islands of governance on which the future world order will be built.”

The emergence of city has been driven by the rise of the knowledge economy, in which the agglomerations of talent found there are the vital raw material. Also, globalization itself has driven the reversal of fortune that saw cities like New York go from 1970s byword to contemporary powerhouse. According to noted city theorist Saskia Sassen, globalization allowed more work to be done anywhere but also created demand for new financial and producer services to control and manage these far-flung activities — services whose provision is concentrated in so-called “global cities” with deep reservoirs of specialized talent.

While the new economy has brought prosperity and vigor to many cities, it has also brought some more troubling trends. Globalization demands standards such as containerization to facilitate its progression. Unsurprisingly, cities have become increasingly standardized as well.

Artifacts of the Economic System

While cities may specialize in different economic niches and have a historic legacy that gives them a unique built environment, they increasingly have turned to the same standard issue playbook for their development: boutique hotels, upscale housing, generic offices, international fashion labels, celebrity chef restaurants, and above all, starchitecture. The sameness of so many of these cities can be readily seen by flipping through the likes of the Wallpaper travel guides to various cities. On many pages, one would be hard pressed to determine what city is being discussed without looking at the spine.

All of this suggests the likely reality: The resurgence of so many cities was less a result of anything they did than of changing consumer tastes and macroeconomic forces. Global cities are an emergent property of our economic system. They are its artifacts as much as the architects.

This should give civic boosters pause. What the economy gives, the economy can take away. Previous generations of great industrial cities seemed invincible for decades, only to find themselves swept away by the new global order. If a city is only taking what the market gives, eventually the market will turn. While the world’s truly elite centers — London, Paris, New York — have powerful forces that are likely to sustain them long into the future, secondary centers or pure play growth stories could easily stumble.

For longer-term success, cities can’t be complacent but need to adopt an only-the-paranoid-survive mindset. They need to continually question their own success and ask hard questions about possible futures beyond just extrapolating trends. They need to understand who they are as cities and what they are all about, what their real value proposition is. They need to ensure they are diverse enough not to be overly dependent on any single economic activity for civic success but also understand what their calling cards are.

A Unique Charter

One of the most important parts of this is for cities to go beyond the standard issue global city development playbook to strengthen their own unique charter in an authentic way. Of course, there is plenty of room for adopting best practices and great ideas for elsewhere. But if a city is merely importing ideas like boutique hotels and bike share programs, there will ultimately be no core to sustain it over the long term.

Harvard business professor Michael Porter has said, “Competitive strategy is about being different. It means deliberately choosing a different set of activities to deliver a unique matrix of value.” The organization CEOs for Cities did extensive research into “city vitals” that identified four key dimensions of city success, one of which is distinctiveness.

For cities below the first rank, being different can be difficult to manage. These cities want to make it into the “cool kids club.” Like people going from high school senior to college freshman, their new aspirations and lower status makes them feel inadequate. They are desperate to fit in and prove their bona fides to the upperclassmen, so they self-consciously imitate the signifiers of their desired tribe. That high school letter jacket gets stuffed into the closet for years to come. It’s an embarrassing relic of what they think they are leaving behind.

But we mature in life, we grow more comfortable in own skin. We start to realize who we are and what matters to us, what our role is in life. While we never lose the desire to fit in with a tribe, we learn to find our own path as well. So too cities need to balance the need to learn from others with the self-confidence to chart their own destiny and not to be ashamed of their heritage.

Little Portland, Ore., did just that. In the 1970s, the city implemented its famed urban growth boundary. In the 1980s it built light rail while everyone else built highways. Portland was implementing progressive urbanism long before it even reached the agenda in most places. After decades of hard work and dedication, Portland created one of the most unique small city environments in America, one that has consistently proven attractive to migrants and put that city on the mental map of the urbanist world, establishing in many people’s minds a template of what a city can and should be in a way few smaller American places have ever achieved. Had Portland followed the development trends of so many other places, would it have been the same? Unlikely.

But too many cities take the wrong lesson from Portland. Rather than seeing how Portland charted its own path, one right for it, so many see Portland as something they could copy. Of course there are things cities can learn from Portland. But the real lesson is not to be afraid to follow a different path and be true to yourself as a city.

True to the Terroir

One place cities can look to do this, to strengthen their own sense of civic uniqueness and identity, is in the design of their public spaces and major civic buildings. Too often these designs follow standard approaches or rely on contextless startchitecture rather than a deep understanding of the local soil.

Starchitecture has emerged as a sort of new international style; rather than a concern with volume, repetition, and lack of ornament, these buildings aspire to different principles. The most notable and the most delightful is a return to beauty as an animating principle of design. So many modern buildings never resonated with the public. Even the most profound Miesian monolith is cold and austere. Starchitecture, by contrast, is positively exuberant. And while future generations may judge some of it excessive both in its own right and for its concomitant pursuit of novelty in shapes, materials, and techniques for its own sake, there’s little doubt this era has produced a number of simply gorgeous buildings that are beloved by the public.

But the reason I call this a new international style is that these buildings are more about the brand of the architect designing them than the city in which they happen to be located. When the Pritzker Pavilion in Chicago immediately calls to mind the Bilbao Guggenheim, that’s not a bug, it’s a feature. The Calatrava-designed wing at the Milwaukee Art Museum is even referred to locally as “the Calatrava.” The fact that this building is obviously in his oeuvre is the whole point.

That’s not to say that cities shouldn’t have a few of these, just like there’s nothing wrong with grand classical buildings to anchor Western cities firmly in the 2,500-year history of Western civilization. But there should be more than this.

A great city, like a great wine, has to express its terroir. Cities need to go beyond a sense of place to create a “sense of this place.” Milwaukee needs world-class Milwaukee, not just world-class in Milwaukee.

Cities need to find ways to create buildings and spaces and things that just feel right, that are true to the native soil or can become such, that are truly products of their local context, not just more widgets from the cutting-edge architecture extruder.

And this must extend not just to civic structures and major public spaces but to the everyday building and the everyday street. The mark of a great city is in how it treats its ordinary places, not just special ones. Every city bricks up its Main Street. But what about the average street? That’s much more important.

One city that has gotten it right in the design of the ordinary is London. Its iconic red double-decker buses, black cabs, and bobby caps proclaim London as loudly as (and more ubiquitously than) Big Ben or the Tower Bridge. A well-executed street design, a city flag flown with pride, great vehicle liveries — these are small, inexpensive ways for cities to embrace good design in a truly local way that show pride in the details and creates a stronger sense of visual identity throughout the city.

Design is only one aspect, of course, but strengthening the uniqueness of a city on that dimension is a key to setting the tone and sending a message about what the community is about.

Unexamined Assumptions

But however much cities try to prepare for the future and not just surf the trends that are currently making them successful, change is going to come, and a lot of it is going to be unpredictable. How many people 15 years ago could have imagined our world today? It’s almost impossible to conceive of it. And the velocity of change only gets greater by the day.

Thus the ability to adapt to changing conditions is a core competency every city must have in the future. Other than those places with the most overwhelming advantages, there’s a constant danger of falling off the path. So many places were major boomtowns for a season, but when their growth story was over, they were left in a difficult spot. Think Cleveland or Detroit. It’s whether or not cities are able to find new cycles of growth and prosperity and sustainable success as mature metropolises that determine if they will take their place in the pantheon of great world cities.

One of our great unexamined assumptions is that we should build for the ages. Many of our buildings are admired specifically for that. But in an era of rapid change, these building often find themselves quickly obsolete. Retail formats like the enclosed mall are already in decline. Suburban development, which follows such a rigid form-follows-function paradigm that redevelopment for new and different users is very difficult, particularly suffers as it ages. That’s why inner-ring suburbs across America are falling into decay. If today’s boomburgs think they will fare any better when they too are old, no longer reflect current development tastes, and have acquired their own legacy costs, then they are sadly mistaken. Replacing dead malls and other structures has proven very expensive.

But even for inner cities, where traditional buildings have long proven more adaptable, the permanence of the built environment generates a continuous liability in retrofit costs. For example, building new LEED certified buildings is wonderful, but what do central cities do about the existing building stock that will represent the vast bulk of their inventory for many years to come? Retrofitting those buildings for a low carbon world will be extremely costly.

Rapid technological and other change may soon render almost any development as obsolete as last year’s hot mobile phone. Rather than focusing just on the initial development and the impact on today’s environment, city leaders and designers need to be thinking about the full life cycle. Today’s cutting-edge sustainable building may be judged tomorrow a hog. Preferences on working and living styles will no doubt change.

Design for Disposability

Perhaps rather than over-optimizing for today’s world, a better development approach is to design with adaptability in mind — not just physical space adaptability as with older commercial buildings versus mall but a more holistic approach around all aspects of the structure. Buildings need to be able to ride the technology curve the same way that computer applications built on open systems ride the curve over time.

One ultimate expression of this may be the disposable or recyclable building. Rather than building for the ages or constructing some cheap mall that won’t last but nevertheless is still expensive to scrap and redevelop, we should spend as much time focusing on the end of life of a structure as on the beginning. How can we make replacement or redevelopment as easy as possible — architecturally, legally, financially, and otherwise — once the world has passed our buildings by? It’s generally agreed that reusing existing buildings is more environmentally friendly than building new, that the greenest building is one that already exists, as they say. But does it have to be that way? Might we be better off trading in the clunker for something new, particularly if we designed the clunker with a low-cost cradle-to-cradle design to reduce its life cycle environmental footprint?

Similarly, there is a greater need for the infrastructure of the city to evolve physically over time. The most expensive public works project in many American cities right now is a multi-billion dollar program to update legacy combined sewers to comply with the Clean Water Act. While there are environmental benefits to this, from an economic competitiveness standpoint these programs only make cities less attractive on costs, actually adding to the forces that promote sprawl.

So many older cities have an enormous overhang of infrastructure upgrade needs. Again, it seems naive to believe that in the future we will not also want to make further upgrades in infrastructural standards, so we may be perpetually behind. Finding ways to better and more cheaply evolve infrastructure in an important design challenge.

Cities and regions that are structurally able to adapt to rapid change — not just in these physical examples but in all ways, including their social structures, institutions, and economy — will have a competitive advantage over their peers in staying relevant for the long haul. It’s something every place should focus on.

The increasing importance of cities is good news for urban areas as they will be positioned with a macrotrend in their favor. But a look around today shows that even now there are incredibly wide differences in performance, with many failed as well as successful urban regions. A rapidly changing and more competitive global future will makes the challenge even tougher for tomorrow. Cities need to think not just about prosperity in the here and now but where their path is taking them tomorrow and how they can remain relevant throughout the next century.

Those places that find their own authentic and unique path but that remain adaptable to changing conditions will be best positioned for long-haul success and sustainable prosperity.

Aaron M. Renn is the Urbanophile, an opinion-leading urban affairs analyst, consultant, speaker, and writer on a mission to help America’s cities thrive. Renn started the Urbanophile blog in 2006. His writings have also appeared in publications such as Forbes, the Dallas Morning News, and the Portland Oregonian. His insights on urban issues have been featured in national and regional news media as well as in-person speaking appearances. Renn works as an independent consultant.