Finding the Future: Innovations in Land Use and Sustainability

Picture the future.  Does it include automated vehicles? Will we fly from place to place in personal pods like in the sci-fi movies we have watched?  What else does the future hold and who will shape it?  Land planners predict the future will be shaped by compact development and multi-modal transportation, meaning choices to travel by car, transit, bikes, on foot, and even scooters.

That is the idea behind Finding the Future, a series of podcasts with thought leaders and innovators in land use and sustainability.  Some of the topics we will cover in the series include how Mall of America, the nation’s largest retail and entertainment center, uses innovative land use concepts to remain fresh and relevant in a turbulent retail environment.  Far away,  on the shores of Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, you will learn how a small fishing village is demonstrating leadership in environmental protection by banning the use of plastic bags.  Another episode takes a look at the largest complex of freshwater in the world, the Great Lakes, and the vast changes to the lakes happening just below the surface.

As a land use lawyer for over 30 years, I have observed how difficult it can be to balance the need for cities and towns to grow and prosper with the impact of growth and development on the natural environment.  In some ways, we want it all.  Safe and vibrant cities, beautiful open spaces, recreational opportunities and workplaces that are productive and healthy.  Without a strong economy in which business and commerce flourish, however, none of this is possible.

In every era, innovators and leaders come forward to solve the most pressing problems of the day or provide opportunities to improve our quality of life.  I think of the “City Beautiful Movement” that happened in the early 1900s in places like Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit and Washington D.C.  Behind the movement was a desire to link architecture and urban planning to create beauty in public spaces and monumental grandeur in growing cities.  The  National Mall in Washington, D.C. is an example of this type of design philosophy, as are the malls and plazas often associated with state capitals and public universities across the country.  Chicago architect, Daniel Burnham, who developed the 1909 Plan of Chicago is often associated with this movement, which was featured in the grim historic novel, Devil in the White City.

Another example of innovation that impacts land use around the world is mechanized farming.  Norman Borlaug was an American agronomist who was born in Iowa and won the Nobel Peace Prize for his leadership in what was termed the Green Revolution.  His high-yield farming practices are credited with saving over a billion people from starvation.  Environmentalists now question some of his practices but there is no doubt that his work still affects how we farm, eat and maintain land.

A little closer to home is former Minneapolis Mayor Al Hofstedt who chaired the Metropolitan Council in its early days and encouraged urban renewal at the same time he protected historic neighborhoods closest to downtown Minneapolis.  Waymo, a spin-off of Google, is a more recent example of innovation impacting land planning.  Waymo introduced self-driving cars as a taxi service in Phoenix, Arizona using real riders.  Already, city planners are altering projections about the amount of parking that will be needed in the coming years and making plans to convert parking structures into other land uses.

It doesn’t take much effort to discover that people in cities big and small are working on ways to make our future better and more sustainable.  What that means to different people is as varied as the opinions on a social media page, but what is exciting is that people care enough to think about it, talk about it and reflect on the best way to implement new ideas in land use.  Let me know if you have a unique story to tell.  I’m ready to listen.

Bill Griffith