he future belongs to cities. By 2050, 70% of the world’s ever-growing population will live in urban areas. Though that’s been the case for more than 20 years in the United States, and more recently in countries from the U.K. to Spain to Brazil to Mexico, the trend will only continue to accelerate as the rest of the world approaches hyper-urbanization. Within the next 30 or so years, China and India will have more than a billion urban residents each. Most science fiction depictions of an overcrowded future, like Soylent Green, imagine nightmarish scenarios of millions of people sleeping in stairwells, fighting like hungry animals over increasingly scarce resources. But it doesn’t have to go that way. 

Cities in the future will be even more crowded than they are now—there’s no way around that unavoidable reality—but they can still be pleasant places to live. Many of the world’s most progressive architects, city planners and urban thinkers are busy reimagining the future of urban living. They envision a world with smaller homes, but also homes that are better designed, more versatile and more energy-efficient. This will allow our new urban reality to contain more parks and public spaces and, of course, more public transportation. Overwhelmingly, theirs is a vision of a shared future in terms of responsibility, resources and space. Megacities don’t have to be the harbinger of civilization’s end. Instead, they could be its salvation. 

In the United States, at least, two major demographic trends are dictating the future of urban living. First, as Baby Boomers age, they’re reversing direction and moving back into cities. Second, the Millennials, the largest generation in American history, are flocking to cities and staying there, permanently. Suburbanization is barely in their vocabulary, much less their plans. The Millennial desire for “campus urbanism,” says Ray Gastil, Chair of Design Innovation at Penn State University, is going to be a huge driving factor as cities develop going forward. “There’s a whole generation in America whose training ground in urban life has been going to a college campus or working at tech companies,” he says. “Young people are open to living in a denser pattern because there are some real advantages to proximity.” 

So what will that look like? New York, America’s largest megacity, is already seeking answers. Later this year, developers will break ground on a new 55-unit apartment building in Manhattan on 27th Street between 1st and 2nd Avenue. Forty percent of these units will be “affordable,” which in Manhattan means between $900 and $1,800 a month, while the rest will be market-rate. 

The average apartment in this building will be 280 square feet with high ceilings and divided into two “zones.” One zone, “the tool box,” will comprise the kitchen and bathroom, as well as overhead storage. The other, the “canvas,” will be an open living and sleeping area. “This is not in any way a projection of how everyone should live,” says Mimi Hoang, one of the architects on the project. “It’s to solve a growing problem, which is that the demographics of New York are changing.”

In New York City alone, there are now 1.8 million single-person households and only about a million appropriate apartments. So when it comes to projects like this, Hoang says, it’s important to remember that when you decrease the amount of private living space, you have to compensate with other areas. This apartment complex will include a rooftop terrace, a common-use “salon,” and a “creative space” on the ground floor that can be used for dance or theatre rehearsals, or a yoga class. “Even though people live by themselves,” Hoang says, “it doesn’t necessarily mean that they have to live alone.”

In less dense urban areas, these sorts of development schemes are also beginning to assert themselves. Most developers still build houses based around the mythical idea of the nuclear family, which barely existed even at its height, but more progressive builders have other household models in mind. “For the past 50 years, we’ve been creating the single-family house in suburbia, which was based on a population we had in 1958,” says Tim Van Meter, a Denver-based architect and urban developer. “That’s changed greatly.” 

Van Meter imagines a city full of flexible units with small, multifunctional rooms, with deep “smart walls,” beds that emerge from the floor, and screens that pull down from ceilings, creating a kind of Swiss Army knife house with multiple functions. These homes will also be much more energy-efficient, with floor-to-ceiling windows that let in a maximum amount of natural light. The buildings themselves will contribute as much power as they use back to the electrical grid via high-tech solar panels. “We can do this today,” he says, “with relatively little cost.” 

Design is the key element to all of this, Van Meter says. A new generation of urban residents doesn’t want clutter, and they crave innovative surroundings. They’re looking for a clean, cool space where they can sleep, cook, bathe and entertain, but they’re not looking to hoard stuff. When you have a 285-square-foot apartment, owning things can’t be a priority. 

All this will lead to a more collectivized feel to urban life, something that long-time city dwellers have long desired and loved. The idea of the “third place,” that’s not a house or workplace, but something other that still feels like home, remains strong in the psyche. And as cities grow more crowded and housing units grow smaller, we’ll need third places to help us feel more like we’re at home. “Every new American house is built to accommodate every activity under the sun,” says Jay Shafer, founder and owner of California’s Four Lights Tiny Houses. “Everybody assumes the entire world is going to revolve under that roof, but people will be outsourcing their lives more in the future. They will understand that not every house needs a gym and a nightclub for 40, if those things are a block down the street.”

Thomas Knittel, a Seattle architect, lives in a small group of townhomes that share a pea patch, a garden shed—and a power grid. Every year, he gets a $500 check back from his local utility company. “We came from New York,” he says, and “this community is the most closely knit place I’ve ever lived in in my life.” He’s two blocks from downtown Seattle, but he and his neighbors are one step shy of barn-raising. They’re considering building a “version 2.0,” which will include a shared meeting space and a kitchen for parties. In this vision of the future, being lived right now, home means much more than a place you return to after work. Home is about interacting with the larger world, not escaping from it. 

As our new, hyper-urban world approaches, there’s plenty of old-school, retrograde suburban development out there; waste and sprawl still abound. But as the price of energy rises, as water becomes more scarce, and as the idea of commuting becomes less and less appetizing, we’re going to need smaller houses centered around communal spaces and shared resources, or risk facing a dystopian nightmare. The good news is that the solutions are right in front of us. 

Jay Shafer has begun developing a large lot in the middle of Forestville, a small town in Sonoma County, California, that will contain up to 50 individual houses on wheels. They’ll be sized at between 100 and 400 square feet and priced at around $75,000 apiece. Families will be allowed to own more than one house and fence them into a unit. Pedestrian access from the street and parking in back are inclusive to the development, as well as a 3,000-square-foot communal house for parties, meetings and other “multipurpose” gatherings. Shafer intends to complete the project by 2015. To most people, this sounds like a Utopian experiment, but Shafer says that his “Napoleon Complex” is just at the front edge of what will become a real trend.

The future of housing, he says, “looks a lot like the distant past.” That means higher density with shared amenities and a bit more community. Houses will be smaller; maybe even a lot smaller. But because of that, they can also be more individually tailored to the actual needs of the residents. You’re losing space but gaining access to the wider world. 

“Now,” Shafer adds, “I just have to convince my wife that she wants to live in a trailer park.”

 

 

Neal Pollack is a novelist, short story writer, and journalist. His recent novel, Jewball, examines basketball, sex and racial strife in pre-World War II America. For more information, visit www.nealpollack.com, or follow him on Twitter @NealPollack.