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News > Context Summer 2024 > Commentary: There Is No Crystal Ball for America’s Cities

Commentary: There Is No Crystal Ball for America’s Cities

With issues around land use more complicated than ever, a devout urbanist reflects on where we’ve been and what the future holds
Schuylkill Yards, an ambitious mixed-use development in West Philadelphia.
Schuylkill Yards, an ambitious mixed-use development in West Philadelphia.

By Joseph Scanga, HDR 

I grew up in a suburb northwest of Philadelphia and would often catch the train from Glenside Station to Center City. After decades in the Bay Area, I still vividly remember those early days of travel and exploration — Wanamaker’s, Sansom Street Oyster House, City Hall, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the Mummers Parade, and baseball games at Connie Mack Stadium in North Philadelphia. I saw the realization of Edmund Bacon’s vision for the city unfold before my eyes: Society Hill, Market East, and Independence Mall. These memories shaped my perspective on cities. 

Following the bombing of the Houses of Parliament during the Blitz in WWII, Winston Churchill famously said, “We shape our buildings, and afterwards they shape us.” As an urbanist, I would change “buildings” to “built form.” Our decisions as urban designers influence lives. Streets and open spaces form the places that shape us beyond just buildings. Our job is to forecast the future, steer growth towards community well-being, and move us towards a regenerative future.  

I’ll share another quote that never left me. During a lecture at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, global urban design leader Peter Calthorpe said, “Cities in general are really the vessel of the future of mankind.” Calthorpe and I have been business partners for 35 years. He has been my mentor throughout my career while I have led projects around the world.  

In 1989, when I joined Calthorpe Associates (now merged with HDR), the New Urbanist movement was just a fledgling idea. We needed a concept for moving beyond Duany Palter-Zyber’s Traditional Neighborhood Design (TND) and incorporated Calthorpe‘s ideas from his book Sustainable Communities. Transportation was the game changer in these conversations. The idea of transit-oriented design (TOD) was formulated in The Next American Metropolis, the book that he and Shelley Poticha co-wrote about concepts of good urban design. 

Ultimately, my early trips to downtown Philadelphia and a career working with Calthorpe and others to define new ideas for the future of cities translated into my approach to urban design. It is one predicated on an alternative to the car and it places public transit at the heart of our communities. It also looks at open space as the most important fabric of the city. 

Today, for the first time in my career, I feel less confident predicting the future of cities, and that is primarily because of land use. 


Every ten years, urbanists seem to evaluate and re-invent one land use at a time. Thirty years ago, we tried to fix the sprawling suburbs. Twenty years ago, we re-thought office parks. Ten years ago, we were questioning the future of retail. Today, our challenge is to envision the post-pandemic downtown. This picture is complicated by four major factors.  

As we return to the office, city buildings and streets will start to come to life again. New office buildings should be designed with flexibility, considering floor heights, and providing more plumbing shafts so these structures can be more flexible and available for future potential uses such as residential. 

We also need to support workforce housing in our downtowns. The world’s population is about to hit 9 billion, with growth tripling in one generation. Underutilized land along our boulevards and within our cities’ cores should be easiest to re-zone as demand changes over time.  

Retail lives! The internet has not been able to put an end to in-person shopping and we need to think what this land-use will look like beyond warehouse distribution centers. 

When it comes to transportation, there won’t be a fleet of single use autonomous vehicles for some time, so a good first step would be to implement surface rapid transit systems with designated corridors such as bus rapid transit. Whether they are autonomous or not, we cannot allow cars to continue to clog our cities.  

As urbanists who predict the future, these are the questions we face. Usually, we deal with only one of these areas but now we are in a strange moment during which we are unclear about all these uses.  


The father of modern Philadelphia, Edmund Bacon, writing in 1959, made his own predictions about the Philadelphia of 2009. He wrote, “...centrality and clarity of form, reinforced by the fact that City Hall was built in ‘Center Square,’ just where Penn suggested it should be, gives downtown Philadelphia much of the character that it has today.”  

This fifty-year look into the future of Philadelphia was influential yet controversial. It had flaws, as did many of the urban renewal projects executed during his long tenure as executive director of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission. I am on the side of the urban design activist Jane Jacobs, who fought against the destructive mid-century redevelopment of our inner cities, but I think Philadelphia proved resilient at its core by preserving William Penn’s two-square mile grid plan of 1682, rather than going the way of Robert Moses with his notorious destruction of neighborhoods in New York City in favor of cars and poorly designed housing. That said, I will never forgive Bacon for advocating for the separation of land uses. In my studio, the rallying cry of “mixed use” is repeated at least once a day. 

Amending land-uses is easier said than done, but recent planning developments seem to be moving Philadelphia in the right direction, including the development of the Central Delaware Waterfront, the Hilco development of the former 1300-acre Philadelphia Energy Solutions oil refinery on the Lower Schuylkill River, the reimagination of the Ben Franklin Parkway as a more people-centric series of parks, and the creation of new innovation districts in University City, Schuylkill Yards and uCity Square. Each of these developments represents an investment in making the city resilient in an unknown future for land use, urban design, industry and society.  

Joseph Scanga is a vice president at HDR I Calthorpe and has been with the firm since 1989. He has managed projects in countries worldwide and has served clients in both the public and private sectors. He holds a BFA and BArch from RISD and a MArch from UC Berkeley. 

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