Seven Need-to-Know Trends for Planners in 2023
This content was developed through a partnership between the Lincoln Institute and the American Planning Association as part of the APA Foresight practice. It was originally published by APA in Planning.
It’s hard to believe that it’s been a year since we published our first Trend Report for Planners, and a lot has happened. While most of the trends from the 2022 Trend Report are still relevant, we have been working nonstop on the development of our next trend report. There are more trends we need to act on, emerging trends and potential disruptors to prepare for, and many signals on the horizon to pay attention to in 2023.
Together with the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, we are excited to share the 2023 Trend Report for Planners. This report doesn’t just describe the trends and signals that are coming at us, it also dives deeper into the most pressing topics, from biodiversity and mass extinction to urban heat and artificial intelligence.
The report provides questions you can use to prepare for emerging trends related to the future of work and other topics. And we’ve done some time travel and created future scenarios of what the world may look like, considering trends and signals such as the metaverse, synthetic meat and tomatoes grown in outer space, and smart cities in the context of a changing climate. Read on for some highlights of the 2023 Trend Report for Planners.
1. Rewilding to Address Serious Biodiversity Challenges
According to a recent report by the World Wildlife Federation (WWF), animal populations have declined by nearly 70 percent on average in the last 50 years. Recent news reports about this have reminded us about the ongoing global biodiversity crisis. With nearly 44 percent of known species now at a high risk of going extinct, scientists have been framing the biodiversity challenge as the sixth great mass extinction. The discussion around this topic has been overshadowed by a much-needed focus on the climate change emergency, but the two are occurring in tandem, and the solutions to reversing course on mass extinction can only reinforce climate action.
With the UN Biodiversity Conference (COP15), which happened in December 2022, comes a renewed interest in addressing biodiversity. That’s why the 2023 Trend Report includes a deep dive on biodiversity, particularly the idea of “rewilding.” The concept, which has been promoted by researchers since about 1998, refers to an ecological strategy that rebuilds the population of animals by restoring wildlife habitats.
Rewilding tactics like bioarchitecture that accommodate urban bats, opossums, and birds, as well as pollinator gardens for bees and butterflies, are already part of the planner’s toolbox. And biophilic planning is a movement to support biodiversity by improving ecological connectivity for the benefit of both people and animals. While rewilding can first and foremost increase biodiversity, it can also address urban heat (another topic we deep-dive into in the report), and of course, improve climate resilience.
The global decline of large mammals in ecoregions across the world is particularly complex, but the issue requires attention. Restoration efforts to this point typically leave out the rewilding of large mammals, since people perceive them as dangerous or destructive. Urban areas have a responsibility to ramp up wildlife-friendly planning, while suburban areas have a responsibility to support larger mammals through wildlife-friendly development.
For planners, this perhaps means working with biologists and wildlife experts to promote coexistence between people and wildlife. And as we see the trend in food becoming more intensively produced in fewer areas, there is an opportunity for planners to promote rewilding projects alongside emerging land uses like large-scale solar development.
2. Looking to Outer Space to Solve Our Problems
Is our planet getting too small for us? It seems that could be the case, as we start to look to outer space for solutions on how to save the planet. NASA is reexamining the viability of space-based solar power, a clean energy solution that makes even more sense in light of the current energy crisis.
Space agencies are also looking beyond this planet to feed us all, a growing and serious challenge. NASA is collaborating with the company Redwire on plans to launch the first commercial outer space greenhouse sometime this spring. The space agency has already started hiring farmers who can help develop its outer space agriculture program.
Beyond power and food, multiple private entities are exploring other ideas, like outer space tourism, entertainment, and sports. (Just imagine what that first zero-gravity soccer match will be like!)
3. Cargo Bikes Are the Future, for People and Goods
More people than ever are riding bikes in the United States. And cities have started to adapt to this trend, providing bike infrastructure such as bike lanes and bike parking racks.
However, cycling isn’t always the most convenient option, especially when you’re getting weekly groceries, handling larger purchases, or transporting kids to school or daycare. The latest trend in the bike world aims to resolve this issue: cargo bikes. Cargo bike sales in the EU are growing at a rate of about 60 percent per year. In Copenhagen, 24 percent of families have them. That city and Vienna have had citywide cargo bike–share programs for years.
These signals indicate a potential coming trend in the United States as well. Cities like Madison, Wisconsin, and Portland, Oregon—among others—have launched electric cargo bike programs for municipal employees. In Boston, the city transportation department has partnered with Cornucopia Logistics on a pilot program for cargo bike delivery services between small businesses and their clients, from business to business, or from suppliers to businesses.
Urban freight is an area where cargo bikes could really make an impact, especially when it comes to greenhouse emissions and congestion. According to the World Resources Institute Ross Center for Sustainable Cities, 15 percent of vehicles on city streets are freight vehicles, occupying 40 percent of the space, emitting half of the greenhouse gases, and causing a quarter of all urban traffic fatalities.
When compared with diesel vans, cargo bikes cut emissions by a whopping 90 percent (they emit about a third less than electric vans), according to the British advocacy group Possible. In addition, especially in urban areas where delays due to traffic are common, cargo bikes are much more efficient. According to Possible, electric cargo bike deliveries were 60 percent faster and delivered almost double the number of parcels per hour compared to vans.
The remaining question, however, is this: How can communities accommodate cargo bikes in a way that is safe and efficient for all? Bigger than conventional bikes, they might require wider cycling lanes as well as special considerations for both the rider’s and their passengers’ safety.
4. Big Brother Tries for Transparency
Planning is fundamentally about working with people to create places, so establishing and maintaining trust is essential. Last year’s trend report talked about how declining trust in governments affects planners’ day-to-day work as they are forced to deal with chaotic meetings or combat misinformation. This year, we see that people’s trust in all things digital is also on a downward spiral, and that matters a lot as more aspects of our lives go digital.
Meanwhile, the digitalization of everything is being met with governmental investment in internet-connected technologies aimed at improving city functions and services. Sensors can track parking and manage streetlights to save electricity, or a video camera on a street corner can make someone walking alone at night feel safer. (Cameras can also make people feel targeted, especially if their data is read by AI built on biased inputs.)
Whatever a city’s intentions, quickly adopting surveillance tools in a world of decreasing digital trust can lead just as rapidly to backlash and unwillingness to work with planners and local officials.
That’s why cities like Washington, DC, are taking the lead on addressing declining digital trust, in part by piloting a transparency standard for increasingly digitized public spaces. For the public, tactics include posting stickers that identify technology installations or QR codes that link to more in-depth information. Making the public aware of nearby technology and its purpose is the first step to getting people involved, allowing them to provide feedback, and making them feel like they have the power to co-create the smart city.
5. From Talking About Gender to Taking Action
Public conversation around gender is maturing. Gender neutrality attempts to avoid assuming roles based on gender, while gender expansiveness pushes us to imagine life outside the gender binary of male and female.
At first, the trend of gender-neutral products in the beauty and fashion industries could have merely been a signal of a shift in cultural practices—how we express and present ourselves—but not particularly relevant to planning. In recent years, however, regular reporting on nonbinary and transgender experiences and the tense negotiations of civil rights through federal and state legislation has pushed this trend closer and closer to the planning world.
There are also efforts to finally get the United States on board with gender mainstreaming, a strategy used in European countries since the 1990s that identifies how policy decisions impact people based on gender.
Now, we layer in the recognition of nonbinary genders as well as transgender people in these conversations, and U.S. planners have an opportunity to leverage their slow adoption of gender mainstreaming to a develop an even more inclusive version. (An in-depth exploration of this topic, with recommendations for planners, will be available in an upcoming APA report on gender-responsive planning.)
On a related topic, planners also need to understand how aspects of public space and design directly relate to gender. For example, the disappearance of bathrooms as a public amenity—which got worse during the COVID-19 pandemic—disproportionately affects women, both because of their anatomy and because more of their daily activities (like childcare) typically require bathroom access. Similarly, the privatization of bathrooms allows for discriminatory practices against marginalized genders.
Another example is how inclusive design can sometimes be overly focused on biological differences instead of on the overall diversity of body types—sometimes age and (dis)ability are more relevant than gender identity.
Gender neutrality has its time and place as a mechanism to address the historical exclusion of women and gender minorities in decision-making. Traditional gender categorization, namely the gender binary, has also led to patterns in people’s needs and routines that planners cannot ignore. As discussions around gender continue to mature, planners need to balance addressing real-world implications of gender on public space use, behavior, and daily activities while also avoiding reaffirming the systems that lead to exclusionary and limited understandings of gender.
6. The Future of Work Includes a New Definition of Flexibility
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed how we do our work and how we think about our work-life balance. Employers across the globe are struggling to figure out what the future of a great work environment will look like. In the new trend report, the list of trends and signals in this arena is endless.
The option to work from anywhere (for some workers) impacts how people choose where they want to live. While some people moved out of cities and into the countryside to be closer to nature, others relocated to different countries, enjoying la dolce vita in Italy or the ocean breeze on a Caribbean island, while taking care of their U.S.-based jobs. Multiple countries across the globe now offer so-called digital nomad visas for these expat remote workers.
Other trends range from the great resignation—and an even greater resignation in the public sector—to quiet quitting, the wave of unionizations, and new expectations from younger generations. One thing all these trends seem to have in common is the need for flexibility in all areas of work.
The era of the 9-to-5 in-office job is over. “Flexibility is a mindset, not a policy,” says futurist Sophie Wade. It means being able to choose how many hours a day you can dedicate to your job, whether you are in a leadership position or an associate. For years, some German companies have offered the option to choose if you want to work part-time or full-time no matter what the position is. This flexibility was created to give women, and especially mothers with childcare responsibilities, the opportunity to move into leadership positions. A part-time CEO—why not?
Flexibility also means being able to have other gigs on the side. We talked about polyworkers in our last trend report. Younger generations are less interested in linear career paths; portfolio careers are the new trend. You can be a research manager while walking dogs and teaching yoga on the side. Sounds like a healthy suite of activities, right?
Regardless of what the future of work looks like, one thing is clear: The COVID-19 pandemic pushed us to experiment with how work could be done, and the people who feel their work-life balance has improved won’t be willing to go back.
7. When Nature Inspires: 4D Printing
Last year, we reported on 3D printing. While we try to make sense of that trend’s potential impacts on the housing market, infrastructure systems, and retail, the industry is on to its next endeavor: 4D printing. A combination of printing technology and material sciences, 4D printing is about 3D-printed objects that can change their shape over time. Inspired by nature (think: flowers closing during rain), materials used for 4D printing may respond to external stimuli such as heat, light, and pressure.
While this technology is still in its infancy, it has the potential to become a game changer in many areas—medical devices, manufacturing, automotive, and infrastructure, to name a few. Imagine stormwater pipes that expand as needed during extreme rain events.
Obviously, we live in a world of accelerating change, and in many ways today already is the future. In her 2017 book, The Future: A Very Short Introduction, Jennifer M. Gidley put things this way: “The future is paradoxical: it is completely open and beyond our control and yet it is the object of trillions of dollars in government expenditure aimed at controlling it. It is both the playground of science fiction, and the raw material of town planners and policy nerds.”
One thing is for sure: If we as planners want to shape the future of our communities, we need to be able to imagine what the future may look like. Even if some of our potential futures might sound more sci-fi than scientific, we can’t ignore the changing world around us, and we must use the future to create great communities for all.
Petra Hurtado, PhD, is APA’s director of research and foresight. Alexsandra Gomez is an APA research associate. This work was developed in partnership with the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy. Explore the 2023 Trend Report for Planners and keep an eye out for APA's Using the Future to Create Dynamic Plans, an interactive online training on how you can use the future in your work and upskill your futures literacy.
Image: NASA and private companies including Aleph Farms are exploring how to create sustainable food systems in space, growing not just fruits and vegetables, but also meat. Credit: Rendering by Aleph Farms.