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Mixing It Up in the 21st Century

GOOD asks author and architect John Kriken about the gap between dense, urban living and the American Dream.

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By 2030, two-thirds of the world’s population might be living in cities. Yet the American Dream is inextricably tied to the suburban single-family home. So how do we reconcile that ideal with the inevitable need for increased density? Of course, there’s no single answer, but for some insights we looked to John Kriken, longtime partner in the architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) and the author of the book City Building: Nine Planning Principles for the Twenty-First Century (Princeton Architectural Press, 2010).

GOOD: In your book, you note that there are only 20 single-family houses in all of Hong Kong. What does that say about the way we’ll be living in cities in the future?

JOHN KRIKEN: It’s interesting to use Asian examples because cities like Hong Kong are probably 30 years out from where we are. Shanghai, for example, is today home to about 20 million and probably in a decade is expected (though not desired) to grow to 30 million. That would make the one city the size of the whole state of California. The growth happening in Asia is remarkable, and we need to pay attention to it as we plan our future here.

But more people moving into cities doesn’t mean that everyone is going to be living in New York or Shanghai. As we add density we have to recognize that there will be a concurrent need for lots of amenities—like parks and open space—and more convenient services so walking will be a more feasible way to get around.

GOOD: Americans really seem to fear density. How do we change people’s hearts and minds?

KRIKEN: In the U.S. over the last half century, the typical approach to development has been the reverse of mixed use … but mixed use is a logical outcome for development in high-density cities. Density done right is about providing certain qualities that override some of the things that are lost otherwise. One example is SOM’s planned Transbay Terminal in San Francisco. It will have high-speed rail, BART, Caltrain, lots of different services, and 300 dwelling units per acre. San Francisco’s citizens are very suspicious about bigness, tall buildings. The gist is that we had to tell a story about how there would be a lot of qualities here absent in other environments.

The choice comes down to “my own personal territory” versus “variety and choice in all aspects of life that a city can offer.” There will always be people who want the former. But more people will be living in cities. The economic growth will be there, and it will be exciting in most ways that many people value.

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