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How are cities adapting to meet growing demands?

To capitalize on emerging opportunities and enable citizens to thrive in a rapidly changing world, city urban planning and sustainability strategies must be agile and nimble.

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Across the globe, cities are looking for ways to drive long-term sustainability, create inclusive mobility systems, build smart infrastructure, and boost community-supportive technology, all to become both economically competitive and a desirable, high-quality place to live, work and play.

We live in an increasingly urban world: 54% of the global population already resides in cities, and this will rise to an estimated 68% by 2050. As growth continues to be a global driver, city officials need to become more agile and prepare by adapting the physical, digital and environmental elements of their cities to better respond to their citizens’ dynamic and constantly evolving needs. To be agile is to move swiftly and easily. But what exactly does this mean, and how can it be measured?

After years of building up both infrastructure and processes, cities must now break down siloes and invite innovation in order to fully benefit from the opportunities and meet the changes facing their populations. According to the World Economic Forum, there are guidelines and metrics that draw attention to three levels on which cities have experimented with innovation and found new solutions:

  • Physical components – how current infrastructure can be adapted to new needs and uses without outsized investment, long planning processes, or inconvenience to citizen.
  • Digital elements – how new technologies can be harnessed to better understand trends and citizens’ needs, as well as provide insight on current urban infrastructure and services and optimize their benefits.
  • Environmental factors – how the environmental effects of urban activity can be mitigated through innovative applications in both the physical and digital spheres.

In addition, our work has highlighted the importance of community engagement and social value across all these factors. Agile cities are carbon-neutral, energy positive, technically-sophisticated, and support a diverse mix of uses and activities through flexible space and shared working arrangements. Imagine a city that leverages big data and real-time monitoring, leveraging the latest in technology and leaning heavily on principles such as interactivity and sustainable design.

The impact of COVID-19 has re-shaped urban life around the world. The recognition of communities goes beyond the virus outbreak. In the transition to a new sustainable urban normality, local communities must delivery of essential services, ensuring a green-economic transformation, providing adequate shelter, public space and reestablishment of local value chains. Quickly adapting to changing needs means cities must cut across all areas of urban infrastructure and processes. Policy makers and urban managers need to engage communities systematically and strategically in urban planning, implementation and monitoring to co-create the cities of the future.

At Jacobs, we’re working with our clients, our partner network and our global platform of technologists, specialists, engineers, planners and urban designers to deliver cloud microservice architecture to provide adaptable experiences for future generations.

Below are four areas that will be a primary focuses for agile cities.

1. Social Value

Since World War II, many countries have enjoyed long periods of strong, sustained economic growth; however, the benefits of such growth have not been distributed equitably amongst all members of society. In many places, levels of income inequality and poverty remain high, communities are being pushed into intergenerational cycles of disadvantage, and entire sectors of people are experiencing a decline in wellbeing. Most recently, the current global pandemic and its devastating repercussions have brought these social and economic divides into stark focus.

So, what does this mean for the future?

National, state and local governments will start to rebuild their economies and livelihoods but will need to re-evaluate how they invest for the future. And now more than ever, they need to focus on increasing economic prosperity, wellbeing and living standards for all members of society. But to do so, we need to place greater emphasis on social values, such as community wellbeing, equality and equity, housing, mobility, work, physical and mental health and access to vital services. Jacobs has been a pioneer in developing innovative approaches for integrating concerns for social value into the planning, design, development and operation of projects, programs and places.

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2. Cities of the Future

Disruptive technologies have the potential to transform the way cities currently operate and meet the needs of their residents. Successful cities of the future will present transformational experiences and flexible ecosystems that leverages a “live, work and play” model, building on new opportunities while mitigating risks and challenges.

The best cities of the future will likely have the following characteristics:

  • A work environment that attracts the best global talent. This includes flexible work spaces and working hours, and convenience enabled through technology. For example, an ideal city will have a multi-skilled economy fueled by people with the training and education needed to adapt to ever-changing work requirements.
  • Flexible and environmentally sustainable structures that leverage prefabricated, modular building materials. Cities will be net generators of energy and food.
  • Cities will support active lifestyles. Designed with health and wellness in mind, cities will start to look to car-free or car-lite neighborhoods connected with walkable and bikeable streets and public spaces.
  • Cities will have convenient access to a large variety of social experiences. Residents will be able to easily partake in entertainment, sports, arts, culture and various creative and participatory events.

3. Transformation Platforms

With global migration and continuing urbanization, existing cities will be under pressure to optimize the use of all available land.  However, as populations grow, the demand for accessible usable open space also grows, even as the availability of such space generally decreases.   One potential solution is to intentionally build flexibility into the design and development of the entire public realm, as a way of expanding access to needed open space, promoting social connection, strengthening local economies and supporting neighborhood sustainability.  Flexibility must be a fundamental component starting at the earliest conceptual planning stages and must be embedded into the detailed design of all large scale development projects.  This is particularly applicable to urban regeneration projects in which once-developed land is reconsidered, re-imagined, re-planned and re-built, often at greater density and intensity that its original condition.  Even with such increased development, however, good design can insure the inclusion of a wide range of accessible, usable public and communal spaces, spaces that can play multiple roles during the course of a day, a week or a year.

This approach is also applicable to public land, in particular, to urban Rights-of-Way (ROWs), which often account for between 30-45% of urban land area, and are the largest element of publicly owned land in any city.  For the past century, urban ROWs have been dedicated primarily to the needs of vehicles, in particular, private automobiles.  This trend is changing, however, with significant attention being paid in cities throughout the world to humanizing streets by limiting their use by vehicles and by dramatically increasing facilities for active transport (walking and cycling), public transport, streetscaping, public art, civic space, and various forms of green infrastructure, particularly those oriented towards stormwater control.

In anything, the COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically heightened public awareness of the need for larger amounts of community open space as well as the need for these spaces to be integrated and distributed evenly throughout cities.  In many instances, the aforementioned ROWs can be a source of such space, but in other instances new space can be “found” or created, both as part of the aforementioned urban regeneration efforts, but also in the form of caps or lids placed atop the sunken regional highways that cut through many cities and often act as barriers to easy mobility within the city.  Placing a lid atop an existing highway can provide additional needed open space and can also help generate new development sites, for both residential and commercial uses, and can help re-knit local connectivity that may have been disrupted when the highway was first created.  These newly created public spaces become valuable use spaces within cities, new front-door addresses that stimulate redevelopment, and sources of considerable civic pride.

This same approach applies to minor interventions within neighborhoods, where street parking spaces can be converted into “parklets” – venues for outdoor dining, community gathering or additional green space.  Under-utilized streets can be narrowed, or even closed, with the resulting space converted into active and passive recreation, walkways and/or cycle routes, blue-green infrastructure, tree planting and more.  As metro areas continue to grow, urban regeneration becomes increasingly important, representing an opportunity to re-think and convert historic patterns of development and use into more flexible, accessible and useful elements of successful live-work-play neighborhoods.


As we look to the future of urban design, municipal services will be increasingly dependent upon better technological interconnectivity. We spoke with Monte Wilson, Global Market Director, Built Environment & Global Vice President, Jacobs, about the importance of good design and how it takes into account citizens, business, transportation, and a host of other considerations in this episode of Inflection Points.

Project highlights

The Stitch Vision Study: An ambitious plan to re-stitch together the City of Atlanta

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4. Sustainability/Resiliency and Climate Change

Climate change is shaping the future. As populations increase worldwide and natural disasters increase in frequency and intensity, cities will face a variety of challenges. Cities will need to be vigilant, agile and responsive in order to better respond to natural disasters, as well as to take steps to potentially prevent them. Through integrated infrastructure, interactive technology and agile intelligence solutions, cities and communities can be better equipped to handle natural and manmade disasters, protect human life and promote well-being and sustainable growth. A few solutions we’re utilizing to help cities thrive in the face of challenge include:

  • Resilient infrastructure – Physical infrastructure assets are the economic and operational backbone of any area, but urban growth and climate change strain the capacity of isolated systems. In addition, on the organizational side, digital networks must be designed to combat increasingly complex threats and cyber-attacks.

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Weathering the Storm: A Key Partner for Community Resilience

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  • Green infrastructure solutions – Green infrastructure solutions can both improve community resilience and enhance urban conditions, both in the present and into the future. But simply looking at stormwater infrastructure in insolation isn’t enough. That’s why we help cities develop integrated stormwater management approaches that ties stormwater infrastructure improvements to other city sectors, such as transportation, parks and recreation, environment, flood control, etc.

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  • Future-proofing solutions - In order to deliver smart, connected solutions that allow cities and communities to anticipate, prepare for, respond to and recover from major stresses and shocks, we perform climate and population change analyses to better inform our master planning, urban design and sustainability deliverables.

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  • Moving toward a hydrogen future – As a flexible energy carrier and enabler for the international trade of renewable energy, hydrogen could play an important role in our drive toward a sustainable, decarbonized future.

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A Future with Hydrogen

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Hydrogen Hurdles

In this webcast we discuss the unique role that water utilities could play in hydrogen production with Simon Prunster, Energy & Emissions Specialist at Yarra Valley Water, Michelle Freund, Senior Economist at Jacobs, and Henry Swisher, Energy Markets Consultant at Jacobs.

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Leveraging Cross-Sector Knowledge to Inform Australia’s Pursuit of a Large-Scale Hydrogen Economy

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15-20% potential average cut in commuting times in cities that deploy smart-mobility applications


Jacobs' target to be carbon negative for our operations and business travel


68% of the global population will reside in urban areas (U.N.)

Setting a standard for the future

In alignment with our work to preserve and enhance our planet for future generations, Jacobs launched the Climate Action Plan in 2020. The Climate Action Plan details how we will continue to make a positive environmental, societal and economic difference for businesses, governments and communities around the world. Together, we’re committed to achieving and maintaining 100% renewable energy for our operations in 2020; net zero carbon for our operations and business travel in 2020; and carbon negative for our operations and business travel by 2030. The Plan supports Jacobs’ PlanBeyond strategy, which was launched in 2019 to set out sustainability priorities across the business and how the company is helping sustain the planet for future generations.

James A. Moore“Despite the questions raised by the turmoil of recent months, cities are as vital as ever to the future of human civilization. Cities have been and remain the cradles of civilization, the wellsprings of innovation and creativity, the locus of opportunity. The events of 2020 have highlighted areas in which many cities need to improve – equitable access to resources for all citizens; better, greener and more efficient forms of mobility; easier, community-based access to jobs, retail, education and other fundamental resources; and more – but have also highlighted how important cities are to today’s and tomorrow’s societies. It’s been said that “the war for the planet will be won or lost in cities”; that war is being won as cities around the world are leading the gradual transition from an industrial, carbon-based economy to a post-industrial renewable (if not restorative) economy. This is the ideal time to be in the business of imagining, strategizing, envisioning, planning, designing, developing and operating cities; at Jacobs we are excited about being to play a role in helping lead this essential and much anticipated transition to a better future.”
— James A. Moore, PhD, AIA, AICP, CRE, LEED AP BD+C, ENV SP
Jacobs Global Solutions Director, Cities & Places

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At the end of October, the United Nations has a designated World Cities Day in which they ask the international community to promote discussion and exploration on the topic of the urban environment. For 2019, the theme selected by the UN was Changing the world: innovations and better life for future generations. In this episode of If/When we discuss the future of cities with Professor Michael Keith, co-Director of the Oxford University Programme for the Future of Cities and Brian Burkhard, the Global Technology Leader - Advanced Mobility Systems at Jacobs.

According to a UN World Cities report, globally by 2030 it is projected that there will be 706 cities with at least one million residents; and there will be 43 megacities (which are cities with over 10 million people). As life in urban environments continues to grow, what can be done so they are well positioned to allow people to thrive while also ensuring maximum care for environmental concerns? In this episode of If/When, we talked with Kari Eik - Secretary General, Organization for International Economic Relations and Leader, United 4 Smart Sustainable Cities Implementation Program, and Kate Kenny – Jacobs’ Head of Sector - Cities and Places, Europe.

Article by Jacobs' Jason Bird, Adam Hosking and James A. Moore:
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Webinar featuring Adam Hosking:

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Meet the Team


James A. MooreAn architect, planner and urban designer with over 30 years of professional experience, James is helping lead and expand the Jacobs Cities & Places practice worldwide, with an emphasis on regeneration, resilience, sustainability and ‘smart’ cities.

Meet James A. Moore

Dr. Rick Robinson, FBCS, CITP, FRSA, AoU

Rick RobinsonDr. Rick Robinson is Director of Smart Places, Digital Infrastructure and Telecommunications for Jacobs. He advises cities, infrastructure operators, property developers and investors on the use of technology to improve buildings, infrastructure, places, communities and business and organizational performance.

Meet Dr. Rick Robinson