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February 29, 2024

Eight trends shaping design for cities in 2024

  • Innovative urban design solutions are coming to fruition around the world in response to the crises we’re facing.
  • By RYAN HAINES and KRISTIN JENSEN
    Gensler

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    Haines

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    Jensen

    With the roller coaster of 2023 behind us, we are optimistically looking ahead to a new year ripe with opportunities across the building industry. Gensler recently published our design forecast, comprised of the latest insights and expertise from across our 33 practice areas. Through extensive research, surveys, and conversations, we’ve identified significant themes we believe will fuel key trends shaping design and our cities in 2024.

    1. BUILDING CONVERSIONS: A NEW VALUE PROPOSITION

    Office-to-residential conversions and other creative repositioning will represent a new value proposition for the building industry, transforming under-performing office buildings into housing and addressing a vital need for new residential options in cities. As organizations seek out amenity-rich, recently built projects, this “flight to quality” is stranding under-capitalized and unoccupied B and C buildings in urban cores around the world. In 2024, expect more government municipalities to incentivize adaptive reuse strategies and conversions whose renovations breathe new life into cities and offer vital infrastructure enhancements — and do it in an environmentally responsible way.

    Here in Seattle, we are seeing this flight to quality put new strains on office building owners seeking to retain value or adding value for tenants in a climate of reduced occupancies and lower rental income. Conversions of office space to residential is an opportunity to breathe new life into a building and neighborhood, but it is not without challenges. But for those who can tap the incentives and see beyond the near-term, the result will bring value beyond the boundaries of the site. It will infuse activity into our urban core to enhance the vibrancy of our city and re-ignite the economic engine of the city.

    2. SUSTAINABLE DESIGN BECOMES NON-NEGOTIABLE

    As intense weather and climate change assail the built environment, sustainable design shifts from an option to an obligation. By 2024, building and real estate industries around the world will recognize the value of environmentally conscious design and its ability to mitigate risk. Higher standards for products and materials, the adaptive reuse of existing buildings, net zero energy strategies, and regenerative design principles will define our sustainable future.

    Photos by Heywood Chan [enlarge]
    The T-Mobile HQ redevelopment created a connected campus with multi-use spaces that aim to foster inclusion, engagement, and options for how and where to work.

    As we feel the sense of urgency that climate change presents, embodied carbon reduction legislation and regulations require immediate action. Additionally, corporate ESG initiatives are moving from visionary to actionable as the message finally disseminates into the actual development of real estate and buildings. Architects and designers can now utilize tools like carbon calculators and product sustainability standards to elevate the outcome of the design process and eliminate the need to layer on additional work to achieve climate goals. Designing through the lens of resiliency demonstrates a commitment to people, the environment and our broader community.

    3. NO MORE RETURN-TO-OFFICE METRICS

    As more organizations understand that the workplace landscape has permanently changed, the focus will be less on how many people come into the office and more on what the future of work looks like to support people’s needs. In 2024, organizations will continue to plan for in-person experiences in spaces that are agile and flexible enough to evolve with the changing demands of the workforce and useful enough to earn people’s commutes.

    Tenants are expecting more from their buildings, seeking to both realize efficiencies in their workplaces, and leverage shared amenity spaces in the building for their company. In their workplaces, it’s about balancing “me” and “we” spaces, but there isn’t a one-size-fits-all model. Our workplaces must meet the needs of employees across all lenses of diversity, including the neurodiverse, and through the incorporation of elements in space where people can see their diverse backgrounds reflected. Empowering employees to be successful, which is appreciated by both employee and employer, these spaces have come to include different seating postures, tactile feel, light levels, acoustic privacy, and access to music, but some also provide relief from sensory overload.

    4. MIXED-USE LIFESTYLE DISTRICTS BRING CITIES BACK TO LIFE

    Monolithic, office-focused downtowns have become a thing of the past, replaced by vibrant, experience-driven social districts focused on a mixed-use collection of retail, entertainment, sports, housing and other lifestyle-anchored developments. By prioritizing safety and mobility in these new multimodal districts, cities can attract residents and tourists and bring COVID-impacted neighborhoods back to life.

    Gensler’s Seattle office redesign factored in a new, hybrid approach to the workplace that addresses wellness, neurodiversity, and personal workstyle preferences, while encouraging collaboration, social interaction, and engaged office culture.

    Mixed-use neighborhoods are key to reviving urban centers and addressing their economic hardships. Developers and building owners can play a role in this by creating unique opportunities to bring people together through a variety of spaces, offering a multitude of experiences. Flexible public spaces will be in high demand, as will the right blend of housing, entertainment, and retail spaces. Historically, Seattle’s development has followed rather single-use modes, with diversity of uses among adjacent blocks, but not typically on the same block. Given the verticality of the downtown core, mixed-use buildings need to be explored as a complementing option to full building conversions to residential.

    5. DESIGNERS HARNESS AI TO ACCELERATE INNOVATION

    In 2024, AI will open the door to new ideas, new talent and new creative opportunities. Far from replacing designers, AI will become a collaboration tool that will help designers redefine the design and innovation process with new insights, rapid iterations and more immediate response times. Buildings and spaces designed with the help of AI will be more sustainable, better performing and more responsive to individual needs and preferences.

    It’s inspiring to witness how our talented designers are combining human creativity with the power of technology to transform our processes, delivery and human experience. We are witnessing artificial intelligence becoming a spark for design inspiration, an opportunity for enhanced design exploration and a catalyst for conversation around delivering design solutions that challenge the status quo.

    6. SHIFT TO AGELESS SPACES AND DESIGN FOR A LIFETIME

    Over the past 50 years, the average life expectancy for people around the world has expanded by more than 10 years, a figure that will only grow in the coming decades. With the global trend toward increased longevity, 2024 will mark a shift toward designing age-inclusive communities. Demand for flexible and multigenerational communities that foster accessibility and affordability will have universal appeal.

    This is especially true for our region, where people are active and seeking to remain in their homes and communities as they age. Developments must address age diversity and accessibility without compromising experience. Flexibility to respond to a broad set of needs and interests as well as neighborhoods with resources and amenities will attract and retain those who are seeking a living experience aligned with the lifestyle they value.

    7. TWENTY-MINUTE CITIES LEAD IN EQUITY AND ACCESSIBILITY

    As city leaders seek out design strategies to help enhance their central business districts to be more lifestyle-oriented, the idea of the 20-minute city remains increasingly attractive. These vibrant, walkable neighborhoods, where all essentials lie within a 20-minute reach — including restaurants, retail spaces, medical facilities, educational places and much-needed residential alternatives — are redefining city living. This trend underscores the importance of creating accessible, inclusive urban spaces that promote equity, connectivity and community.

    Planners are reimagining downtowns to respond to the evolving and varied needs of those living there, starting with public safety, and focusing on uses that provide activity beyond the workday. Urban planners and designers should consider more mixed-use, flexible approaches that integrate living, working and leisure into every district and development to address the varied needs of city dwellers. As a result, reimagining the world’s cities requires an interdisciplinary approach that can address multiple priorities facing equality, safety, sustainability, flexibility and experiences that people want from their cities.

    8. EXPERIENCE MULTIPLIERS PAY PREMIUM DIVIDENDS

    Now more than ever before, people are craving phenomenal, visceral and connected experiences in every part of their lives, whether that’s in a workplace that feels like a clubhouse or a sports stadium that anchors a vibrant, 24/7 mixed-use entertainment district. In 2024, real estate leaders will find success reclaiming human connection with “experience multipliers” — immersive designs that drive loyalty, boost sales, and improve vibrancy with a shared sense of inspiration and belonging.

    We’ve entered the experience economy, demonstrated by where we spend our time and our money. Experience is the top goal of any new design project — regardless of use. It is no longer enough to just serve a purpose as every space needs to be worth the effort of leaving home. Crafting spaces for entertainment or that merely make room for and encourage community, connection and engagement is part of the formula for revitalizing our neighborhoods and cities.

    As we look ahead to 2024, we recognize that the challenges impacting the global real estate market are ongoing. The upside to these challenges is the creative visions they’ve imagined and encouraged. Innovative design solutions are coming to fruition in cities around the world in response to the crises we’re facing. These trends for 2024 build on that positive momentum and represent the most promising and exciting design opportunities in our market right now.

    Ryan Haines is a managing director and principal of Gensler Seattle with expertise in design strategy, workplace design, master planning, retail, transportation and civic engagements. Kristin Jensen is a managing director and principal of Gensler Seattle with extensive experience in commercial real estate development overseeing projects for significant local developers.


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