Planning Trends to Watch in 2024

Post-pandemic clarity — and sheer necessity — may be bringing some of the most urgent issues of recent years to a head.

9 minute read

February 28, 2024, 8:00 AM PST

By Diana Ionescu, Mary Hammon

Graphic of person's hands with 2024 in middle against backdrop of city skyline and golden hour sky with rays coming through.

natali_mis / Adobe Stock

The urgent planning issues of the day remain, at the start of 2024, all too familiar: the housing supply in most American cities and towns remains inadequate to meet demand, causing housing costs to skyrocket, impacting some groups, like older Americans, disproportionately; the impacts of climate change on infrastructure and public health (and insurance rates) are becoming glaringly apparent; traffic deaths remain far above many other countries, while highway construction and car-centric development are only slowly losing ground to more sustainable transportation systems; and artificial intelligence continues to pose questions of ethics and veracity as it spreads to uses in government, planning, and media.

Over the last several years, the Colorado River’s dwindling water supply captured the attention of the Western states that depend on it, and some reservoirs reached levels so low that they were almost forced to stop hydropower production. States finally came to a tentative agreement, and an unusually wet winter replenished many reservoirs, but the growing water demands of urban populations and agricultural and industrial uses signal that this crisis is nowhere near over. Housing remained a key concern throughout 2023, with both renters and prospective homebuyers seeing little relief from high costs and a limited supply. Around the country, transit agencies are still scrambling to replace diminished fare revenue with more sustainable dedicated funding sources.

Last year, we highlighted the growing popularity and potential impact of ChatGPT and other artificial intelligence, and the conversation around AI and its uses in planning and government — as well as media and journalism — only continues to heat up. Generative AI used in writing and art draws from existing work without compensating or crediting its original authors. In the same way, AI used in planning and policymaking draws on existing policy and data, in some cases emulating and perpetuating historical inequities. More dangerously, it presents a veneer of technocratic objectivity that further obscures any built-in bias. 

The American Planning Association’s 2024 Trend Report highlights climate challenges, the housing crisis and a range of potential solutions, and the impacts of AI and other new technology as trends that require urgent action on the part of planners and policymakers.

Policymakers tackle zoning reform at all levels of government

Zoning reform, unsurprisingly, seems poised to continue dominating planning debates in 2024 as the housing crisis shows few signs of abating. With local efforts to boost affordable housing production proving ineffective, states and even the federal government are stepping in with a variety of carrots and sticks aimed at incentivizing cities to make housing easier and cheaper to build — and penalizing them if they don’t.

In California, a long-standing state-level housing policy gained enforcement power in the last two years as the state cracked down on regional housing mandates. In response, some cities put up a variety of creative challenges to the law. The back-and-forth between the state and local jurisdictions will continue to impact housing development and changes to local zoning codes. In cities without a state-compliant housing plan, developers can use a state law known as the ‘builder’s remedy’ to bypass local zoning laws under certain circumstances.

While the debate about zoning reform is, in most cities and states, centered around increasing density in single-family neighborhoods and other existing urban areas, a somewhat different conversation is taking shape in Oregon, where the state’s innovative ‘urban growth boundary’ policy has limited sprawl around its cities. Now, with housing costs becoming unsustainable for most Oregonians, state lawmakers are considering a one-time exemption to the rule that would allow cities to propose expansions to their UGBs to boost housing production.

At the federal level, a proposed bill would tie highway funding to zoning reform. Proponents of this plan argue that housing costs, sprawl, and transportation infrastructure are intimately linked and that states and cities should thus be held accountable for limiting sprawl and zoning for more sustainable urban patterns. An argument for this policy by Sam Maloney and Rohit Swain posits that underbuilding, particularly in many wealthy and coastal areas, has contributed to the housing crisis. Thus, federal legislation could require states to submit housing plans before accessing highway funding which could induce sprawl and further exacerbate the housing crisis. The proposed Neighborhood Homes Investment Act would offer federal tax credits for the rehabilitation of older homes, which could help keep aging housing stock livable and help homeowners with lower incomes afford repairs and improvements.

As part of a budding ‘Yes In God’s Backyard’ movement, faith-based institutions around the country are converting unused church-owned land into housing, aided in part by state and local legislation that streamlines the process. In California alone, a report estimates that 171,000 acres of land owned by faith-based institutions could be available for redevelopment under the new law. Other proposed solutions include opening up federal lands for housing development. A Utah study found roughly 150,000 acres of federal land in that state within city limits, placing it within reach of existing infrastructure and amenities.

Climate change impacts more and more tangible

In our review of 2023’s most talked-about planning issues and news, we highlighted a range of long-talked-about effects of climate change becoming realities, including extreme heat, increased frequency and intensity of major disasters, skyrocketing property insurance rates, threats to vulnerable infrastructure, and population migration. Not only will that trend continue into 2024, but we anticipate it will show up in increasingly tangible ways at all levels, from systems-level impacts all the way down to the individual lives of community members. The two we particularly plan to keep our eyes on in the year ahead: infrastructure and home insurance.

The extremes driven by shifts in climate are not only driving intense storms that are causing threats to coastal infrastructure. In December, Southern California, one of the country’s top three busiest passenger rail corridors was disrupted for months due to coastal erosion that threatened the tracks. Extreme temperatures are also putting stress on electrical grids and even foundations of buildings in dense urban areas. Hotter summers are driving up energy bills and worsening air quality, putting homeless and vulnerable people, households without air conditioning, and people who depend on walking and public transportation at risk for air-quality related health conditions, heat-related medical emergencies, and death.

Then we have U.S. home insurance, which rose an average 12.7 percent in 2023, driven in large part by risk for severe weather and other climate-related hazards, which have increased over the last decade—a trend that is only expected to continue—as well as insurers dropping homeowners’ policies or completely withdrawing from insurance markets in high-risk states like Florida and California. With the country already facing a housing crisis, skyrocketing insurance rates put affordability even farther out of reach for many. But it’s not just homeowners who are at risk; nonprofit affordable housing developers are also feeling the squeeze as insurance rate increases of up to 104 percent. To combat this trend, some housing and construction advocates have called for stronger building codes that incorporate climate-resilient standards to make homes more resilient. Until action is taken to reverse this trend, premiums—and the squeeze they put on homeowners, affordable housing developers, and high-risk communities—will continue.

‘Aging in place’ is increasingly out of reach for American seniors

As more Americans reach retirement age, the challenges senior citizens face in their daily lives are exacerbated by car-centric planning, high housing costs, and the impacts of climate change. High housing and maintenance costs and large single-family homes unsuitable for older adults make it difficult for seniors to ‘age in place,’ or stay in their community as they age.

More senior Americans than ever are facing eviction and homelessness, and almost 20 percent of older adults are housing burdened, meaning they spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing costs. Many seniors living alone struggle to afford care on top of housing costs. Only 14 percent of adults over 75 who live alone can afford a daily caregiver visit, and just 13 percent of over-75 seniors can afford the median cost of assisted living facilities in their communities. Almost 11 million older adults lived with adult family members in 2021, a more than 80 percent increase since 2006.

Meanwhile, many U.S. homes lack features needed by elderly people and people with mobility impairments including accessibility elements such as ramps, flush thresholds, and elevators and life-saving devices like back-up generators and effective ventilation. According to the 2011 American Housing Survey, fewer than 4 percent of U.S. homes had single floors, no-step entryways, and hallways and doorways wide enough to accommodate wheelchairs. In many rural and suburban areas, many seniors lack access to reliable transportation for daily errands, healthcare appointments, and social activities, putting seniors at increased risk during health emergencies and limiting their opportunities for social interaction.

Zoning reform advocates say zoning changes that encourage higher density, more transit-oriented development, and more affordable housing can be particularly beneficial to older Americans. To make aging in place more affordable, experts are calling for a broader range of housing options for seniors, including ‘missing middle housing’ and accessory dwelling units, appropriately also known as granny flats. Seniors can especially benefit from walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods close to transit and basic daily needs such as shopping, parks, and healthcare.

AI offers promise, peril for urban systems

The use of artificial intelligence (AI) and related technologies is gaining traction across industries, and urban planning is no different. For a few years now, urban applications of AI have been largely experimental, used in a research environment, or in the prototype stage, but in the second half of last year, a number of U.S. cities and states began using it in their daily operations. Last September, New Orleans launched an AI-powered traffic safety program to improve traffic flow and reduce the risk of collisions with streetcars, and California instituted an AI-powered permitting system to automate permitting to streamline rapid solar project installations. That momentum continued into the first weeks of 2024, with the U.S. Department of Transportation launching an AI initiative for complete streets and the California Department of Transportation announcing a request for proposals from the tech sector for a program that will use generative AI to manage traffic and prevent vehicle crashes.

Still, as cities increasingly look to AI to solve challenges, a host of concerns remain about depending on AI for such essential and often nuanced functions within our urban systems. For one, while AI can be trained to produce data and tell stories but does not grasp the meaning behind them. AI systems have also demonstrated limited knowledge of sparsely populated, rural areas and have a tendency for bias and discrimination, particularly in housing and real estate. Questions of cybersecurity are looming large in light of recent news of China’s efforts to hack into critical U.S. infrastructure. And then there is the potential for AI to just go haywire unexplainably, which had been hypothetical until February when ChatGPT started giving nonsensical responses to prompts.

Large blank mall building with only two cars in large parking lot.

Pennsylvania Mall Conversion Bill Passes House

If passed, the bill would promote the adaptive reuse of defunct commercial buildings.

April 18, 2024 - Central Penn Business Journal

Aerial view of Oakland, California with bay in background

California Exodus: Population Drops Below 39 Million

Never mind the 40 million that demographers predicted the Golden State would reach by 2018. The state's population dipped below 39 million to 38.965 million last July, according to Census data released in March, the lowest since 2015.

April 11, 2024 - Los Angeles Times

Wood-frame two-story rowhouses under construction.

Fair Housing Cannot Take a Back Seat to ‘Build, Baby, Build’

If we overlook fair housing principles in the plan to build US housing back better, we risk ending up right back where we started.

April 11, 2024 - James Jennings

Purple buss pulls up to bus stop in green bus lane.

Nashville Proposes $3.1B Plan to Expand Bus System

The plan will hinge on voter approval of a half-cent sales tax increase on the November ballot.

29 minutes ago - Tennessean

Renewable Energy

Just Transition: Bringing Equity to the Clean Energy Conversation

A new report from the Environmental Defense Fund offers a roadmap for countries, energy companies, and other stakeholders to navigate the complexities of transitioning to clean energy while ensuring equity at every step of the process.

1 hour ago - Environmental Defense Fund

Black car parked in bike lane

New App Pays Users to Report Illegally Parked Cars

A Swedish company is leveraging the power of crowdsourcing and the gig economy to enforce parking laws.

2 hours ago - Euronews

News from HUD User

HUD's Office of Policy Development and Research

Call for Speakers

Mpact Transit + Community

New Updates on PD&R Edge

HUD's Office of Policy Development and Research

Write for Planetizen

Urban Design for Planners 1: Software Tools

This six-course series explores essential urban design concepts using open source software and equips planners with the tools they need to participate fully in the urban design process.

Planning for Universal Design

Learn the tools for implementing Universal Design in planning regulations.