Politics and Geopolitical Dynamics
Political and geopolitical trends both influence and are influenced by shifts across the societal landscape. Planners may want to use these trends as input for their long-range and current planning processes, to practice strategic foresight during community visioning processes, for scenario planning, or simply to inform future decision-making.
The trends are structured in three timeframes, which indicate the urgency of planners' action:
Over the past few years, local governments have begun to create new roles with cross-sectoral functions indicating new priorities, including Detroit's Digital Inclusion Officer, New York's Director of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, Miami's Chief Heat Officer, and Boston's Director of Green Infrastructure. Particularly after COVID, many companies have developed the role of Chief Wellbeing Officer.
The trend is moving toward more holistic approaches to city government. Instead of perpetuating siloed department structures, local governments are now centralizing leadership in their priority areas while making sure all relevant departments report to these priority areas, which facilitates more effective collaboration. This approach is especially pertinent regarding climate change, which impacts the whole of local governments and is best mitigated and adapted to through interdepartmental strategizing.
In 2023, aggressive preemption bills in state legislatures continue to constrain local governments' abilities to regulate areas of concern. In Texas, legislators stripped the ability of cities to create local laws that are more restrictive than the state's. This is already impacting workers' rights, as local legislation concerning water breaks for outdoor workers has been overridden and banned by the state.
Given the expansive nature of the legislation, it is likely that issues directly related to planning, such as zoning and development review, may also be under threat. Many regulatory areas already preempted by states intersect either directly or indirectly with planning concerns: seven states preempt inclusionary zoning, eight states preempt the regulation of short-term rentals, 29 states preempt rent control, and 37 states preempt rideshare regulations.
Controversial symbols, such as Confederate monuments and streets named after contentious historical figures, are increasingly being questioned and, in some cases, removed entirely, as has been seen in Houston, San Jose, and Charlottesville, Virginia, among others. There is also a push for a more equitable distribution of street names, statues, and other features in public spaces that reflect the history of marginalized or underrepresented groups. Read the December 2017 Planning article, "Monumental Concerns," to learn how different communities answered the call to take down Confederate statues.
The COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, social inclusion, and other important topics have increased political polarization in the U.S. and globally. Political parties are seeing their members move more toward the extremes, further from any middle ground that was once held. Planners will have to adjust and learn how to navigate this fragmented environment when engaging community members in planning processes. For general information on community engagement and public participation, see PAS Report 593, Planning With Diverse Communities, and PAS Report 595, A Planner's Guide to Meeting Facilitation. Or watch APA's recent webinar, Mastering Conflict for Effective Planning: Navigation and Resolution.
The mainstreaming of conspiracy theories, along with the widespread reach of an array of social media platforms, are leading to increases in antigovernment sentiment, radicalization, and in extreme cases, violence against public officials. In 2023, trust in government neared record lows, as only 16 percent of Americans expressed confidence in the federal government to do what is right all or most of the time.
Planners are often the face of local government in public settings and are increasingly noting rises in hostility, declines in civility, and outright threats to their safety. This is leading to stricter rules around public comment periods, which could have an impact on planner-led community meetings. For more information on the effects of trust on the planning process, see the June 2021 Planning article, "Trust and Transparency Drive Award-Winning Plans." To learn more about communicating to the public about planning, see the October 2019 Planning article, "Cross Talk.
The number of refugees globally has dramatically increased over the past two years. According to the UN Refugee Agency, in 2022 108.4 million people were displaced globally due to human rights violations, violence, persecution, general conflict, and climate change. This 27 percent increase from 2021 to 2022 has surpassed the record set during and after the unfolding of WWII and is expected to rise again this year. By 2050, this number is projected to rise to 1.2 billion people due to climate change alone.
Immigration into major American cities has been surging since 2022 and is expected to continue, exacerbating existing affordable housing shortages and overwhelming shelters for the unhoused. Local governments are struggling to integrate hundreds of thousands of newcomers, highlighting the need for comprehensive immigration reform at the federal level. For now, cities like Chicago and New York are deploying temporary strategies, but the U.S. needs permanent infrastructure to integrate newcomers.
Trends such as net zero, decarbonization, and electrification are emerging globally, and different levels of government are trying to transition to clean energy and greener economies, promising a variety of target years for net zero and other goals. Estimates predict a massive decrease in the global oil market compared to other domestic energy sources, and in 2023 COP28 made history when nearly 200 countries agreed to begin the transition away from fossil fuels.
Global collaboration will still be needed for other resources to transition to renewables and already constrained resources can create competition, and potentially conflict, among countries. For instance, the demand for graphite, lithium, and cobalt is expected to increase to 450 percent of the amount produced in 2018 by 2050. But while climate change policies need global cooperation, the implementation of sustainable energy systems requires a local focus, which is where planners stand to play the largest role.
Reparations programs explicitly address the history of injustices that have led to lower socioeconomic status for communities of color. Cities including Asheville, North Carolina; Berkeley, California; Providence, Rhode Island; and New York City have set up commissions to study their potential implementation. Evanston, Illinois, became the first city to enact a reparations program in 2019, which research shows is supported by all residents. Planners should monitor how these projects are impacting communities, and similarly address the legacy effects of exclusionary planning and land use processes on the socioeconomic status of individuals, neighborhoods, and entire populations. For a brief overview of the topic of reparations, see the July 2021 APA blog post, "Six Ways Planners Can Help Communities Bridge the Racial Wealth Gap."
There is a growing interest in universal basic income across the U.S. Many cities — from Birmingham, Alabama, to Phoenix — are already piloting guaranteed income programs for targeted groups, including single mothers, women of color, and low-income residents. Planners need to consider the impact universal basic income programs may have on economic development, which may lead to changes in commercial investment and the socioeconomic status of disinvested neighborhoods.
Globalization increased after WWII, accelerating to hyperglobalization in the 1990s and 2000s. The financial crisis in 2008 slowed down this trend, and various disruptors of the last few years are causing a shift towards deglobalization. Supply chain challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in increased onshoring (domestic outsourcing instead of offshoring) activities. In addition, the war in Ukraine, ideological differences between governments, and differing sustainability approaches are spurring the trend toward rethinking external dependencies, redefining trusted partners, and reframing what resilience looks like.
Geopolitical goals are becoming an increasingly deciding factor in economic policy and international trade. Ambitions for self-sufficiency and independence from rival powers are resulting in increased friend-shoring and onshoring financed through subsidies, policy, visa bans, and even the exclusion of companies from specific markets. U.S. companies are reducing their investments in China and actively seeking alternative manufacturing locations, and to protect its farmers Arkansas recently passed legislation to ban foreign companies from owning agricultural land. Meanwhile, Europe is launching an anti-subsidy investigation into electric vehicles from China that are flooding the market, and inbound or outbound investment screening practices are being considered in the U.S., Switzerland, and other places. These global dynamics could have local economic consequences, and planners should be aware of new policies as they are introduced.
Urban technologies can be considered geopolitical tools and, much like traditional resources, they are now at the forefront of international disputes and power plays. The "Smart Cities" idea often associated with U.S. and Western models of urban development and the "Safe Cities" concept championed by China (aimed at enhancing public safety through surveillance technologies, among others) are more than just technological frameworks; they represent strategic narratives in both technical-cultural arenas and new emerging markets. These concepts demonstrate the broader competition in the realm of technology and its role in shaping the future of urban spaces globally.
Related to the current global tensions, the federal government, more than half of state governments, and even some cities have recently taken action to ban TikTok on government devices due to the relationship between TikTok's parent company ByteDance, and the Chinese government. However, some states are seeking to go further. In 2023 Montana passed legislation banning the use of TikTok on personal devices, though a judge blocked the ban from taking effect pending a lawsuit. As planners seek to engage with the public in new and innovative ways, especially through the use of popular social media applications and platforms, such restrictions could be a major concern and potential hindrance to effective outreach.
Watch and Learn
Major decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2022 created a source of uncertainty and exacerbated ongoing political polarization. In June, the Court expanded the Second Amendment protection of the right to carry firearms, making it more difficult for lawmakers across the nation to regulate guns in public spaces, though President Biden signed into law the first major gun safety legislation passed by Congress in almost 30 years. The Court's decision to overturn Roe v. Wade has had a far-reaching impact on the health of those who can become pregnant, and its restriction of the EPA's authority to mandate carbon emissions will likely have implications for public health. Planners should watch for how this political tension may affect the safety of community members.
Communities are taking the first steps in support of rematriation, or the return of Indigenous lands. One approach is by paying land taxes to local Indigenous groups. In June 2021, the Alameda, California, City Council paid Shuumi Land Tax to the Indigenous people living in the Bay Area of California. This agreement establishes $11,000 payments per year for two years. In 2023, land near Oakland, California, was returned to an Indigenous Land Trust.
For the rematriation of Indigenous lands to occur, planners need to reflect on the role of previous and current land use and development processes in removing Indigenous people from their ancestral lands, and they must collaborate with local Indigenous groups and current residents to find the most equitable way forward. The rematriation of Indigenous land has positive implications for sustainability, resilience, and health, as well as equity, diversity, and inclusion, so planners should watch and learn from these programs to see how they will impact and potentially uplift common planning goals.
The space race in the private sector is allowing for the industry to mature beyond just a few key players. This is contributing to the emergence of new issues related to managing an increasingly crowded low-Earth orbit and regulating Earth-based launch operations. As competition has grown for the emerging "space economy," calls are increasing for governments and private industries to further develop and formalize the rules of space-based governance. By establishing global rules and standards governing operations in space and on the ground, potential disputes could be more easily resolved, and access to space could be preserved for common and collective use by humanity.
APA's foresight research is made possible in part through our partnership with the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.