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Social change is often reflected in not just how we plan and structure our communities, but also in the practice of planning itself. Long-term demographic trends can shape where and how people live, work, and play. Health outcomes are closely linked with large-scale social changes, political dynamics, and market forces. These clusters of trends are explored below to highlight both the potential changes in store for communities and planners and the time horizon for local action.

Trend Timeframes

The trends are structured in three timeframes, which indicate the urgency of planners' action:

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Societal Polarization

The ongoing polarization in society significantly contributes to growing antigovernment sentiments, the spread of conspiracy theories, and escalating threats of violence. As per the World Economic Forum, the "erosion of social cohesion" ranks as one of the most pressing short-term global risks. This deterioration is attributed to a mix of social, political, and economic factors. The COVID-19 pandemic and substantial economic disturbances like inflation have been immediate causes in some nations. Deeper issues, such as rapid technological advances, increasing wealth disparities, and the shrinking middle class, are adversely affecting community structures, civic engagement, and social interactions.

This extreme polarization is impacting critical national and international discussions, with topics like climate change being deliberately ignored in certain political circles. For planners, this escalating polarization and weakening social cohesion present significant challenges. Planners are traditionally involved in public engagement, consensus building, and garnering community support for local initiatives. The pronounced polarization surrounding the topic of climate change exemplifies the challenges faced in planning and implementing essential projects.

Future Decolonization

Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) are increasingly important in various professions, especially in planning. A growing focus on issues like racial equity, gender inclusivity, accommodating different abilities, and considering the needs of an aging population is prominent. There's also a rising trend to challenge traditional, technology-focused, and predominantly white approaches to envisioning the future. This trend advocates for "decolonizing the future" by including those who will inhabit it — the younger generations. By engaging with young people, we can empower them and enable them to actively participate in shaping change.

The significance of involving younger generations in planning processes is becoming more recognized and valued. For instance, the C40 network is currently in its third iteration of the Students Reinventing Cities program. This initiative taps into the innovative ideas of young people across various cities, encouraging them to reimagine their future urban landscapes. In the U.S., Detroit has made notable strides in this area. This city won a 2023 APA National Planning Award for its unique approach to youth engagement, effectively integrating young voices with community leadership. Such inclusion of young people in planning not only enriches the planning process itself but also sparks greater interest in the profession among younger individuals, potentially leading to a stronger and more diverse future workforce in the planning sector.

Youth Climate Action

Young people are actively participating in effecting change, often with successful outcomes. A new case unfolded positively in Montana. There, a group of youth brought a lawsuit against the state government, criticizing its neglect to factor in climate change impacts when greenlighting fossil fuel projects. The court ruled in favor of the youth, declaring the government's oversight as unconstitutional. The judge affirmed that everyone is entitled to a healthy environment. Consequently, this ruling mandates that the state of Montana must now incorporate climate considerations in its future project approvals, showcasing the impactful role of youth in driving environmental policy changes.

Gender Expansiveness

Discussions about gender, particularly those beyond the traditional gender binary, are becoming more common in major media outlets. As a result, the public is becoming more aware of and vocal about these topics. Gender expansiveness, which is shifting from a fringe worldview, pushes us to imagine life outside the gender binary — but not without backlash. Gender neutrality is an attempt to avoid assuming roles or preferences based on gender stereotypes, or to not reinforce the gender binary, which is the traditional system of gender classification that defines every individual as either male or female. It is often conflated with nonbinary genders, which are genders that exist outside the gender binary. As discussions around gender continue to mature, planners need to balance addressing real-world implications of gender on public space use, behavior, and daily activities while also avoiding reaffirming the systems that lead to exclusionary and limited understandings of gender.

It is becoming more common for people to identify with complex identities at the intersection of multiple social characteristics instead of single-characteristic, homogenous population groups. Some signals indicate that we should consider life at the individual level, rather than using existing population groups as the default. More dynamic solutions are necessary, especially ones that planners can adapt or tailor based on the needs of complex individuals, especially those who have been traditionally underrepresented, underserved, or harmed by policies.

Gender Mainstreaming

Gender mainstreaming, a strategy used in European countries since the 1990s that identifies how policy decisions impact people based on gender, is gaining ground in the U.S. The recognition of nonbinary genders, as well as the needed inclusion of transgender people in these conversations, allows U.S. planners to leverage their slow adoption of gender mainstreaming to develop an even more inclusive version of this approach.

In 2021, the U.S. government released its first-ever U.S. National Strategy on Gender Equity and Equality, marking a significant step in prioritizing gender equality while addressing the climate crisis. Building on this, in 2023 the U.S. developed another groundbreaking strategy, the United States Strategy to Respond to the Effects of Climate Change on Women. This strategy enhances existing U.S. gender policies, establishing a dual-focused approach that integrates both ethical and strategic considerations into policymaking, diplomacy, community outreach, and program implementation. It aims to effectively address the intersections of climate change impacts and gender issues. The PAS Memo "Integrating Gender Mainstreaming into U.S. Planning Practice" is a good place to start for planners interested in this topic.

Gender-Inclusive Planning

Efforts to achieve gender equality are ongoing worldwide, with diverse strategies being employed. Gender-responsive budgeting (GRB) is a key method, assessing the impact of policies on different genders and adjusting as necessary. For instance, Morocco has successfully implemented GRB for over a decade, inspiring the UN Women Ethiopia Country Office to follow suit. Further, specialized departments like Zurich's Office of Gender Equality and the White House Gender Policy Council in the U.S. are being established to address these issues. Innovative practices are also emerging, like using crowdsourced data to improve women's safety and infrastructure. Examples include Australia's Free to Be campaign identifying unsafe areas, Swedish teenage girls designing a park in Umea, and women in Liberia pinpointing optimal locations for water and sanitation facilities. Cities like Vienna and several in India are spearheading gender mainstreaming initiatives, enhancing public spaces with features like improved lighting and women-friendly facilities.

To address gender disparities in transit, Lyft introduced Women+ Connect, an opt-in feature that connects women and nonbinary riders and drivers; the Bay Area Rapid Transit system has just begun its second phase of an anti-harassment campaign started in 2021 with a local nonprofit; and Chennai, India, employed consultants to gather input from women to improve governance over transportation. The transgender community has been facing a similar yet disparate set of circumstances. Since 2022, at least 22 states have passed legislation that restricts or bans gender-affirming care for trans minors, a particularly vulnerable population. For transgender employees, however, the Human Rights Campaign's 2022 Corporate Equality Index found that 97 percent of businesses in the study have protections for nonbinary and transgender employees, and 86 percent offer transgender-inclusive health care.

Inclusive Design

Inclusive design is an emerging trend across industries. This evolving market and movement in design professions is leading to changes in public spaces, buildings, and infrastructure, as well as product design. Planners can encourage developers, property owners, and service providers to enact inclusive design principles in their spaces and products. One notable instance of this is the growing awareness of the need for gender-neutral spaces. For more information about inclusive and universal design, check out the May 2021 Planning article "Why Planning Education Should Embrace Universal Design."

Public space and inclusive design are also directly related to the maturing conversation around gender. One recent trend is the disappearance of bathrooms as a public amenity. This disproportionately affects women because more of their daily activities (like childcare) or biological needs typically require more frequent bathroom access. Private companies controlling access to bathrooms can also lead to discriminatory practices against marginalized genders. Inclusive design often still focuses on biological differences rather than the overall diversity of body types. Sometimes, for instance, age and (dis)ability can be more relevant to design than gender identity.

Racial And Ethnic Diversity Awareness

By 2045, the majority of the U.S. population will be minorities. While greater cultural diversity is associated with wage growth and innovation, cities and communities must continue to adapt, both physically and socially, to meet the needs of a more diverse population. For more on effectively and equitably meeting the needs of a more diverse population, read PAS Report 593, Planning With Diverse Communities. Furthermore, the planning profession is significantly less diverse than the U.S. population and must adapt to represent the communities it makes plans for. The need for the planning profession to diversify is further explored in the PAS Memo "More and Better: Increasing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Planning."

Diversity awareness has been increasing based on the experiences of groups that have been underrepresented and underserved by institutional and governmental responses during the COVID-19 pandemic. Planning efforts need to meaningfully address growing diversity across communities and regions. Planners may need to pay closer attention to those being left out of programs they design or other governmental responses and should play the role of advocate for groups that have been historically underserved by the profession. For more on this topic, check out APA's recent Planning for Equity Policy Guide, along with APA's curated Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion resources.

Aging Populations

The number of U.S. adults aged 65 and over is expected to grow to about 90 million by 2050. Few cities have the physical and social infrastructure to support aging in the community. An aging population is also associated with high population dependency rates and slower economic growth. For more on how an aging population is already affecting planning and communities, check out the February 2021 Planning article "Planning for the Needs of an Aging Population" and learn how to prepare in PAS Report 597, Planning Aging-Supportive Communities, and PAS Report 602, Intergenerational Community Planning.

According to projections from several national and international organizations, global population growth will slow over the next few decades, reaching its peak in the next 40 to 60 years, and potentially declining after that. In some countries, this is already happening: China recorded negative population growth in 2022, and U.S. birthrates have been declining for decades. In 2021, the Pew Research Center found that 44 percent of childless adults between the ages of 18 and 49 (up from 37 percent in 2018) say they will not likely have children, citing economic and social pressures as primary reasons.

Declining Life Expectancy

According to provisional data from the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), life expectancy in the U.S. experienced a significant decline, decreasing by nearly a year from 2020 to 2021. This decrease, from 77.0 to 76.1 years, brought U.S. life expectancy to its lowest point since 1996. The decline of 0.9 years in 2021, combined with the 1.8-year drop in 2020, represents the most substantial two-year decline in life expectancy the U.S. has seen since 1921–1923. Furthermore, recent research indicates that the U.S. now has a lower life expectancy compared to other industrialized countries.

Planners play an important role when it comes to improving the quality of life for all communities, healthy conditions of the built environment, and equitable distribution of and access to health care services.

Dementia and Aging

Planning for aging in place and dementia are more important than ever. The national median age saw its largest single-year gain, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's 2021 Population Estimates. The number of people with dementia and Alzheimer's disease is expected to more than double by 2060, with these cognitive diseases expected to most affect Hispanic and Black populations.

Planners can contribute to the policies that can minimize disparities in dementia risk, namely equitable access to resources and environments that contribute to healthy cognitive function. Read PAS Report 579, Planning Aging-Supportive Communities, PAS Report 603, Intergenerational Community Planning, and the PAS Memo "Planning for Dementia-Friendly Communities" to learn more.

Assistive Tech

Planning for aging in the community and planning for people with disabilities go hand in hand. Disabilities are more common among older populations, and the long-term effects of COVID-19 may increase the number of people affected by cognitive disabilities as they age. The tech sector has increasingly shown an interest in helping people with impairments or disabilities navigate the world.

Not only are Big Tech's major players improving the accessibility of their products, but a separate market for assistive tech is emerging. Products such as sensory aids and mobility aids are lucrative, as is the potential to 3D print prosthetics. Wearable AI is also an emerging field. The ubiquity of assistive tech may facilitate some solutions to aging in the community, though planners must still work to promote the built environment and design solutions. Read the PAS Memos "Planning Accessible Communities" and "Autism Planning and Design Guidelines 1.0" for more about how to plan with an accessibility mindset that addresses the needs and comfort of all community members, regardless of physical or neurological ability.

Childless Adults

A growing share of childless adults in the U.S. do not expect to ever have children, according to the Pew Research Center. Birth rates dropped during the pandemic, contributing to the existing downward trend in U.S. fertility rates. As current young generations are already facing social, economic, and environmental crises, there are implications for the demand for daycare and school infrastructure in communities, as well as the balance between childless and child-friendly amenities.

Supportive immigration policies and appropriate integration programs will be key when trying to balance out an expected demographic imbalance in the future. Additionally, increased interest in and funding for fertility research (including topics such as artificial wombs and other ways to bypass the need for pregnancy) and life-extending measures will most likely gain more attention and support in this context.

Surveillance Spread

More and more communities, as well as private residents within these communities, have access to video surveillance and facial recognition tools. Facial recognition attempts to identify people's race, age, gender, and ethnicity. There is growing wariness of these privately and publicly used surveillance tools, particularly regarding the negative impacts they may have on vulnerable populations.

Planners need to consider the impact of surveillance tools on equity, diversity, and inclusion in public spaces, as well as their impact on commercial districts and residential areas. For more on how to avoid using smart tech in ways that make people feel surveilled, check out the March 2019 Planning article "Smart Cities or Surveillance Cities?"

Digital solutions for safety concerns

While privacy has become a concern in a world of constant online presence and social media, younger generations value the option to share their location to resolve these issues. Downloads of the tracking app Life360 have doubled since 2021, with over 33 million monthly active U.S. users; the tag #findmyfriends has surpassed 50 million views on TikTok; and Snapchat allows for real-time user location tracking through its Snap Map. These are just a few of many examples.

Safety is a crucial aspect of planning in which planners can play a key role in developing solutions. Digital solutions, like location tracking, are increasingly being considered to address the safety challenges faced by young people in our communities. However, these technologies come with significant risks, such as misuse by stalkers or other malicious individuals. Planners must weigh the benefits and drawbacks of digital solutions carefully when devising real-world strategies. The information coming from these apps, as well as data from open-source applications such as SafetiPin, can provide important inputs into planning processes and assessments of what younger people need, helping planners understand the "why" behind these trends.

Social Media Toxicity

The detrimental impact of continuous social media use, particularly its potential to worsen mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, body image concerns, and social comparison, is a significant factor affecting the social cohesion and overall well-being of community members. This trend towards a toxic social media environment has implications for urban planning.

Given this context, it becomes increasingly important for planners to be well-versed in social media. Planning departments might need to develop specific strategies for engaging with social media, as well as programs to protect their staff from its negative effects. While planners cannot alter the intrinsic nature of social media and its potential toxicity, they can adapt their methods of engagement and response to these platforms. This involves understanding the dynamics of social media, recognizing its influence on community well-being, and integrating this awareness into planning and community engagement strategies. This approach helps ensure that planners remain effective and responsive in a landscape increasingly influenced by digital social interactions.

Bots And Unreliable Data

Social media bots are becoming more prevalent and better at mimicking human behavior on social media platforms. Bots are an example of AI that uses data on human social media users to replicate their actions and communicate with people. Perceptual biases are how people's perceptions are altered or skewed based on their pre-existing beliefs, experiences, or prejudices. Social bots, through their interactions and content dissemination, can reinforce these biases. Bots are not exclusively negative, however; for example, a bot can be helpful in local government website navigation by popping up to chat with website visitors.

Planners need to adequately consider the impacts of these bots. Manipulation of public conversations on social media is especially relevant to community engagement processes.

Community Influencers

Cities and communities are now at the mercy of the rapidly growing social media influencer industry. An influencer is a type of social media user who uses a social media platform to market themselves, their lifestyle, or specific products to an audience of followers. Influencers have flourished under evolving social media platforms, sharing short-form content (e.g., TikToks, Instagram reels, or YouTube shorts). They can access or create special-interest online communities that are either geographically connected (like Nextdoor) or based on a shared topic (like Reddit).

Travel-based influencers impact the tourism industry, with potentially positive impacts on the local economy and negative impacts on local ecology. City-living influencers can generate housing demand or revitalize shopping centers. Urban influencers have been advocating for transit, discussing the reality of suburban life, or inviting young people to participate in the planning process. For planners, it is important to understand the different social media influencers in their communities and how they can be leveraged for more equitable and inclusive community development.

Place-Based Social Networking;

Place-based social networking platforms, a form of civic technology that encourages neighbors to communicate virtually, are growing in popularity. The possibilities offered by this kind of networking are extensive, and the market already showcases a variety of applications exploring these concepts. A prominent example is Pokémon GO, which uses augmented reality (AR) to allow users to find virtual Pokémon in real-world locations through their phone screens. Another application, Wallame, offers a digital platform where users can create and share virtual graffiti, blending the physical and digital worlds uniquely. Additionally, Holo is pioneering in the field by experimenting with location-based holograms, providing an innovative approach to how digital content is integrated with real-world environments.

These applications demonstrate the growing trend of merging digital experiences with physical locations, offering new and engaging ways for people to interact with their surroundings. The public-private nature of these platforms indicates that both virtual and physical approaches to placemaking, belonging, and inclusion are necessary to ensure public safety and combat exclusionary practices in urban spaces.

Silent Mental Health Crisis

The world is currently facing a "silent" health crisis, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has brought mental health and healthcare system challenges into sharp focus. This crisis is characterized by the "panic-neglect" cycle, where concern and preparedness peak during crises but fade away afterward, leading to complacency. Additional stressors include climate change, biodiversity loss, vaccine hesitancy, misinformation, declining trust in experts, political polarization, and the rise of antimicrobial resistance. Furthermore, the healthcare sector is experiencing a severe workforce shortage, with a predicted global deficit of 10 million health workers by 2030. The mental health crisis is also escalating, evidenced by the increasing use of mental health services and high suicide rates among certain age groups in the U.S. Despite these growing challenges, public concern for health-related risks has diminished, overshadowed by other global crises and pandemic fatigue.

To combat these issues, a holistic approach to health is essential, involving not just healthcare professionals but also urban planners. Planners have a crucial role in promoting public health through environmental design that facilitates healthy lifestyles, such as providing access to clean air, nutritious food, and opportunities for physical activity and social interaction. Innovative city planning examples include Barcelona's superilles (superblock)> concept and Los Angeles' adaptation of pedestrian-friendly and green space-focused urban designs. Additionally, technological advancements offer new tools for health care, such as virtual reality for trauma therapy and AI chatbots for companionship, although these innovations also present challenges like potential social isolation. The healthcare system itself needs innovation in care delivery, staffing, and funding models, especially in anticipation of an aging population with chronic health conditions. Governments and businesses must integrate health considerations into their emergency preparedness plans, recognizing planners as vital partners in addressing these complex health challenges.

Gun Violence

According to the CDC and the American Public Health Association, gun violence is a public health issue. It includes homicide, violent crime, attempted suicide, and unintentional death and injury. In 2021, 48,830 people died from gun-related injuries in the U.S. Gun violence can be reduced through a comprehensive approach that involves various programs, policies, and strategies. In schools and other public spaces, planners can use landscape features, such as safety gardens, to help create attractive, yet functional, safe places.

Vacant lot remediation and renovation of abandoned houses have reduced gun violence in various communities, including Philadelphia. Additionally, multiple studies show that increased exposure to nature can reduce mental fatigue and related violence and crime in communities. PAS Report 602, Planning for Biophilic Cities, describes how elements of nature can improve a community's overall well-being and reduce violence.


Telemedicine, doctorless exams (where sensors and artificial intelligence capture health data to provide a direct diagnosis to the patient), at-home medical laboratory tests, and direct-to-consumer health care models are increasing. The use of telehealth spiked in 2020 and remains higher now than before the pandemic. Although at-home lab tests have been available for decades, over-the-counter COVID-19 rapid tests have now made-at-home medical testing commonplace.

According to a February 2022 report, the at-home test industry is projected to be worth over $2 billion by 2025. There has also been a rise in subscription-based healthcare providers. As more consumers seek out convenient, on-demand health care, tech-enabled services may threaten traditional primary-care models and push healthcare providers to adopt technological changes. For planners, this will impact the siting of health care facilities, including clinics, urgent care facilities, and health centers. More research is needed to understand the real impact of these trends on brick-and-mortar healthcare facilities. "Zoning for Eds and Meds," the November 2021 issue of Zoning Practice, outlines the challenges posed by technological change to local healthcare anchor institutions such as hospitals.


Human rights in the digital world

The World Economic Forum's Global Risk Report points to a worrying trend regarding personal privacy in the next decade. With the rise of digital presence in daily life and the advancement of new technologies, there is an increased risk of heightened surveillance and misuse of personal data by both government and private entities. This often happens without adequate anonymity protections or clear consent from the individuals affected. Research shows that using just 15 demographic attributes, nearly all U.S. residents can be identified from anonymized data. Additionally, in the U.S., there is relatively lax regulation of the sale of data.

The widespread use of data-collecting devices and AI systems that depend on this data could lead to an extraordinary level of control over individual rights and freedoms. In response to these threats to human rights in the digital era, the World Economic Forum's Global Coalition for Digital Safety has developed the Global Principles on Digital Safety. These principles guide applying human rights in our increasingly digital world. While planners rely heavily on data for informed decision-making, they must now focus more on privacy and safety rather than solely on efficiency. By doing so, they will build greater trust and cooperation in their communities, ensuring that the solutions they develop are both effective and respectful of individual privacy.

Scoring Systems

Social credit scoring was initiated by China in 2014 and this system continues to evolve. A person's social credit score plays a significant role in various aspects of their life. It can influence whether someone is eligible for a loan, their freedom to travel internationally, and even their social interactions. Although this social credit system may not be as intimidating as it is sometimes perceived, the potential it holds for social engineering is significant.

In the U.S., police, immigration officials, banks, universities, and even religious institutions are increasingly using scoring systems to inform decisions, despite major issues with bias. Planners need to consider the risks of using scoring systems in their work, such as when attempting to measure neighborhood success.

Watch and Learn


CRISPR, a cutting-edge genome editing technique, has ushered in a new era in biotechnology. Scientists and researchers are particularly excited about its transformative potential. Current and promising CRISPR include developing pest-resistant and resilient crops; treating a range of diseases, such as cancers, sickle cell disease, and numerous rare and critical illnesses; and rapidly identifying and controlling fast-spreading viruses.

While the scientific community largely supports the use of CRISPR for these beneficial purposes, there is a strong consensus on the ethical concerns associated with its application. The primary ethical worry revolves around using CRISPR for eugenics or human genome enhancement, which could lead to significant moral dilemmas and social implications. Given these rapid developments and the potent capabilities of CRISPR, there is an increasing focus on establishing global governance and local regulatory frameworks. These are aimed at setting ethical standards and defining acceptable uses for this powerful technology, ensuring its advancements are aligned with societal values and ethical considerations.

Life extension and reverse aging

Life extension and anti-aging research is a burgeoning field, attracting considerable attention in recent times. In 2023, scientists at Harvard Medical School successfully manipulated the epigenome — which controls gene expression in cells — to accelerate aging in mice and then reverse its effects. Individual efforts in the realm of life extension have also been in the spotlight, including tech executive Bryan Johnson's Project Blueprint, which combines exercise, diet, supplements, and lifestyle changes in an attempt to reverse aging.

This area of research, while still in its early stages, hints at potentially profound social implications for the future. Longer human lifespans could lead to extended working years, increased consumption of resources, and a greater demand for services over a prolonged period. These changes would have far-reaching consequences on various societal aspects, including economics, health care, social structures, and resource management.


APA's foresight research is made possible in part through our partnership with the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.