What makes for “the perfect city?” That really depends on whether you like skyscrapers or greek columns, right? Not exactly. Defining a successful city may seem up to personal preference, but research in urban planning reveals specific pieces to what might be called an algorithm for a great place to live.
Across most city ranking systems, transportation, livability, and business capital rank among the top indicators of a successful metropolitan area. Yet the experts agree, smart urban planning trumps all other factors when it comes to creating a viable city. Though not easily quantified, smart urban planning has three main parts to its equation.
Forward (Or Backward) Thinking
For civil engineer, lecturer, and nonprofit leader Charles Marohn, designing cities was only part of the equation. For years, Marohn kept coming back to the question – how do we make our cities stronger?
To help answer that question he started a blog, Strong Towns. The blog on improving cities was so well received that it soon inspired a national nonprofit. Now, he and his team are booked solid with speaking engagements in the upcoming months
“Every city in the US today is struggling with financial problems. The standard prescription is making the situation worse,” he says.
With 36 US cities bankrupt, local governments are desperate to get out of debt. But at what cost?
“The problem is that we are stuck in the current development paradigm which prioritizes the illusion of quick revenue over sustainable infrastructure,” Marohn says.
While a city may incur sizable tax revenue from developing a strip mall or large building complex, the effects of maintaining everything from sidewalks to roads to support those projects in the future adds up. Recent estimates calculate the annual cost of road preservation and major road repairs needed in the US to be an astounding $43 billion dollars.
The solution? Think backward. Build cities like they had been build for hundreds of years – around the pedestrian, not the automobile driver.
“I say we need to make this change not because I’m a huge biking or walking person, but because traditional development patterns are really more financially productive. They are more complex. It wasn’t about just building a strip mall or a large building complex – townhouses were built next to smaller, affordable houses, stores next to high foot traffic areas,” Marohn adds.
Some of the world’s most economically vibrant and successful cities are those also ranked as the best for pedestrians. Among the top most walkable cities are New York, Hong Kong, Paris, Melbourne, and Vancouver – cities known for financial strength.
For Dr. Lynn McCormick, Associate Professor CUNY Hunter’s Department of Urban Affairs and Planning, a well-thought out development plan has to focus on its citizens.
“People are looking for a new idea of what their city could be. People want to be able to use their city,” she says.
Judy Parker, legal aide to the office of Portland, Ore. Mayor Sam Adams, gives us an insider’s perspective on why the city is so successful. “As a city, we are very cognizant and deliberate in our urban planning. We are always thinking about equity. We think about, how will this affect families, singles, the disabled, senior citizens, those who cannot afford a car?”
The city has an unemployment rate below the national average and lower than New York, Boston, Los Angeles, and Chicago. It holds a spot on the list of the world’s top ten greenest cities. It and also ranks as one of the country’s least stressful places.
Creating a great city starts with small, deliberate steps.
“Portland decided we needed more composting in the city,” Parker explains. “So we decided we’ll have recycling and composting every week. But you can only throw your trash away every two weeks. This changed how people are buying in stores. It changed how people chose to reuse and recycle.”
Currently, Portland’s leadership is working towards its 20 Minute Neighborhoods plan – an initiative whereby city residents will be able to walk, bike, or access public transportation to a grocery store, library and a park without traveling for more than 20 minutes.
In other cities across the country, deliberate urban planning is changing the way cities are envisioned. A recently released urban plan for New Orleans would shift city development strategy from raising areas where people live to increasing levee use and restoring wetlands to prevent flooding. In Brooklyn, talk of creating a Tech Triangle to entice tech entrepreneurs and encourage tech activity has people buzzing about potential parallels to Silicon Valley.
An Informed Population
Perhaps the most elusive part of a creating a successful city is the cultivation of an educated and engaged population.
Studies show that higher rates of education attainment mean less crime and incarceration rates for a city. But education rates of a community may reach far beyond impacting crime rates.
“A successful city has an informed and participating population that, despite income level, participates in local government, uses the library, attends local cultural events. Everything else follows — jobs, business, good health,” Dr. McCormick says.
Creating deliberate relationships with the community can pay off when it comes to urban planning. In fact, a report by the New Economics Foundation argues that local governments, in addition to health professionals, play a significant role in their citizen’s well-being.
Rachel Quednau, founder of the blog The City Space, has lived in Minneapolis, Washington D.C. and New York City. For her, creating an engaged population boils down to how people view the local government.
“From zoning codes to keeping up public parks, local governments are a huge player in the city. Having a responsive, listening local government and people who want to engage with their government is really important,” Quednau says.
Decisions to think locally and prioritize people in urban planning can pay off for cities. While large, quick growth can promise easy revenue, city success is usually found in deliberate, and perhaps, slower growth. From revenue-generating plans that revolve around the pedestrian, to encouraging easy mobility for workers on their commute, small but specific measures help to make a city work for those who live in it.