Fast Company named Seattle the “City of the Year” in its annual “Fast City” issue, which handpicks cities around the world that exhibit “smarts, foresight, social consciousness [and] creative ferment.”
San Francisco was chosen for its innovative public-private partnership that gives citizens access to bank accounts and financial education. Taipei was noted for its “zero land fill, total recycling” by 2010 plan. And New York got praise for its high-tech counterterrorism efforts.
But we at The City Fix were drawn to some other initiatives — greener, smarter, “faster” ideas about sustainable transportation and urban planning. We read the whole issue — so you don’t have to — and here are some highlights:
Place to Play
“The natural environment — the mountains, the lakes, the trees — are such a huge part of this city,” says architect Eric Cobb, who lived and worked in San Francisco and New York before returning to his hometown. Even in the city, green space has primacy. In 1903, city leaders hired the Olmsted brothers — yes, those Olmsteds — to develop a master park plan. The plan located a park or playground within one-half mile of every house.
The Olmsted legacy infiltrates every aspect of the Seattle landscape today, from pocket public beaches on Lake Washington to the 20-mile boulevard that links city parks and greenbelts. It also affects the built environment
A Streetcar Named Inspire
The idea of transforming South Lake Union (called SLU — pronounced slew) began in 1991, when city leaders made plans for a park intended to help revitalize this dilapidated part of the city.
Once SLU had proved its worth and everyone had fallen in love with it, the City of Seattle added a 2.6-mile trolley line linking the neighborhood with downtown. Michael Mann, a top aide to the mayor, tells me about the importance of the SLU trolley (which locals lovingly call SLUT). While I might have expected something about, say, congestion (in L.A.) or environmental consciousness (in our rival to the south, Portland), Mann instead relates a conversation he had with a SLU-based scientist: “He said to me, ‘The reason we need the streetcar in South Lake Union is that we need a place for all the scientists to get together. During lunches, we visit each other and have lectures and roundtable discussions, and we can use the streetcar to get back and forth, and we can continue the conversation on the streetcar. We can interact and exchange ideas. That’s why we need the streetcar!'”
“Sort of a moving café or bar?” I ask.
“A place to exchange ideas,” Mann agrees.
Michael Mann’s anecdote about the streetcar fits into that tradition — in Seattle’s distinct, nontraditional way. This is a destination, a meeting place, for creative people.
Innovation is imperative; quality of life is crucial. In Seattle, we have a cornucopia overflowing with both.
One of America’s most blighted cities, hard hit by rustification and foreclosure, is also home to one of its loveliest urban initiatives, a plan to create acres of tree nurseries, oases of native plants, and community gardens with bees and chickens. Devised at Kent State University’s Urban Design Collaborative, the strategy is part of Reimagining a More Sustainable Cleveland Initiative, funded by the city and the Surdna Foundation. It’s meant to boost property values and community spirit in neighborhoods plagued by vacant lots and condemned buildings. A proposed “Mow-to-Own” program will encourage neighbors to maintain nearby lots, while a variety of land-reuse projects point to a greener future — a solar array in a previously empty 3-acre lot, for example, will provide enough power for 200 homes.
Active City = Healthy City
It all began with a dare. In 2003, Tucson native and former surgeon general Richard Carmona challenged his friend, Mayor Robert E. Walkup, to turn their hometown into the model of a healthy city. He has done it, reshaping his city into a place where health and safety aren’t an afterthought, but an integral part of municipal planning.
Tucson now has 700 miles of bikeways and 72 miles of shared-use paths, and plans to spend more than $80 million to make it an entirely walkable, bikeable city. There are regular bike and foot races, and “we’ve partnered with neighborhood associations to encourage walking programs,” says Annemarie Medina, who leads the health effort for the mayor.
All that moving around has also turned Tucson into one big neighborhood-watch program — crime is down 20% since 2006.
Walkup intends for the benefits of his initiative to ripple well beyond Tucson. In December, he hosted mayors from around the U.S. for a Healthy City Summit. And he created the Mayor’s Global Alliance for Community Wellness, a Web site where civic leaders can share best practices; 41 city managers from six countries now participate.
In Augustenborg, roof gardens reduce runoff and insulate homes, while a carpool system and pedestrian- and bike-friendly roads help cut vehicle use. The city expects to reduce its CO2 emissions by 25% between 2008 and 2012, blowing past the Kyoto Protocol’s 5% target.
It seems almost too simple: one card that gives access to the trains, buses, and a local car-sharing program. The Smart Card is Chicago-based nonprofit I-Go Car Sharing’s idea to extend public transportation to include public cars. According to a recent study, most cars in Chicago — Fast Company’s 2008 City of the Year — sit parked 95% of the time. “We have to make better use of our assets,” says I-Go CEO Sharon Feigon. “We want to integrate the public-transit systems and car sharing any way we can, and sharing one card is a good way to demonstrate that these different ideas are linked.” The pilot program started in January with 5,000 Smart Cards and more than 200 cars. Coming soon: shareable plug-in hybrids that can power up at kiosks with real-time info on buses and trains.
Power of Green Space
A street, a few gray parking lots, and a little patch of unused green. Dreary. When the property in downtown Houston came up for sale, city leaders knew they could find a better use for it than yet another condo/office building or a parking garage. They proposed Discovery Green, a 12-acre, $122 million park in the heart of downtown that has reminded urban planners of the power and potential of green space. Year-round programming — exercise classes, concerts, films, festivals, a farmers’ market — have helped Discovery Green beat attendance forecasts.