Seattle, Fast Company's City of the Year, boasts the ingredients that we believe will bring our communities--and country--back to prosperity: smarts, foresight, social consciousness, creative ferment. This year, singular bright ideas have earned 12 other cities places on our honor roll. Their exemplary initiatives are improving neighborhoods, transforming lives, and helping build better, faster cities for the future.

Seattle is blessed with divine geography, frontier spirit, and an abundance of both artists and geeks. Since Microsoft put down roots here in 1979, Seattle has become a nexus of computerized creativity, with myriad startups and VC firms funded by some of the 10,000-plus millionaires minted here. This is home to some of the world's top medical brain trusts: the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Institute, the University of Washington Medical Center, and the Bastyr University Research Institute. There's also the Intiman Theatre, directed by the genius Bartlett Sher, and the art-glass scene, led by Dale Chihuly. This is the birthplace of grunge and Sub Pop Records. And for three of the past five years, we have been ranked America's most literate city. This city is also an eco-leader. In 2005, Mayor Greg Nickels adopted the Kyoto Protocol for the city after the Bush administration declined to do so for the country.
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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.
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Many people joke about stashing their cash under the mattress, but what if that were really the only option? Bank on San Francisco, a public-private partnership formed by the city and several financial organizations, gives citizens access to bank accounts and financial education. When the pilot launched in September 2006, there were 50,000 unbanked households in the city. After two years, 25,000 of them had signed up for accounts. One reason many people hadn't had checking accounts is they lacked U.S. ID cards. Now, 17 participating banks accept Mexican and Guatemalan IDs. The initiative allows participants a safe place to keep their money as well as an alternative to check-cashing services. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill in December to expand it statewide in California.
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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 reshaped his city into a place where health and safety are an integral part of municipal planning. The Healthy City Initiative is based on Carmona's five pillars of a healthy community: the physical, the emotional, safety, violence prevention, and substance-abuse prevention. Tucson now has 700 miles of bikeways and 72 miles of shared-use paths. All that moving around has also turned Tucson into one big neighborhood-watch program--crime is down 20% since 2006. High-profile locals serve as ambassadors for domestic-violence prevention. And by targeting four specific neighborhoods, Tucson has seen a 45% reduction in crystal-meth availability since 2006.
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Taipei has strived to achieve "zero landfill, total recycling" by 2010, 30 years ahead of the UN's trash targets. It will probably fall short, but its policies are still exemplary. The city has encouraged the private sector to build composting facilities and recycling plants, and requires residents to pay for trash collection by the bag. Garbage trucks playing Beethoven's "Für Elise" and Badarzewska's "The Maiden's Prayer" collect trash, that must be in city-approved bags, from residents, who toss the bags into the trucks themselves. Taipei promotes trade in secondhand goods and introduced new methods of kitchen-waste disposal--one pilot program turns food waste into pig feed. The result: The volume of trash has been slashed by well over 60%.
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The recovery of post-Katrina New Orleans has unleashed a new generation of social entrepreneurs. A sterling example: the Broadmoor Improvement Association and its dynamic president, LaToya Cantrell. Broadmoor is a racially mixed, middle-class historic district dating to the 1920s. During Katrina, it saw 7 feet of flooding. The venerable association found a new mission after the storm, when much of the area was in danger of demolition and rezoning as green space. Neighbors collaborated with researchers from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and students from Bard College on a development plan. More than 70% of the area's homes have been restored. The group successfully lobbied for better police presence and emergency services, reopened their local school as a charter, and built a new playground.
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After recession nearly wiped out Malmö's industrial base in the 1980s, the city had a chance to start over. It created eco-friendly neighborhoods of transformed tenements and old shipyards. Much of Western Harbour now runs solely on renewable energy, including wind and solar, while organic waste from the area is turned into biogas. 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.
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The arts may often be associated with money and power, but the Mile-High City's Five by Five program opens the doors of Denver's cultural institutions to some of its youngest and poorest residents. Five by Five gives all children and families in the Head Start program free access to 12 museums and cultural venues, including the Denver Art Museum, Colorado Ballet, and the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. In 2008, 3,000 participating families clocked 30,000 visits. "Eliminate the barriers to accessing culture, and our families will show up," says executive director Maria Guajardo. "As one father told me: 'I feel like the city belongs to me now.'"
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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." 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.
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When the property in downtown Houston came up for sale, city leaders wanted more than another condo or parking garage. They proposed Discovery Green, a 12-acre, $122 million park in the heart of downtown. Year-round programming--exercise classes, concerts, films, festivals, a farmers' market--have helped Discovery Green beat attendance forecasts. "Downtown hasn't been known as a place to come on the weekends, but now you see thousands of people, families, and kids from all parts of the city," says park director Guy Hagstette. Despite a weakening real-estate market, development around Discovery Green is still strong. And, of course, the park is appropriately earth-loving, recycling its water and waste and drawing 100% of its power from renewable sources
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The host of the 2010 Winter Games is going for green, using its big moment as a chance to catalyze change. All 18 buildings in Vancouver's Olympic Village are being built to LEED Gold standards, except the community center and one residential building, which are targeting LEED Platinum. Heat recovered from wastewater treatment will warm the Olympic Village's buildings. Elsewhere in the Olympic complex, the granite for paving and weirs is being harvested from demolished buildings. And new solar-powered trash compactors throughout the city will help cut the volume of trash bound for landfills by up to 80%.
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How do you save your home from foreclosure? Philadelphia's answer: communication. The city's Mortgage Foreclosure Protection Program relies on door-to-door outreach, free counseling, and meetings between those on the brink of losing their homes and their mortgage lenders. Judges serve as mediators. Since Mayor Michael Nutter's administration established the plan in June 2008, it has saved more than 900 home owners from foreclosure; 1,400 more are midrescue. More evidence of success: Philadelphia officials say the program inspired a provision in President Obama's $75 billion antiforeclosure plan that calls for judges to arbitrate negotiations between lenders and home owners.
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In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, New York police commissioner Ray Kelly built the most successful local counterterrorism unit in the U.S. and perhaps the world. The team, which has more than 600 experts and proficiency in some four dozen languages, is representative of "a police department that now mirrors our diverse population," Mayor Michael Bloomberg proudly tells Fast Company. The unit routinely dispatches officers overseas for work in cities believed to be terror targets, including Amman, London, Singapore, Tel Aviv, and Toronto. These days, counterterrorism is something many municipalities need to think about. Leaders in any community must find creative ways to respond to their constituents' changing needs--and properly managed public-private partnerships can be the way forward in an era of budget cuts.
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Fast Company

Fast Cities 2009: The 13 Most Creative Cities in the World

Seattle is Fast Company's City of the Year, and singular bright ideas have earned 12 other cities places on our honor roll. Their exemplary initiatives are improving neighborhoods, transforming lives, and helping build better, faster cities for the future.

Seattle, Fast Company's City of the Year, boasts the ingredients that we believe will bring our communities--and country--back to prosperity: smarts, foresight, social consciousness, creative ferment. This year, singular bright ideas have earned 12 other cities places on our honor roll. Their exemplary initiatives are improving neighborhoods, transforming lives, and helping build better, faster cities for the future.

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