9 Inventive Ideas For Improving Cities

From parking sensors to home help for teachers, here are some of the latest and greatest ideas for making cities better.

9 Inventive Ideas For Improving Cities
[Image: New York City via Shutterstock]

Last summer, the Center for an Urban Future and NYU Wagner published a report identifying a series of creative ideas for improving cities. They’re now back with a follow-up study, featuring another 25 urban innovations. We picked out some of the best.



The same people tend to come back to public health facilities again and again. In Camden, New Jersey, the Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers created a “hotspotting” program to identify “super-utilizers” and provide them with better preventative care. The program helps reduce expensive emergency room visits.


San Francisco has pioneered the use of demand responsive pricing for parking. In the city, the cost for a meter varies depending on the time of day and location of the spot, an incentive for people to avoid downtown when it gets busy. The system–which uses sensors at the roadside and links to a mobile app–“cuts down on the noise, pollution and frustration that comes with traffic congestion,” according to the report.


Pennsylvania cities like Harrisburg have introduced a new type of tax that encourages developers to do something productive with their vacant properties. Called split-rate taxation, the program halves the tax bill in two, levying a higher rate for the value of the land than for improvements to it. “A higher tax rate on land discourages real estate speculation,” the report says. “Developers cannot sit on undeveloped or underdeveloped land without suffering steep costs.”


Highly skilled immigrants often work below their skill level when they arrive in new countries. Maybe their qualifications are not valid in their new homes, or maybe they just don’t have the professional networks or language ability. Toronto’s Regional Immigrant Employment Council organizes three-to-six month paid internships intended to open up networking and mentorship opportunities for new arrivals. The Canadian government then offers bridge loans so participants can get new certifications.


Cities are struggling to pay for essential infrastructure like roads and bridges. Chicago has set up an Infrastructure Trust that raises capital from private sources, then shares the benefits. For example, a bank might put up money for efficiency improvements to old buildings, then take a percentage of the energy savings.


Many cities struggle with the effects of too much concrete development. They suffer blazing heat island effects or storm-water runoff problems. Seattle’s solution: a new zoning code mandating a minimum “permeable surface area.” Green Factor scoring, which awards points for plants, permeable sidewalks, and green roofs, begins to address drainage issues and makes for better-looking streets, the report says.



Two problems: too much electronic waste, not enough computers for low-income youth. One solution: a program in Riverside, California, that refurbishes computers and trains up residents. Best of all, the program, called SmartRiverside, is self-financing.


New York City’s pedestrian plaza initiative has cordoned off incredibly busy areas like Times Square for seating and walking. The result: less traffic, higher commercial rents, and greater peace of mind for hardened city dwellers and tourists alike.


With housing costs spiraling in many cities, public sector workers are often unable to live in the cities where they work (see this recent piece about San Francisco). San Jose, California has a Teacher Homebuyer Program that offers no-interest loans to help these workers afford to buy nearby their schools. Teachers only have to repay after 30 years or when they resell. More than 400 teachers have benefitted since it was introduced, the report says.

All of the above are examples of innovative ideas that could spread to other cities. We hope to see that start to happen because many of the problems above are widespread across many locales.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.