Our collective future lies in cities—that much, at least, seems clear. According to UN estimates, 68% of the world’s population will live in metropolitan areas by 2050, and in the U.S., more than 80% of us are already city dwellers. To get a sense of where life is headed, Fast Company scouted 20 of the most exciting ideas being implemented in cities around the country, including Louisville, Kentucky’s approach to urban agriculture, Denver’s aggressive rethinking of its transit system, and Portland, Oregon’s emphasis on sustainable design. Taken together, these initiatives paint a picture of tomorrow. What can your hometown do to get there? Read on to find out.
This year, Seattle has passed provisions to offer both male and female city employees paid family leave, approved a subsidized bus pass for those making less than double the poverty level, and started prioritizing applicants from distressed areas when hiring for city construction projects. In April, the city’s minimum wage went up to $10 an hour, on its way to $15 by 2022.
To rejuvenate its decaying Seaport area, Boston committed in 2010 to create a 1,000-acre “innovation district.” Now the neighborhood is home to more than 200 companies, and its offices, co-working hubs, and community center have attracted a population of tech workers to rival that around MIT in nearby Cambridge. Public transit improvements are on the way, and last fall, Mayor Martin Walsh formed a committee to help build similar districts elsewhere in the city.
Washington, D.C.’s Anacostia area—long plagued by poverty and crime—is cut off from the rest of the city by a river and a major freeway. But that’s now changing: The once-busy 11th Street Bridge is being transformed into a public park, providing a pedestrian conduit between the neighborhood and Capitol Hill, along with much-needed green space. And while independent groups have tried periodically to clean up the highly polluted Anacostia River, the city finally released a plan last year that would make the river swimmable by 2032.
Los Angeles has been aggressively pursuing new methods of water conservation since well before the current drought crisis. The Department of Water and Power is working on an ambitious plan to purify recycled wastewater and pump it underground, refreshing the groundwater supply at a rate of more than 4 billion gallons per year by 2022. Mayor Eric Garcetti has also called on citizens to help conserve. “All of us need to reduce our water usage by 20%,” Garcetti says. “It’s pretty easy to do—much easier than you’d think.” In April he released a plan to cut water imports by an ambitious 50% over the next 10 years.
The USDA has branded the west side of Louisville, Kentucky, a “food desert.” Next year, Seed Capital Kentucky, a not-for-profit focused on supporting regional agriculture, will change that, breaking ground on a $20 million, 24-acre facility called the FoodPort. Here’s what will happen inside:
The facility’s proximity to Interstate 264 makes it a prime distribution venue. Local farmers will drop off crops, which will be packaged and sent out to restaurants and other buyers. A farmers’ market will sell fruits and veggies grown on site.
Local food startups will be among the anchor tenants of the FoodPort’s commercial spaces, and there will also be room for fledgling entrepreneurs to test out their products. Advisers on staff will be available to help them build their ideas into businesses.
Edible leftovers from the vendors will go to local food charities. Everything else will be run through an anaerobic digester that turns organic material into fertilizer and clean, renewable natural gas, which will then be pumped into the public gas supply.
In 2010, Portland, Oregon, launched a plan to turn five neighborhoods into “EcoDistricts” where emissions, energy use, and waste will one day approach net zero. The South Waterfront, a former industrial zone, was chosen as a pilot; five years in, it’s full of promising projects, such as:
A 100-foot-wide greenway running alongside the Willamette River includes a refuge for young salmon and provides a nesting ground for migratory birds, including the osprey that have made the South Waterfront their home.
A 6,000-square-foot wall, which spans two floors of the Oregon Health & Science University Center for Health & Healing, is covered with sunshades that double as photovoltaic panels, preventing the release of 97 metric tons of CO2 each year.
An aerial tram takes commuters to and from the waterfront, and the 1,720-foot-long Tilikum Crossing, America’s longest carless bridge, carries light-rail trains, buses, bicyclists, and pedestrians to the rest of the city.
When Bill Peduto became Pittsburgh’s mayor in 2014, one priority was to make his administration as diverse as possible. He partnered with the Pittsburgh Foundation and the University of Pittsburgh’s Institute of Politics to launch Talent City, a platform for recruiting and evaluating candidates for city positions from far outside the typical talent pool. Of the 45 people hired via Talent City—who include police chief Cameron McLay—55% are women, and more than a quarter are black. “We needed a much better system [for hiring] than the old political-machine system of bringing in the staff of the campaign and friends and political donors,” Peduto told Fast Company earlier this year.
High-tech skyscrapers are rising all over town, but New York’s most notable progress is far less conspicuous. An initiative to reduce traffic deaths—which involves redesigned intersections, PSAs, and a reduction of the citywide speed limit to 25 mph—brought down pedestrian fatalities to a record low of 138 in 2014. There’s also a plan to turn 7,000 obsolete pay phones into public Wi-Fi kiosks. And last spring, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the Tech Talent Pipeline, a program to connect students at the City University of New York with jobs in Silicon Alley.
The Brooklyn to San Francisco’s Manhattan has become a hub for green businesses like Sungevity, one of the top solar providers in the country, and Lucid, whose energy-monitoring software has been used by the likes of Disney and Google. Tech startups are popping up as well, lured by low rents and abundant space. The city has recently taken steps to make itself more livable, including a zoning change to make it easier to turn vacant lots into urban farms.
The Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation has built 347 condos, 176 rental units, almost 375,000 square feet of commercial space, and a new public park in its depressed Over-the-Rhine area since 2004. To help young people prepare for their careers, Cincinnati Public Schools has created partnerships like the Business Education Connectivity Council, which will run a mentorship program for high schoolers beginning this fall.
Denver is in the midst of a major transit expansion, which will give the city one of the most advanced networks in the country. The changes are the result of a referendum passed in 2004 to fund the creation of 122 miles of new and expanded rail lines, as well as a renovation of Denver’s historic Union Station and a rapid-transit bus system called the Flatiron Flyer to provide quick and easy transit to nearby Boulder. “The transformative power of transit is undeniable,” says Mayor Michael Hancock. The city is also coordinating with developers to build in areas that will be served by the expanded system, with more than 18,400 housing units and 4 million square feet of retail space built so far. By 2018, travel times to downtown are projected to have decreased by as much as 38%.
Honolulu has the worst traffic in the U.S., ahead of even Los Angeles. So in 2011, the Federal Transit Administration approved an eight-year, $5.2 billion plan for a 20-mile elevated rail line that, when it’s completed, will be America’s first entirely driverless transit system. The train will provide a link between downtown Honolulu and the suburb of Kapolei, passing through four university campuses, the airport, and Aloha Stadium, a big concert and sports venue. Expected to be both safer and more efficient than conventional trains, it is projected to eliminate 40,000 car trips per day.
An influx of young college graduates, lured by cheap real estate and Rust Belt charm, have revitalized many of Buffalo’s industrial relics. Buffalo RiverWorks, for example, is a former grain elevator that’s been transformed into a 60,000-plus-square-foot recreation center with two ice rinks, a 6,000-seat theater, three bars, and a restaurant. A new plant for renewable-energy company SolarCity, being built on the site of a former steel manufacturer, will add much-needed jobs when it opens in 2016.
Detroit is home to nearly 80,000 derelict and vulnerable structures, and the Detroit Blight Removal Task Force has been created to eliminate them. Convened after the city declared bankruptcy in 2013, the group is leveraging technology—and the power of engaged citizens—to get the job done.
Two local tech companies built a database of every property in the city, combining existing data sets with material gleaned from a citywide survey to create a repository for information on nearly 375,000 properties.
Citizens help update and refine the database via the Motor City Mapping app. Users snap a photo of a blighted property, record the building’s location, and upload the data. A quality-control team reviews the information before adding it to the database.
The task force now uses the info to identify cleanup projects that will affect the greatest number of people and help the city prioritize its demolition efforts. Since early last year, the city has demolished more than 4,000 blighted structures.
One of greater Las Vegas’s busiest streets, Flamingo Road, is getting a $40.3 million overhaul that will include new bus stops, better crosswalks, and more traffic signals. Last year, the regional transportation commission began studying how to expand public transit on the Strip, and in March, officials vowed to put more than $90 million toward improving pedestrian safety.
Salt Lake City
Utah’s chronically homeless population fell by 34% from 2010 to 2014 (compared to 21% in the U.S. overall), with the majority of that progress centered in Salt Lake City. Here’s what the city has offered to improve what has seemed to be an intractable situation.
Most cities prioritize temporary shelters over long-term housing. Salt Lake City has adopted a different strategy, placing chronically homeless people in one of 950 federally subsidized apartments, for which they pay a nominal rent of, at most, 30% of their income per month.
Caseworkers meet with residents of the apartments, helping address underlying problems by referring them to medical care, psychiatric counseling, financial planning, and other services.
The state helps the now formerly homeless find employment, even if it’s a job that offers only a few hours of work per month. The approach leads to better results for the homeless, and saves Utah money on emergency services, as well.
Since the Great Recession, Houston has added jobs faster than any other large American city, and it saw its population of young college graduates grow more quickly between 2000 and 2012 than any other major metropolis. That abundance has led to projects aimed at making the city even more vibrant, including a $242 million proposal to convert the unused Astrodome into an indoor park and a $450 million expansion of the Museum of Fine Arts into a cultural campus designed by architect Steven Holl. “We’re trying to build a city that is innovative, exciting, entrepreneurial, and sustainable,” says Mayor Annise Parker. Under Parker, Houston, long a bastion of the oil and gas industry, has also become a green leader, getting 50% of its energy from renewable sources.
In 2013, Chicago won a grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies to develop data-driven tools for cities. Its first product is WindyGrid, a dashboard for public-safety information for city personnel, including 911 calls and tweets about potholes. The city also now uses 311 data to predict and address problems before they occur. It also partnered with Code for America to develop a 311 tracker, through which citizens can check on their service requests. Work is ongoing on a “Data Dictionary” portal, designed to make the city’s public information easily searchable.
Built in 2009 with the help of a $111 million federal grant, Chattanooga’s gigabyte-per-second, mega-high-speed Internet network has been a major driver of local startup activity—and its effects are poised to spread to the entire region. In February, the FCC approved the Chattanooga Electric Power Board’s petition to sell super-fast Internet service to surrounding towns.
Once a shopping mall, Orlando’s Church Street Exchange had been a vacant eyesore for over a decade. In 2014, developers converted its central plaza into office, co-working, and event spaces for 80 fledgling tech companies. Now business tenants can commute there via the city’s newly opened rail system, which has a station just one block away.