6 Innovative Projects That Are Making Cities Better–That Other Cities Should Steal

The winners of the Knight Cities Challenge should be an inspiration for creative urban planners everywhere.

6 Innovative Projects That Are Making Cities Better–That Other Cities Should Steal

The Knight Cities Challenge just gave out $5 million to winning ideas from civic innovators to help 26 particular American cities, from Detroit to Macon, Georgia. But there’s no reason these ideas can’t be used elsewhere. Here are six of the 37 winning projects that other cities might want to steal.


Turning a highway into a bicycle park

In a couple of years, the last mile of the Innerbelt highway in Akron will be shut down. The road divided the city’s downtown, and was unpopular almost as soon as construction started in 1970. When the cars are finally out of the way, one section of the former highway will be turned over to bikes, in a new mountain biking park connected both to the downtown and a nearby bike trail.

“It’s a way for people who don’t typically ride bikes to start doing it, and get excited about it,” says Jonathan Morschl, who is leading the project.

Pop-up minimum grid

It isn’t easy to bike around downtown Macon, Georgia, right now, but the city will soon get to experience what it’s like to have better infrastructure. In a variation on Better Block–the project that temporarily turns a block into a walkable, bikeable, active place–a local nonprofit will be temporarily converting an entire neighborhood. “People will be able to come out and ride it, and see what it’s actually like to ride on good infrastructure,” says Josh Rogers, president and CEO of NewTown Macon, the organization leading the project.

Over a Friday and Saturday, neighbors will be able to try out protected bike lanes, bike boulevards, and new pedestrian infrastructure connecting the heart of downtown with surrounding neighborhoods, a university campus, and parks. “All that stuff’s really close, but totally disconnected right now,” he says. “That’s the idea of this route.” Some of the new infrastructure will stay in place, and Rogers is hoping that residents will like the rest so much that they demand that it become permanent.


Front lawn placemaking platform

“We’re trying to transform the most ubiquitous and underused space in America–the front lawn,” says Max Musicant, founder and principal of the Musicant Group, a placemaking firm based in Minneapolis. Inspired to do something about the fact that people keep becoming more isolated from their neighbors, the group is designing a toolkit that homeowners can use to make their front lawns social. That might mean moving furniture and a grill into the front lawn, planting a garden, or adding a Little Free Library.

“It’s really about people getting in touch with the things that matter to them, and putting it on their front lawns,” he says. “They’re going to be present in their front lawns again, and by doing that–instead of being in the backyard, or just inside–they’re going to have serendipitous interactions with neighbors in a way that was never possible.” The designers plan to test the project with 15-20 people in a couple of typical neighborhoods in St. Paul, release a beta kit online, and build a final kit that will come out in 2017.

Using vacant homes to create new jobs

Gary, Indiana, has almost 6,000 vacant homes, and a lack of jobs. A new project will connect the two problems–the value of the architectural elements inside those abandoned houses is over $12 million. The nonprofit Delta Institute plans to create a new reuse facility, Steel City Salvage, and then train workers in demolition, deconstruction, warehousing, and furniture-making.

The new center will also help incubate more reuse businesses, and provide collaboration space. Until a new warehouse is built, a repurposed shipping container will serve as a pop-up store.


Making an outdoor office in a park

Inspired by research that suggests people can be more creative and productive outside, the City of Long Beach plans to turn part of a downtown park into an outdoor office, with free quality Internet, electricity, a comfortable place to sit, water, quiet, music, and shading so it’s possible to look at a laptop.

“It might be people like me, and they’re getting out of the office so they can focus and no one’s distracting them,” says Rachael Tanner from the City of Long Beach. “Or perhaps they are a startup, and they need a place where they can get really good Wi-Fi that’s free, they can have a charging station, and beyond that, they can meet and run into people in that serendipitous way that may help them with their business.”

Training neighbors to develop vacant lots

Midtown Columbus, Ohio, has a plethora of vacant and underutilized land (including massive parking lots in front of mostly empty shopping centers). It isn’t always simple to build in those areas, but a new project aims to break the process down, and then teach it to local residents.

The nonprofit Incremental Development Alliance, which focuses on small-scale development, will work with local partners to study older buildings–particularly duplexes, and “quadplexes,” the smaller buildings that are rarely built today. Then they’ll figure out how to build the modern equivalent up to code, affordably, and start teaching that process to any neighbors who want to learn. Last, they’ll connect local investors with the would-be developers.


All Images: courtesy Knight Cities Challenge


About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.