What makes a city great? Whether you’re living in Durban, South Africa, or Medellín, Colombia, perhaps no two people living in one place will have the same answer. But ask residents across different cultures and regions about challenges facing their own cities, and common issues will emerge, like the need for more affordable housing, better public transportation and access to resources and services.
Far too often, city initiatives don’t actually address the needs of residents — and sometimes they create even bigger problems, especially for those who are most vulnerable. Take Vancouver, B.C. Though it’s often regarded as one of the healthiest cities in the world, some projects to make the city more livable, like the addition of luxury housing, have contributed to gentrification and driven rental prices out of reach for many, raising the question: “Healthy and livable for whom?” said Andy Hong, the director of the Healthy Aging and Resilient Places Lab at the University of Utah.
Several cities across the world are now reinventing themselves to make life better for all residents — and in the process, carving a path for the rest of us to solve some of the most pressing urban design challenges. Medellín, once considered one of the world’s most dangerous places, has become a model for urban renewal through the creation of visionary public architecture and transportation infrastructure, where residents in rural areas can access the city center, along with the jobs and services available there, by cable car.
Here’s what we can learn from Medellín and other cities that are breaking new ground in urban transformation.
Few cities have changed as significantly, and as quickly, as Medellín. After decades of political unrest, economic turmoil and violence at the hands of drug cartels, new leadership in the 1990s ushered in a turning point. Under Colombia’s new national constitution, adopted in 1991, the government of Medellín focused on targeting inequity.
The city built transportation infrastructure to give its poorest residents access to the city center. Then it commissioned renowned architects to create new parks and buildings, including visually stunning libraries and museums, to be placed in the most neglected neighborhoods. A toxic dump that was a fixture of one neighborhood was replaced with the Moravia Cultural Center, which offers arts programming and is surrounded by parks and gardens. Elsewhere in the city, new parks and library facilities turned neighborhoods marked by violence into places of pride, with computer labs, recreational centers and public housing.
“In the face of the crisis, society asked itself appropriate questions and embarked on a path of solutions,” said the architect Jorge Perez-Jaramillo, a former planning director for the city from 2012 through 2015.
The poorest neighborhoods were high atop steep mountains, far removed from the city center. There was no easy or inexpensive way for people to commute to town for work and access to resources, since the building density and mountains made it impossible to build new train lines. In 2004, the city began adding a system of gondola lifts in the sky, connecting the steep mountain towns to other areas, dramatically reducing the cost and time it took to commute.
For the people of these towns, once on the periphery, this provided their neighborhoods a sense of legitimacy, said Daniel A. Rodríguez, the director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. as a symbol of pride for their home, people started painting their houses. “They felt pride in getting these significant investments, and then tourists were coming to that area,” he said, adding that residents started to take care of the local parks and other public areas, too. “There was this second order effect of community development and ownership.”
Durban, South Africa
Inviting vendors to help redesign a marketplace
Food vendors, artisans, people selling garments and other goods — these informal workers define a city’s essence and bring the streets to life. Nowhere is this more true than at Warwick Junction, one of Durban’s main transit hubs and the site of nine specialty markets. Residents can buy crafts, herbs, clothing or the traditional Zulu delicacy of cow head meat from the 6,000 people who set up shop there.
But Warwick Junction was a very different place when South Africa was under apartheid rule. Heavily policed at the time, the bridge that connected Warwick to the predominantly white city center was frequently closed down to keep Black people out.
When apartheid ended, the Durban government decided it was ready to invest in the market and do something it never considered before: listen to the people the country had marginalized for so long and invite street traders to help with plans to redesign their own spaces. During apartheid, market traders were highly organized among themselves but not recognized by the Durban city government, said Richard Dobson, a founder of Asiye eTafuleni, a nongovernmental organization that supports informal workers through projects like the Warwick Junction renewal.
“Apartheid completely and utterly excluded particularly Black people from inner city and African city life and even public life generally,” said Mr. Dobson.
In time, structures were built to house the vendors, informed by a mix of their needs and city health codes.
More than a decade later, the area draws about 450,000 people daily and has become a popular stop for cruise ship passengers and other tourists. A second generation of vendors, some taking over family businesses, is flourishing.
Central business districts in cities around the world took a major hit during the pandemic. So what’s a city to do when entire sections of town go unused? In areas of Sydney that were once primarily used for office and industrial spaces, the city added more living spaces and plenty of entertainment in areas.
“The pandemic encouraged an appetite for reform and unprecedented collaboration between all levels of government, which has made a range of initiatives we have long dreamed about — like street closures, outdoor dining and a connected bike network — possible for the first time,” Clover Moore, the lord mayor of Sydney, said in a statement.
George Street, one of the busiest roads in Sydney’s central business district, has a new look with a radically different traffic flow. It’s a “really fluid public space that really prioritizes people walking and biking over automobile access,” said John Bela, an urbanist and the founder of Bela Urbanism. The shift toward making George Street more pedestrian friendly began in December 2020; when finished, it will have more than 9,000 new square meters (about 97,000 square feet) of walkways. The street will also receive new lighting, seating, trees and additional spaces for outdoor dining.
The city has “made great strides on ambitious projects to pedestrianize areas of the C.B.D., once the sole domain of cars, and to better connect our city with safe cycling infrastructure, to give people a transport option beyond crowded buses and trains or private vehicle use,” Mr. Moore said.
Through the Pyrmont Ultimo Landcare program, volunteer gardeners return native foliage to its natural landscape in the Pyrmont neighborhood. The city buys the plants from IndigiGrow, an Indigenous owned nonprofit nursery that specializes in growing local endangered plants.
The plants provide shade, help cool down high density areas, attract birds and even store carbon, said Mary Mortimer, an organizer for the project.
Creating public spaces that preserve the city’s history
Anne Hidalgo, the mayor of Paris, is making it a city of the future by incorporating its climate action goals into investments in transportation infrastructure. For one thing, this means fewer cars.
Paris already has a strong public transportation system, and it’s now expanding its network of bike paths. A plan announced in 2021 includes a €250 million (about $268 million) investment that will add 111 miles of secure bike lanes, pushing Paris ever closer to Ms. Hidalgo’s wish for the city to secure 15-minute city status. That would mean residents could meet all of their basic needs, including work, health care, education and, perhaps, a game of pétanque at the park, within 15 minutes on foot, bike or public transportation from their front door.
Though the administrations of several other cities, including Seattle and Seoul, are also eyeballing a 15-minute future, only a few major cities — like Melbourne, Australia, and Madrid — have the infrastructure needed to make it a realistic goal.
Many residents of Paris aren’t fond of knocking down the old in favor of new construction, preferring to preserve the city’s character. In response, Paris has become adept at recycling buildings for new uses and wedging in parks and green spaces wherever possible.
One example is La Recyclerie, a community-led project created in 2014 that transformed a former train station into a space that includes an urban farm, a recycling center and education and community centers. And, in 2017, the city replaced sections of the roads alongside the Seine river with parks and play spaces.
Cooling down with more green spaces
To put it simply: Lisbon summers are hot. The city is known as an urban heat island, areas that are dense with pavement and buildings that retain heat. Walk around for a few hours, and you’ll feel as though you’ve been hanging out in an air fryer.
But there are ways to beat back the heat: green spaces. A 2019 article published in the scientific journal Heliyon shows that increasing the number of green spaces not only cools the area but can also influence surrounding parts, in what’s known as the urban space cooling effect. It’s a bit of science that Lisbon has been using to make summer life easier.
Starting with the “Green Plan” in 2008, which detailed measures to offset ecological damage from land development, the city has begun numerous initiatives to boost the amount of public green space. In 2012, the city implemented the Main Green Corridor, a 1.4-mile green stretch that connects the 65-acre Eduardo VII Park near the city’s center to the 2,223-acre Monsanto Forest Park.
Improving island life with more outdoor spaces
Islands don’t leave room for urban sprawl. Being surrounded by ocean on all sides, Singapore doesn’t have much room for new construction. But the country’s Urban Redevelopment Authority has mastered the art of making space within a crowded landscape. To tackle climate change and provide more outdoor space for residents, the city started the Park Connector program, a network of trails that stretches nearly 19 miles around the island with easy-to-access on-ramps. The system encourages people to travel by walking, jogging, skating or cycling.
Along the trails, wanderers can access several of Singapore’s hawker centers, like Amoy Street Food Center, a dining space where people gather over an array of cuisines, like fish-ball noodles and curry puffs, served by food vendors. Before hawker centers, informal street vendors were harshly policed. In the 1970s, the government opened hawker centers to provide vendors permanent stalls that were in line with health regulations.
But one of Singapore’s most successful programs is its public housing, which has long been a role model for city planners around the world (though private developers and landlords may not agree). More than 80 percent of the country’s population live in government-built units. Most of the residents buy their apartments from the Housing and Development Board, and rentals are available for those who can’t afford to buy.