The folks at the Project for Public Spaces have created this handy guide to figuring out if your city has a future or it's destined to turn into the U.S. version of a favela as our national economic nightmare grinds on.
Based solely on the cities with which I've had first-hand experience, I'd say that San Francisco, New York City, Seattle and Portland all qualify as cities that are "going places." (Technically I've never lived in Portland, but, c'mon.)
Meanwhile, according to the chart from PPS (click on it for a larger version), Atlanta is easily the most massively dysfunctional metropolis ever to be un-designed by a conspiracy of developers and compliant local government. From comedian David Cross ("David Cross Doesn't Like Atlanta" - NSFW) to peak oil theorist James Howard Kunstler ("The Horror of Downtown Atlanta"), everyone who has ever been forced to live in or visit Atlanta knows that it is a city as ill-equipped for walkability and sustainable transit as any in the U.S., with the possible exceptions of Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and pretty much every other city in Texas.
Many cities are teetering right on the edge of acceptability, by PPS's measures. Austin, Texas may sound cool in theory, but in the past 20 or so years it has become a suppurating pustule of sprawl and the bane of commuters throughout its metro area. Similarly, university town Gainesville, Florida has a marvelously walkable historic core surrounded by a not-so-tasty shell of tract homes, McMansions and cul-de-sacs.
This doesn't mean, however, that cities can't transition from "Going Nowhere" to "Going Places." Atlanta, for example, sports "The country's most ambitious smart growth project," called the Atlanta BeltLine. It's a "$2.8 billion […] 22-mile public transit, trails, and parks loop around the heart of the city of Atlanta on the site of an abandoned rail and industrial corridor."
Likewise, Gainesville was working feverishly on a network of interconnected bike paths throughout my brief stay there, and had managed to bring foot traffic back to downtown by cultivating a truly excellent farmer's market and concert series.
Ultimately, though, all these efforts are piddling when compared to what our resource and finance-starved future is going to require: shorter commutes, more walkability, and a relocalization of just about all the essentials of everyday life. Everything, in other words, that was present in Brooklyn about the time that the Brooklyn Bridge went up. And despite that city's incorporation into New York City as a borough, it retains, to this day, the local character that made it such a high-functioning metropolis a century ago. I may be be biased, but when I think of cities that work, Brooklyn will always be at the top of my list.
My experience is limited, however, so tell me, do you think the place you live is "Going Places" or "Going Nowhere"?
Photo: Hong Kong hazy sunset by Mike Behnken