It’s a Brave New World for Cities

Urban areas are emerging from the pandemic with big ideas and audacious goals.

Future of Cities

As cities rebound from the COVID-19 pandemic, urban centers are back and better than ever.

Illustration by Tim Peacock

More than two years into a pandemic that forced humans indoors, emptied out downtowns, and decreased rates of travel, it’s not a surprise that the planet, and its cities, became markedly quieter during this time. The hush reached deep into the Earth’s crust: Scientists in 2020 noted a drop in seismic noise due to reduced vibrations above. As dramatic as the pandemic pause has been, it proved something that urbanists have always known: that cities are highly responsive and adaptable. Here’s what the future holds for some of our planet’s most dynamic urban centers.

Investing in the hyperlocal

The benefits of the 15-minute city—where residents enjoy a range of essential services within a short walk of their homes—became more evident during the last two years, when many commutes were eliminated and daily routines took place in a tighter perimeter. With the future of in-office work still up in the air, some cities are pouring resources into specific neighborhoods. “The question is how can we reinvest into not the monumental spaces, but the daily spaces,” says Alexa Bush, a program officer at the Kresge Foundation, which expands opportunities in U.S. cities through grants and investments. In Detroit, multipurpose spaces have multiplied. Many are supported through the Motor City Match program, and most of them are minority- or women-owned. They have become neighborhood anchors as well as new destinations for travelers. On any given night at Spot Lite, you can find a diverse, vibrant crowd dancing to a world-class DJ. During the day, the airy warehouse building functions as a coffee bar, local art gallery, and place to work. At the music space Paramita Sound, travelers can dig through rare LPs while enjoying a glass of local Michigan wine.

Elsewhere, cities are investing in outdoor spaces. San Francisco is spending $150 million to develop India Basin Waterfront Park in the Bayview–Hunters Point neighborhood. Located in one of the city’s lowest-income areas, the park construction is accompanied by an Equitable Development Plan to preserve the culture and identity of the historic district.

In Tainan City, Taiwan, the Tainan Spring project reimagined the shell of an obsolete shopping mall as the frame for a new public pool and, eventually, a sunken park with wading pools and tropical greenery. And Freetown, Sierra Leone, has embarked on a campaign to increase tree cover by 50 percent by the end of 2022, using an open-source app and financial incentives for Sierra Leoneans to tend to the saplings.

How can travelers better plug in to wider expanses of cities than they may see represented in travel brochures and on social media?

Expanding cultural hubs

The world’s greatest cities are mosaics of cultures, languages, and people, yet too often immigrants and nonwhite racial groups are omitted from the common narrative. How can travelers better plug in to wider expanses of cities than they may see represented in travel brochures and on social media?

The stereotypical postcard image of Paris might include graceful cathedrals and stately museums, a fluffy croissant, and a café au lait at the corner bistro. That vision doesn’t reflect the Paris that French Cameroonian entrepreneur Jacqueline Ngo Mpii knows and loves—a city shaped by Afro-French people and culture. Ngo Mpii founded Little Africa, a cultural and tour agency, and has helped turn the neighborhood of La Goutte d’Or, located a mile east of Montmartre, into a vibrant, newly trendy slice of Paris. Locals and visitors can dine on jerk chicken at Mama Kossa or a traditional tagine at the Institut des Cultures d’Islam. Also in La Goutte d’Or: Little Africa Paris Village, a concept store that highlights African designers, artists, and entrepreneurs.

In Seattle, the Central District—historically one of the city’s redlined neighborhoods—has become a locus of gentrification and displacement. In the 1970s, more than 70 percent of its residents were Black; today, the figure has sunk below 18 percent. In the face of this shift, the Africatown Community Land Trust has been acquiring and developing land in the district over the last two decades to foster a cultural and economic home for the African diaspora in the Seattle metro region. As a result, visitors to the Central District can find a number of flourishing Black-owned businesses, including Melo Cafe; Ethiopian coffee shop and roaster Cafe Avole; and the restaurant Communion, which serves what some call the best catfish this side of the Mississippi.

Getting around town

Some cities are working to transform the long-standing dominance of car culture. For a while, this meant sidewalks clogged with tangles of timed-out scooters. But many cities have strategically paired investments in “micromobility”—that is, transportation over short distances by lightweight, usually single-person vehicles such as bicycles or electric scooters—with more permanent infrastructure.

Atlanta’s BeltLine development is a prime example. A network of public parks, multi-use trails, transit, and affordable housing partly along a 22-mile railroad corridor, the BeltLine is also home to Ponce City Market, where travelers can get their fill of vegan cheesesteak, chicken tikka rolls, tonkotsu ramen, and more. Then, with the aid of an electric scooter or bicycle, folks can easily access other parts of town.

Many cities have been doubling down on better bicycling infrastructure. As part of its Transportation 2040 plan, Vancouver launched a citywide strategy to create new bike paths and upgrade existing ones, with the goal of having bike travel account for 12 percent of all trips by 2040. To date, the city’s efforts have nearly doubled the number of bike commuters since 2011, and the network of bike lanes makes it easy for travelers to explore Vancouver at their own speed. (Cycle City Vancouver offers bike rentals, maps, and guided tours.)

La Paz’s transformative investment in mass transportation, Mi Teleférico, is the world’s largest cable-car system. Launched in 2014, the system traverses the La Paz–El Alto metropolitan region, with 26 stations across 10 lines, offering 360-degree views over the world’s highest capital city. Mi Teleférico does more than reduce lengthy land-based commutes: It connects residents and visitors across class and geography.

Azzurra Cox is a landscape architect who has written for such publications as Bloomberg CityLab and Places Journal. In her latest architectural endeavor, Cox is planning the landscape design of the upcoming Wisconsin Museum of Nature and Culture, which is set to debut in 2026.
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