The World's Most Livable Cities
Metropolis ranks the best cities to live, work, and play in.
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Cutting a swath through the urban landscape of Copenhagen’s Nørrebro district, Superkilen deserves the superlative in its name. As a celebration of the city’s diversity, and fundamental to its dedication to fostering community interaction, the sprawling park features pedestrian and bike paths, along with playgrounds, Ping-Pong tables, basketball courts, picnic tables, chess boards, and spaces to accommodate skating rinks and impromptu markets.
Courtesy Iwan Baan
There’s a famous saying in Copenhagen that there’s no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothing. It’s a fitting attitude for a city that, despite enduring inclement conditions for the better part of the year, excels in walkability.
The cluster of bikes that jostle outside most buildings is indicative of the city’s preferred mode of transport—50 percent of all journeys to places of work or education in Copenhagen are made by bicycle. This is enhanced by the consistent efforts of its governing bodies to make the urban landscape as pedestrian- and bike-friendly as possible.
In 2009, the city outlined its vision for urban life for the year 2015 in the manifesto A Metropolis for People, which included the goal to increase the amount of pedestrian traffic by 20 percent. And with Copenhageners now walking an average of 15 minutes per day, compared to 10 minutes in 2010, Morten Kabell, the city’s mayor of technical and environmental affairs, thinks that they have been successful in fulfilling that vision. “We have had the courage to continue taking space from cars and giving it to people,” he says. “If you want people to walk more, it must be safe and a nice experience.”
The key to fostering walkability in an urban space, Kabell says, is giving importance to sidewalks and designing for pedestrians before vehicles. Small design measures, such as installing hanging street lamps in place of lampposts, help to create as much walking space as possible. The other important factor is focusing on prioritizing people over buildings. “We want people to have a good city life, and walkability is a big part of getting people to slow down and stop, talk, and make eye contact with each other,” says Tina Saaby Madsen, the city architect of Copenhagen. “With every project, we talk about how a building can give back to the city—how can we get people out of the buildings and make them part of the community between the buildings?” —Mikki Brammer
An estimated 39% of Denmark’s total electricity consumption was powered by wind in 2014.
Copenhagen’s first pedestrian street, Strøget, was established in 1962 and remains the world’s longest.
The city has a 242-mile stretch of bicycle lanes, tracks, and separate routes.
96% of all Copenhageners can access an open-air recreational area within 15 minutes of walking.
Since 1990, the Asian Society Hong Kong Center has been an instrumental player in the city's cultural development. In 2012, the center relocated to a new outpost in Admiralty, in what was once an ammunitions warehouse.
Courtesy Michael Moran
In Hong Kong, things move fast. Long renowned as a financial powerhouse, the city has reinvented itself from a handful of local galleries and a small auction market to an international cultural and creative hub, transforming urban life for its residents.
The newfound interest in contemporary culture has been largely thanks to the unprecedented boom in China’s art market, combined with the Special Administrative Region’s enticing combination of a central regional location, tax-free status, financially secure transactions, and robust legal system. Art Basel has also been a cornerstone of the revival, attracting international collectors, auctioneers, and the usual blue-chip suspects such as Galerie Perrotin and Lehmann Maupin Gallery, both of whom set up outposts in Central, the nexus of the emerging art scene. The sheer concentration of people in the city, however, means that the impact on everyday life has been extraordinary, stimulating a new wave of interest in diverse cultural events from Dragon Boat racing to street art.
The government has also initiated several creative programs including the renewal of historic buildings, such as the PMQ enclave, providing fledgling artists and designers some respite from the city’s exorbitant rents. The historic Central Police Station will also soon emerge from a major renovation as a new arts and retail complex.
Such creative placemaking brings new cultural activities across design, fashion, and architecture, fostering more interesting and livable neighborhoods. This has inspired local creative industries such as the nonprofit Spring Workshop in the fast gentrifying Wong Chuk Hang neighborhood, which offers activities ranging from poetry and musical concerts to urban farming. Spring founder Mimi Brown says the evolution has been driven by the denizens of Hong Kong. “We see a desire in this city’s people to find spots of refuge where they can engage in conversation and experimentation around culture.”—Catherine Shaw
Nearly 60,000 visitors attended Hong Kong’s Art Basel in 2015.
The neighborhood of Mong Kok has one of the highest population densities in the world.
In 1888, the Peak Tram became the first cable funicular in Asia and currently carries up to four million people per year.
In a bold move for a midwestern city, the $63-million Indianapolis Cultural Trail reclaimed a lane of traffic in Indianapolis’s downtown and turned it over to pedestrians and cyclists. To its planners, the trail is a vehicle for introducing twin agents of urban change —valuable design, in the form of Rundell Ernstbuger Associates’ subtle planters and hardscape features, and alternative modes of transit, such as the extensive Pacers bikesharing program.
Courtesy Indianapolis Cultural Trail, Inc.
Unlike the coastal capital cities, Indianapolis is not blessed with any remarkable geographical features. Contours are hard to speak of in a terrain that is breathtakingly flat. When the city was founded in 1821, the land designated for development must have presented planners with an almost naturally occurring tabula rasa that later proved extraordinarily capacious for sprawl.
The paucity of topographical interest is certainly a challenge for city officials looking to distinguish Indianapolis in the fierce marketplace of American cities. “When you don’t have mountains and oceans, you have to create a better environment that makes up for the lack of natural features that make a city exciting,” says Adam Thies, the director of Indianapolis’s Department of Metropolitan Development. Efforts to combat this deficit began a generation ago and accelerated in the new millennium, with the city’s embrace of the greenways and rail-to-trail movements.
Opened in 2003, the Monon Trail, an 18-mile nature corridor extending from the heart of the city to its northern edge, has become an incredibly popular quasi-urban amenity. The Pogue’s Run and White River Trails are picturesque recreational outlets that frame downtown’s longitudinal borders. Connecting these is the prized Indianapolis Cultural Trail, which was opened in 2013. The eight-mile pedestrian and bicycle path loops around the city center, linking numerous attractions including the Capitol, City Market, and the Indianapolis Zoo. With extensive landscaping, street furniture, and public art, the trail has had exactly the cosmopolitan effects its planners hoped it would.
It has also helped catalyze real estate and business investment in Market East, a new central district that promises to greatly increase Indianapolis’s livability quotient. “We’re building a fantastic urban environment downtown,” Thies says. “It’s all about high-quality placemaking. That’s our anti-sprawl policy.” —Samuel Medina
Indianapolis’s neoclassical European grid was devised by Alexander Ralston, an apprentice to Pierre L’Enfant.
New downtown development will have reached $1.36 billion by 2017.
The Cultural Trail alone has generated close to $300 million in development, with more to come.
The last decade has seen the creation of 150 miles of bike lanes and trails.
In 2004, Medellín initiated an Integral Urban Projects (IUP) program, investing most heavily in design interventions for those parts of the city lowest on the quality of life index. The IUP’s inaugural project was the Metrocable, Medellín’s highly prized and globally lauded network of gondolas. Over a decade after its introduction, the system has fundamentally reconfigured the populace’s relationship with its city.
Few cities have seen transformation as dramatic as Medellín has in the last decade. In the 1990s, Colombia’s second largest city had the world’s highest murder rate and was ruthlessly ruled by the drug trade. Today, Medellín—which hosted last year’s World Urban Forum—is a vastly different place.
A series of visionary mayors endeavored to rapidly modernize Medellín and unify its fractured urban identity. Their legacies reveal a two-fold approach that infused large investments into transit infrastructure and engaging public spaces. The result is an astonishingly rehauled transportation network encompassing a rapid-transit bus, a privatized bus service, three gondola lift systems, and a tramline that is set to open downtown in September. Together, these provide safe and direct links to the city’s newest civic buildings including the Parques Biblioteca, the Atanasio Girardot Sports Complex, and the 14-acre Jardin Botanico.
The Metrocable system is the most visible of Medellín’s efforts to use public transit to reduce inequality. The gondolas whisk about 3,000 people per hour down two commuter lines from the hilly impoverished comunas to the city center—with the third line connecting tourists to Medellín’s nature preserve Arvi Park.
“The slums aren’t part of the problem, they’re part of the solution,” says Francesco Maria Orsini, head of consultancy for the think tank Urb.Am. “What we’re doing with the Metrocables is to let them be part of the city’s social, economic, and political grid.”
This inclusive mentality is embodied by the open-air escalators in Comuna 13, formerly one of Medellín’s most violent and economically depressed areas. The unorthodox structure has had a dignifying effect on the community, says the escalators’ chief architect Carlos Andres Escobar Gutierrez, and it’s indicative of what’s to come. “We are betting on incredible things planning-wise, tackling big challenges and taking big risks to get there—all within a remarkably short period of time.” —Rebecca Greenwald
Improvements to the city’s fabric like the Metrocable have curbed violence by up to 66% in “intervention” areas.
The first Metrocable was built for just $24 million and covers 1.2 miles.
30% of the city’s annual profits (about $450 million) is directed toward social investment projects.
The city has built 25 new parks and new promenades in the past 15 years.
Some of Melbourne’s oldest open spaces are working hard beneath the surface, housing major water-harvesting infrastructure thanks to the City of Melbourne and Biofilta. Last February, one of the largest system—two underground tanks that hold a total of 1.3 million gallons of storm water—was installed under the 167-year-old Fitzroy Gardens. It produces up to 18 million gallons to irrigate the surrounding natural landscape.
Courtesy Nils Koenning
Melbourne was a lifeless place when Rob Adams emigrated from his native Zimbabwe in the 1980s. As the city’s new urban designer, he was thoroughly underwhelmed; but he’d brought with him a lesson from Cape Town University, where a rising student population was accommodated not by increasing square footage but by intensifying students’ use of the campus over the course of the day. “It’s the same for Melbourne,” says Adams, now director of city design for the City of Melbourne. “The best way to tackle densification is to repurpose and re-timetable our city to use what it’s already got.”
Today, his vision to invigorate the city is manifest. With its population anticipated to increase by five to seven million by 2040, Melbourne has become even smarter. Municipal councils, designers, and entrepreneurs are embracing digital technology, hot-wiring the city and intensifying infrastructure to transform the built environment and daily lives.
A snapshot reveals that the smart inner city and suburbs like Fitzroy offer all amenities within walking distance—210 acres of city asphalt have been converted to wider footpaths and open space, while in eclectic Smith Street, Collingwood, a proliferation of mid-rise development has popped up along tramlines to cater to a growing population. “High density doesn’t necessarily mean high rise,” says Adams. Whole precincts, like Cremorne, have also become sharing communities with fluid coworking spaces to rent, while modular companies such as Unitised Building fine-tune digital technology to construct the city faster using factory-built prefabricated designs.
While Melbourne consistently tops livability rankings, residents are demanding a bold vision and the government announced last year it had doubled infrastructure investment over the past decade. “If we can continue to repurpose, we’ll become more vibrant,” says Adams. “People will be close to what they need, and we can foster the sense of community.” —Annie Reid
The total area of Melbourne’s parks, gardens, and reserves is 1.54 square miles.
The City of Melbourne now publishes 74 open datasets —from heat maps to the Urban Forest platform— for anyone to download and adapt.
An estimated 48% of Melbourne residents were born overseas.
The city’s oldest building is the Mitre Tavern, which was built in 1837.
Market at Fifth is a mixed-use development of the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation. The group saved and restored four endangered historic buildings in Market Square in the heart of downtown Pittsburgh. Heinz Healey’s (pictured), a high-end men’s clothing store, was just one of many retail shops that returned to the area. The development achieved LEED-Gold certification, a green building standard.
Courtesy Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh, like so many other Rust Belt cities, faced huge hurdles with the decline of its steel industry. But it is overcoming many of these challenges thanks, in great part, to its preservation movements, neighborhood renewal projects, and active communities.
“We have a significant group of foundations here,” says Raymund Ryan, curator at the Heinz Architectural Center at the Carnegie Museum of Art. “Whether it’s about supporting exhibitions or organizing people to discuss neighborhood or heritage issues, there is a great amount of will here.”
The Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation (PHLF) is a prime example. “We see preservation as a means to improving quality of life,” says president Arthur Ziegler, Jr. “And we see it as a tool for economic revitalization.” Since the 1960s, the group has reinvigorated such areas as the Mexican War Streets, creating low-income housing and turning it into one of the most sought-after historic neighborhoods in the city. These projects continue to happen; for a current one in Wilkinsburg the PHLF acquired deteriorated historic houses, restored them, and is subsidizing sales to low-income individuals or families.
It doesn’t hurt that this support for revitalization has played a role in current mayor William Peduto’s administration. When one-third of the Strip District’s landmark Produce Terminal was in danger of demolition, Peduto stepped in and put the plans to a temporary halt. Eventually the building found its way onto the National Register of Historic Places. Peduto has also established the Bureau of Neighborhood Empowerment to work with communities that have seen historic disinvestment.
Even with support from foundations and politicians, the preservation movement would carry little weight without the community behind it. “There’s a lot of neighborhoods that give the city character,” says Ryan. “During the bleak times, these communities held together. It’s very much about local engagement.” —Shannon Sharpe
“Pittsburgh reinvented itself from the last industrial revolution. The spirit of innovation is intense.” —Richard Piacentini, Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens
The local preservation community prevented the demolition of 64 historic buildings in the core downtown business area.
Pittsburgh has the most certified “green” building square footage in the United States.
The city has more vertical feet of public stairways than San Francisco, Cincinnati, and Portland, Oregon, combined.
Students at a neighboring college, members of a local church and gym, and neighborhood residents—a lot of people had a say in the design of the Watersquare Benthemplein, an ingenious public plaza and recreation area that opened in December and which will act as a reservoir during heavy storms or floods. It's a testament to Rotterdam's serious sustainable initiatives.
Courtesy De Urbanisten
All coastal cities have a precarious relationship with nature, but Rotterdam is in an especially tough spot. With the largest port in Europe—stretching over 48 square miles, the harbor is big enough to contain the island of Manhattan with room to spare—the city has an economy that depends upon the water, yet it must protect itself from inundation. The Maeslantkering storm surge barrier, completed in 1997 as part of a nationwide network of water protection in the Netherlands, more than proved its worth during a storm in 2007.
In 2013, Rotterdam moved some of its harbor activities farther out to sea via the Maasvlakte 2 port expansion project. This opened up interesting civic possibilities, says David Gianotten, managing partner-architect at OMA. “It created a new way for people to live together in the city, with less pressure from industry,” he says. “It was the biggest initiative, not just in terms of climate, but also the sustainability of society.”
Rotterdam is able to implement such changes—which also include a region-wide heat-sharing infrastructure and a widely adopted green roof program—because the city has a very engaged civic society. “Networks are created, maintained, and deepened through such programs,” says Maarten Hajer, who is the director of the PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency and chief curator of the 2016 International Architecture Biennial Rotterdam. “We see how designers, business leaders, young entrepreneurs, and intellectuals collaborate with the city government.”
While significant challenges remain, in reducing the harbor’s reliance on fossil fuels and re-energizing the city’s inefficient postwar building stock, both Hajer and Gianotten laud the city’s mayor, Ahmed Aboutaleb, for his political will. “He is very progressive in how he looks at the population, and how he encourages initiatives,” Gianotten says. “And in that, sustainability and especially water management play a very special role.” —Avinash Rajagopal
“Rotterdam has decided that instead of fighting water, it wants to live with it.” —Maxwell Young, the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities project
About a third of the city’s 126-square-mile area is covered by water.
By the end of last year, an estimated 1,722,000 square feet of roof space in the city had been planted.
32,000 seagoing vessels and 87,000 inland vessels call at the Port of Rotterdam each year.
Towering beside a busy expressway, the Interlace reformulates the Modernist equation that high-density equals high-rise. Architect Ole Scheeren, who first developed the design during his tenure at OMA and whose Büro Ole Scheeren saw the project through its completion in 2013. The development, which packs 1,040 homes into the complex’s 31 six-story blocks, is shot through with lush landscaping and generously shaded and airy plazas.
Courtesy Iwan Baan
As nations struggle to house their rapidly growing urban populations, Singapore offers a promising solution with its profusion of innovative high-rise, high-density housing “estates,” as is the local parlance. Today, over 80 percent of the city-state’s resident population lives in public housing.
Key to this success is the Housing & Development Board (HDB), the nation’s public housing agency, which was set up in 1960 to tackle the shortage of housing and clearly overcrowded slums. HDB has since evolved from resettling Singaporeans who once lived in overcrowded villages to catering to the lifestyles of its now 5.5 million inhabitants.
In the last decade, public housing has gone from utilitarian rectangular blocks formulated by faceless public servants to stylish complexes designed by top local architecture firms, such as WOHA Architects, which completed their SkyVille@Dawson in July. Containing 960 units of a variety of apartment types and sporting tropical landscaping and extensive communal spaces, the three-tower scheme humanizes the HDB housing blocks of yesteryear.
SkyVille@Dawson is just one example of HDB enlisting the private sector to create more distinctive public housing. “The concepts that we have tested out in Dawson are also being implemented in other new housing projects in different ways,” says Dr. Cheong Koon Hean, HDB’s chief executive officer. “Our new estates will be greener and more garden-like, to provide a more conducive living environment for residents.”
Against this backdrop of progressive public housing for low- and middle-income residents, Singapore’s developers have turned to starchitects to differentiate their profit-driven projects. Jean Nouvel, Zaha Hadid, and Toyo Ito have all recently designed signature high-rise luxury residences. OMA and Ole Scheeren’s Interlace and Moshe Safdie’s soon-to-be-completed Sky Habitat offer further examples. Yet, Safdie is discerning: “Very few countries at this point are building housing by the government for the people as Singapore does. I don’t think there is any country like that.”—Justin Zhuang