Atlantic Cities
Year in Review

The Best Thing My City Did This Year

The Best Thing My City Did This Year
Reuters

Cities change so fast that it can be hard take stock of the changes that really mattered. So we've asked a collection of professional city observers to do just that. Writers, urban planners, and local governmentistas in 20 U.S. cities shared with us the best thing their city did this year. The 'thing' could have been anything, from a great new business, to a successful anti-poverty program, to a collective cultural moment, like Batkid. We've compiled their answers below; be sure to share yours in the comments.

Atlanta's Alternative Transportation Boom


A rendering of the Atlanta BeltLine. Image courtesy of the Atlanta BeltLine. 

"I think that Atlanta has really done a great job harnessing the power of alternative transportation this year, even more so than it has in the past. The Atlanta BeltLine has brought in a billion dollars of investment in apartments and adjacent parks. The downtown Atlanta Streetcar will travel through the historic neighborhood where Martin Luther King, Jr. grew up. That community has seen disinvestment for decades, now it's changing and even being forced to look at re-zoning. The other big things are transit-oriented developments around some of these park-and-ride MARTA sites." - Darin Givens, Editor of Atlanta Urbanist

Toward a 'Greater Boston'


Row 34. Photo courtesy of Row 34.

"Another Wednesday night, another overflow crowd at Row 34 in Boston, at the edge of the old Fort Point warehouses and looking out to the Seaport, the city's new frontier. It might as well have been Brooklyn. Boston is booming, and 2013 was another banner year. Yet the one thing that stands out in these happy days is unresolved — whether Greater Boston can start acting more like a region. Boston and Cambridge continue to compete with each other, and a planned departure of Partners Healthcare to a redevelopment site in Somerville also disappointed Mayor-elect Martin J. Walsh. His succession of Thomas M. Menino, who served for 20 years, will be a test of whether there's a spreading of the wealth across the metropolitan region, or more turf battles and clan warfare." - Anthony Flint, Atlantic Cities contributor and fellow at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy

Buffalo Turned Its Old Grain Silos Into Art


"Motion Picture." Image courtesy of Torn Space Theater.
 
"Over the past decade, the long-dormant industrial infrastructure that lines the Buffalo river has come slowly creaking back to life. 
 
Among the many noteworthy projects that played a role in removing the rust from that corridor in 2013, none was more ambitious or awe-inspiring than Torn Space Theater's environmental theater production Motion Picture. For two nights in August, the project transformed one gritty corner of the sprawling complex know as Silo City into an enormous stage: Digital projections flickered across the rounded silos of a hulking of grain elevator while actors, horseback-riders, war re-enactors and one helicopter pilot acted out a grandiose tale of love and longing for the past on the ground and in the airspace above the site.
 
Was it all a bit much? Sure, but it served as a powerful example of the artist's role in reactivating and imagining new public spaces. The question now becomes whether these artists are merely paving the way for Buffalo's slowly reemerging economy or helping to carve out new places for themselves." - Colin Dabkowski, Art critic for the Buffalo News

Chicago Embraced the Bike


A Chicago bicyclist. (Reuters)

"In Chicago we move by air, water, rail, road, sidewalk and—increasingly—bike lane. This year, Mayor Emanuel launched Chicago’s bike-sharing program, Divvy Bikes, which have been used 740,000 times between the 300 stations throughout the city. We're a city of neighborhoods, and with more than 200 miles of bike lanes to enjoy, being able to jump on a bike whenever and wherever makes me feel like I'm 'hacking' the city, allowing me to see the neighborhoods of Chicago anew." - Ankur Thakkar, Digital Director for the City of Chicago

Cincinnati Held an Awesome Music and Light Show in a Renovated Historic Park


LumenoCity 2013.

"As Cincinnati has experienced a bit of a renaissance, much of its focus has been on building public assets like parks and investing in cultural institutions. These investments have added a bit of substance to the otherwise standard approach of city development across America. A primary example is the recent $46 million renovation and expansion of Washington Park, which is one of the city's oldest, and a landmark in the historic Over-the-Rhine neighborhood on the northern edge of downtown. Over a weekend in early August, all of this work was put on display during LumenoCity – a symphony orchestra performance complimented by a majestic light show projected onto Music Hall. It is estimated that more than 35,000 people attended the two performances." - Randy A. Simes, owner and managing editor of UrbanCincy

Cleveland's Art Museum Turned a Stunning New Atrium Into a Public Gathering Place


The Clevelant Art Museum's new atrium. Image courtesy of the architects.

"My Cleveland 2013 was full of energy, risk-taking and community-based huzzahs. Culturally, high came to mass at both the Cleveland Museum of Art, where a stunning new atrium became our public gathering place, and the Cleveland Orchestra did a neighborhood-based residency. Economically, developments in Waterloo, St. Clair-Superior and Detroit-Shoreway laid the groundwork for a 2014 to be jealous of.  But it may have been just a phone call that best exemplified my city’s gritty, rising zeitgeist." - Anne Trubek, founding editor of Belt magazine

Detroit's City Council Came Into Its Own


A Detroit City Council meeting. (Reuters)
 

"In Detroit, we're awash in stand-out headlines with obvious silver linings or preludes to the unknown: a bankruptcy with a potential 'fresh start,' a woman at the top of one of the region's largest and oldest employers, the election of a mayor that further blurred longtime racial borders, an international concern over the city’s art collection. One story to watch, however, is the re-energized City Council, which bled out some controversial members and welcomes a new crop meeting under a by-districts model unseen in the city since 1918. Residents will now have closer, more in-tune liaisons representing their neighborhoods; a Latina councilmember sits at the table at the first time; and two less-than-popular councilmembers -- one that compared a state takeover of a city park to 'rape,' another who abruptly left town following allegations of soliciting nude videos from a 17-year-old mentee - are sitting out this term." - Aaron Foley, Jalopnik writer

Houston Expanded Its Parks


The Buffalo Bayou. Image courtesy of the Bayou Greenways.

"In 2013, Houston began work on the Bayou Greenways 2020 initiative funded by $100 million of private funds in addition to a voter-approved $166 million Parks Bond at the end of 2012. By 2020, Houston will have over 150 miles of connected biking and walking paths along nearly 1,500 acres of new connected parkland, completely separated from cars. By leveraging this otherwise natural land for the development of a connected park system, we accomplish multiple goals for less than half the cost. These parks also provide wildlife habitat, help our water quality and flood control, and unite our communities with safe, off-street paths for both recreation and transportation alternatives." - Tory Gattis, president of Houston Strategies

Los Angeles Cyclists Took to the Streets


CicLAvia. Image via Facebook.

"The best thing that happened in Los Angeles is the expansion of our Open Street Festival known as CicLAvia. During CicLAvia, inspired by Columbia's ciclovia events, large portions of Los Angeles' street network is closed to car traffic and open to everything else traffic. Literally hundreds of thousands of people came out to the three events, one on Iconic Wilshire Boulevard, one on Venice Blvd. from DTLA to the Venice Beach, and a third in Downtown Los Angeles with tendrils reaching into Boyle Heights, South L.A., Koreatown, and Chinatown. The event is so popular, the MTA put aside $2 million for smaller cities in the region to host their own event." - Damien Newton, Editor of Streetsblog Los Angeles

Miami Got a World-Class Downtown Art Museum

"Miami did a lot of standout things this year. Good things like rallying to stave off mass public library closures and hosting an Arcade Fire benefit show at the Little Haiti Cultural Center. Bad things like giving Walmart the green light to build a store in Midtown. And glorious things like winning the NBA championship in exhilarating fashion. But the best thing Miami did was open the Pérez Art Museum Miami in the heart of downtown. Sure, I prefer its former acronym, MAM (short for Miami Art Museum). But the name change doesn't diminish the fact that Miami now has a world-class museum building with a great collection to build on (love the word art in the Sackner room!). It's a symbol of a young city's ongoing maturation and a convincing harbinger of great things to come." - Jordan Melnick, creator of the Sktchy iPhone app and editor of Beached Miami

New Orleans's Public Schools Came Into Their Own


Rethink New Orleans Schools conference. Image courtesy of Flickr user Martin Zukor.

"After the Hurricane Katrina tragedy, the traditional school district model was tossed aside in way no U.S. city had ever fathomed: all New Orleans public school teachers were fired, the teacher union was effectively dismantled, and almost all public schools became charter schools. Once schools turned around, the plan was to return them to school district control.

Eight years later, many schools were eligible to go back and, after all the suffering here, it is easy to see why some observers wanted that to happen—to, among other things, regain some normalcy. But the trends in results are generally positive and returning to an apparently failed system seems hard to justify at this point. While my colleagues and I are still studying how, and how well, this radical new system works, the best thing the city did in 2013 was let this 'temporary' reform play out a little longer. Sometimes the best thing a city can do is nothing at all." - Douglas N. Harris, Associate Professor of Economics and University Endowed Chair in Public Education at Tulane University

New York Rebuilt Its Subway System After Sandy

"One of the New York neighborhoods that suffered the most from Superstorm Sandy was the Rockaways, a narrow 11-mile peninsula in southern Queens that's home to 130,000 people. The storm dealt a paralyzing blow to transit here. The tracks of the A train — the sole subway connection to this remote part of the city, carrying 30,000 passengers on a typical weekday — were washed out. 

Almost immediately, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority moved to start rebuilding and fortifying the A train crossing. Seven months after the storm hit, the first train — a 1930s vintage model, to mark the occasion — ran from the Howard Beach station back over the water toward the Rockaways. The rebuilt tracks are protected by a two-mile-long, 40-foot-high seawall made of marine steel, which was sunk 30 feet deep into the soft bottom of the bay. The Rockaways have long been an isolated and neglected part of New York. But at this crucial moment, New York did not let them float away." - Sarah Goodyear, Atlantic Cities contributor and writer for Next City

Philadelphia Lowered Crime and Established a Land Bank


A vacant lot in Philadelphia. Image courtesy of Flickr user Teofilo.

"Philly did two incredible things this year: it created a land bank and it reduced its homicide levels to the lowest the city has seen in almost 50 years. 

The land bank will have greater authority to assemble and dispense of vacant land. Philly has more than 40,000 vacant properties, so moving these properties into better use will not only improve the quality of the city's neighborhoods but increase property values and restore the city's tax base, creating a virtuous cycle for a stronger city. As for the lower crime stats, it's pretty incredible news and I think shows that empowering police officers to take ownership over crime-ridden corners, mapping crime to prevent it in the first place, and a few leadership changes can pay off in a dramatic way.
 

In previous years, the good news coming out of Philly was focused on cultural amenities, like the Barnes Museum and a slew of hot restaurants; it's heartening to know that the effects of both the land bank and the new policing initiatives will improve life particularly for the 25 percent of the city's population that lives in poverty." - Diana Lind, Editor of Next City

Phoenix Got Serious About Fostering a Residential Downtown


Downtown Phoenix's zombie walk. Image courtesy of Flickr user Tom Adamec.

"After 20-plus years spent obsessing over skyscrapers, civic plazas, sports arenas, hotels and mixed-used developments, in 2013 downtown Phoenix got serious about building something much more integral to its urban health: a neighborhood. The city green-lit affordable residential communities to meet increased demand from a booming academic population. It embraced non-auto mobility through pedestrian-focused streetscape enhancements, increased bike paths, a bike share program, and a variety of activation initiatives like pop-up parks and public art installations. And it began listening to its most passionate residents in an effort to better understand what kind of downtown they want." - R.J. Price, Vice President Marketing and Communications Downtown Phoenix Partnership

Pittsburgh Got a Giant, Floating Duck

"There’s a lot to say about Pittsburgh in 2013, but the one thing that brought our community together this year was the giant rubber duck that made its home on the Allegheny River and brought hundreds of thousands of Pittsburghers to Downtown’s waterfront. Florentijin Hofman’s floating artwork had its North American debut, made possible by the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, and reached the headlines of morning news shows, national newspapers, and cell phone cameras of every person who visited.More often than not we find new articles and op-eds about Pittsburgh becoming such an interesting and vibrant city. Our hope is that the duck brought international attention to aspects of Pittsburgh that we have always known. Much like the Rubber Duck itself, the city of Pittsburgh is defined by its spirit and friendly nature." - Brian Kurtz, Research and Economic Development Manager for the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership

Portland, Oregon, Got a Bunch of New Sidewalks


A sidewalk in Portland, Oregon. Image courtesy of Flickr user Derrick Coetzee.
 
"The best thing Portland did this year was reinstating funding to install sidewalks on southeast 136th Street between Powell Rd and Division in East Portland. In February, the City diverted funds from this project towards road maintenance. But after a 5-year-old girl was killed crossing the street in the area, advocates demanded that the city address the abysmal walking conditions in East Portland. In April, Mayor Charlie Hales announced that the city would reinstate the $1.2 million for sidewalks on the dangerous road. Though it is only a two-mile stretch, this street improvement is hopefully a symbol of Portland’s new commitment to improve the outer areas of Portland that have been neglected during its inner-city revitalization." - Taz Loomans, Editor-in-Chief of The Blooming Rock Blog

Providence Tried to Change How Poor Parents Talk to Their Kids

"In March 2013 Providence was awarded the Grand Prize of $5 million in the Bloomberg Philanthropy Mayor's Challenge. This is for a program that goes beyond traditional pre-K educational initiatives to specifically target improvements in early childhood vocabulary. The program will not only measure vocabulary, but also provide coaching and tools to help parents close the 'word gap' that exists for children in low income homes. Not only will this be amazing for the kids, it shows Providence can compete and win in elite-level competitions." -  Aaron M. Renn, author of The Urbanophile

San Francisco Embraced the Bike


(Reuters)

"One of the best things San Francisco did this year was 'embrace the bike.' The recently released San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency 2013 Bicycle Count Report shows that the number of people biking in San Francisco increased a dramatic 96 percent since 2006. In addition, Bay Area Bikeshare was launched, miles of new bike lanes were added, bikes are now allowed on BART trains and several folks have elevated the art of the bike rack into an art." - Allison Arieff, Content Strategist at SPUR

Vancouver Figured Out How to Fix the Suburban Mall


Granville Island Public Market in Vancouver, Canada. (Deymos Photo/Shutterstock)

"2013 has been a banner year across the region in hyper-charging this rethinking and rebuilding, all based on the transformative power of public transit. Public processes have started, approvals are being given, and construction is underway for the urbanizing of car-centric malls and 1970s town centers, turning them inside out with externalized streets, and new public places. It isn't just a 'fake main street' or a 'better suburb' though – it's about creating real urban conditions with a dense mix of housing and jobs, excellent transit access, and walkable design." - Brent Toderian, consultant with TODERIAN UrbanWORKS, former Vancouver Chief Planner, and President of the Council for Canadian Urbanism

Washington, D.C., Built a Better Zoning Code


Gutted IM Pei building in Washington's Southwest. Image courtesy of Flickr  user Tim Evanston.

"There are several improvements Washington made this year, from the esoteric to the more sublime. One was getting an update of the 1958 zoning code after hundreds and hundreds of revisions. We continued our experiments temporarily activating under-utilized spaces to bring life and activity to a very ubiquitous type of space in D.C — the under-used lobby. And we've crossed the rubicon with biking and bike-share — we continued to expand the bike-share program in the city. Now we have 38 percent of households car-free and 83 percent with just one or fewer cars, according to the American Community Survey." - Harriet Tregoning, director of the D.C. Office of Planning

What about your city, Cities readers? What's the best thing you saw happen where you live in 2013? Share your responses in the comments.

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