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What defined urbanism in 2017

Cities took a stand on climate issues, and spurred change for transit, housing, and more

The Chicago Riverwalk, which was completed in late 2016, added a signature public space to the city’s crowded loop by reimagining the riverfront.
Christian Phillips

Thanks to a new occupant in the White House, cities are being asked to do more, be more, and help more people than they ever have before.

Cities are now leading the nation in addressing issues of environmental justice, economic accessibility, and racial inequality. The different ways that city leaders shoulder those new responsibilities, and in the process, push new ideas and innovations, is one of the reasons 2017 has been so exciting, and promises to make 2018 even more so. We’re asking, even demanding, that our cities make us better citizens.

In many respects, serious crises still grip our urban centers, from transportation and gridlock to growing inequality, a lack of inclusivity, and shrinking affordable housing stock. Cities, however, are getting to work, and their efforts so far have provided many reasons to feel optimistic after a very tumultuous year.


Cities led the fight against climate change

For environmentalists, 2017 has been a year of exceptional extreme weather events, from devastating hurricanes to the wildfires in California. While the new administration has either looked the other way or blatantly disregarded any notion that the fight against climate change is urgent—backing out of the Paris Accord, rolling back regulations, even challenging the Clean Power Plan—cities have taken the opposite approach.

Right after Trump backed out of the Paris Accord, hundreds of municipalities pledged to abide by those goals, and cities have since been at the forefront of U.S. climate activism around the world. A growing number of cities and towns have taken a pledge to use 100 percent renewable power, and many, such as Los Angeles, have made electric buses and cleaner, carbon-free transit central to transportation policy. Between local campaigns and city-to-city collaboration through groups like C40, environmentalism and urbanism have never been so intertwined.

A crowd of people in New Orleans in May, 2017, watch construction crew attach a crane and prepare to remove a confederate monument.

The reckoning over Confederate monuments continued

This past week, Memphis, Tennessee, was the latest city to join a nationwide movement to take down statues glorifying the Confederacy. Ever since the tragic 2015 church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, and the white nationalists march in Charlottesville, Virginia, local leaders across the nation, especially in the South, have moved to remove or recontextualize the hundreds of existing monuments and statues that one scholar told Curbed “are monuments to white supremacy.” The debate has also led many to rethink the way monuments represent (or don’t represent) important aspects of our collective history.

One of the most eloquent statements about taking down statues came from New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu: “We have not erased history; we are becoming part of the city’s history by righting the wrong image these monuments represent and crafting a better, more complete future for all our children and for future generations. And unlike when these Confederate monuments were first erected as symbols of white supremacy, we now have a chance to create not only new symbols, but to do it together, as one people.”

Richard Florida’s reversal energized issue of urban inequality

It takes a lot of reflection to contradict an idea that for many, is the centerpiece of your reputation as an author and analyst. In his new book The New Urban Crisis, Richard Florida admitted his previous championing of the new creative class—and the idea that tech and design businesses would reinvigorate cities—didn’t anticipate how this rapidly reshaping economy would create urban inequality. A key phrase from the book, “winner-take-all-urbanism” essentially describes the Hunger Games-esque contest over Amazon’s HQ2 and exemplifies the stakes for cities in today’s fast-moving economy. It’s not just a takeaway, but a call-to-arms for local leaders looking to combat the growing divide between the wealthy and poverty.

#GreatThingsThatHappenedOnTransit happened on Twitter

Yes, in the news maelstrom that was 2017, there were a few shining lights of human kindness and warmth on Twitter. One of the more touching was launched by Canadian urbanist Brent Toderian. When a certain tunneling tech icon disparaged public transit, complaining about the potential for “random strangers” and random violence—comparing it with the rising number of roadway fatalities in the U.S. would add some perspective—Toderian implored Twitter to counter that argument with examples of wonderful moments that happened on public transit.

The result, #GreatThingsThatHappenedOnTransit, exploded over the last week, resulting in a hashtag overflowing with examples of childhood wonder, budding relationships, and even the type of random encounters that never occur when you’re stuck in gridlock on the highway. It was a needed reminder that public transit can, at its best, become our most cherished public space.

Gold Line light rail train in Los Angeles
Gold Line light rail train in Los Angeles

New public transit expansions took shape and began service

Supported by a wave of bond measures and state and local investments, cities across the country continue to make significant investments in new transportation. From adding new options, including Detroit’s QLine light rail, to expanding systems in Seattle, Denver, and Los Angeles, cities saw big economic benefits in public transportation, especially light rail.

In addition, experiments and trials, from an all-electric bus rapid transit system in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to an autonomous shuttle in Las Vegas, show cities embracing new technology. As the deteriorating state of New York’s subway underlines, we need to focus on both maintenance and expansion, which isn’t a centerpiece of President Trump’s budget. Many cities are going out on their own, realizing a (continued) investment in mass transit, especially systems and solutions that address important issues of accessibility, can make a real difference.

Austin’s 'Day Without Immigrants' protest from February.
Drew Anthony Smith/Getty Images

Cities took political stands

While the debate over sanctuary cities and immigration dominated the headlines, cities took many stands on important issues of public policy. In addition to advancing solutions to the climate crisis, cities also banded together to speak out against hate and extremism, pushed measures to ease the affordable housing crisis, and even offered plans to provide paid parental leave and access to community college. With the federal government, and many statehouses, often locked in partisan battles, many city governments are embracing the chance to serve as laboratories for democracy.

Historic Emancipation Park in Houston
Historic Emancipation Park in Houston
Perkins + Will

The wave of 21st century parks continued to proliferate

Are we in the midst of a renaissance of urban landscaping and park design? In the wake of the High Line (and its numerous imitators), cities have invested in a wave of 21st century public parks. This year, designs such as Emancipation Park in Houston (by Phil Freelon) join recent blockbuster openings from 2016, such as the Chicago Riverwalk. Riverfronts and polluted waterways are being reclaimed, and initiatives to bring playground and park users—i.e. teenagers—to the fore of urban design promise even more representative, and relevant, new projects.

One of the big challenges going forward will be balancing the desire to add more green space and public amenities without fueling inequality: the High Line effect, where marquee parks become drivers of real estate booms, and the debate surrounding affordable housing and Atlanta’s Beltline, suggest cities need to design public spaces with the entire public in mind. Philadelphia’s Rebuild Initiative, a $500 million plan to renovate parks and community centers around the city with equity as its central focus, shows how future plans could be formulated.


Electric vehicles, slowly but surely, hit the road

As mayors make moves to clean and green their cities, electric vehicles, and their steadily rising sales figures, have gotten increased attention. With California cities leading the way, the move towards electric cars, as well as buses, isn’t a far-fetched vision, but a real-world solution to carbon emissions and urban air quality.

It’s far from certain when electric vehicles will become a more significant proportion of city fleets and urban traffic, since charging infrastructure and automaker investment needs to ramp up to decrease prices and make recharging more convenient. But a roadmap is beginning to take shape.

Resiliency became a bigger part of the conversation

For many cities, 2017 offered an object lesson in the power of nature, and the plight of urban design that doesn’t work with, instead of against, Mother Nature. Rising seas and extreme weather events have helped push resiliency to the forefront of many city planning discussions. Between local leaders reevaluating after natural disasters, and more and more coverage, including the New York Times’s series on climate change and cities, contributing to the debate, more cities are taking action and making resiliency a key part of planning going forward.