Seven Urban Neighborhood Wonders

Enlightened cities around the world.

| November-December 2001

America generally views global exchange as a one-way street. We spread our technology, pop culture, and an ethic of individualism across the globe, and, in return, we expect big profits or new markets, not ideas on how to improve life back home. That’s our loss. Even with our immense wealth, military might, and knack for innovation, there are some endeavors at which we don’t excel. Cities are one example. Overall, we have a spotty record in creating vibrant and beloved urban neighborhoods, especially during the past 50 years.

Many Americans don’t even fully accept that cities are a good thing. Great numbers of people living next to one another, sharing sidewalks and parks and markets, sounds a little unwholesome—a betrayal of our frontiersman heritage. Yet send us abroad on vacation and we’re moonstruck at the grandeur of Paris, the soul of Buenos Aires, the comfort of Vancouver.

The truth is, we can learn a lot from cities elsewhere. Not just how to make our communities more picturesque or sophisticated, but also how to make them more efficient, equitable, ecological, livable, and lovable. That’s why we’re trumpeting seven of the world’s urban wonders here. These enlightened cities, selected on the basis of research in the alternative press and numerous suggestions from well-traveled colleagues, are just the beginning of our search for urban inspiration and insight. We want to hear your thoughts on great places around the world that offer lessons for American towns and cites. Send us your picks, to Urban Wonders: at; or Utne Reader, 1624 Harmon Place, Minneapolis, MN 55403; or (fax) 612/338-6043. We’ll take another look at enlightened cities in a future issue.


Bologna, a city of half a million people in central Italy, offers leftists everywhere a great comeback line whenever the topic of the Soviet Union arises. Yes, Communists made a mess of Eastern Europe, but they transformed Bologna into a place that continually tops public opinion polls as the favorite city of most Italians. Run by the independent-minded Italian Communist Party and its successor (Party of the Democratic Left) since World War II, the city stands as Italy’s richest, with a distinguished record of efficient public services and inspiring historic preservation.

Unlike many fashionable spots, Bologna has kept working-class residents in town, thanks to excellent child care programs and generally high wages. When a McDonald’s opened a few years back, the franchise was pressured into paying union scale, or about three times what burger flippers got in Manhattan. But fast food is the exception rather than the rule: Bologna is widely recognized as the culinary capital of Italy.