Seven Urban Neighborhood Wonders

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.


Australia’s second city, once considered frumpy next to shining Sydney, has managed to transform its shortcomings into enviable virtues. The relative lack of skyscrapers means that most of the action takes place right on the streets, giving downtown a lively pulse. Old-fashioned streetcars now form the nucleus of one of the world’s finest urban transit systems. Wide stretches of genteel but shabby old buildings have been spruced up thanks to municipal heritage preservation policies that offer developers creative incentives to invest in inner-city neighborhoods. Add a long tradition of civic pride, communities of new immigrants from around the world, and the best food in Australia, and you have a recipe for what many claim is the hippest city in the Southern Hemisphere.


Freiburg is the place that stopped auto-cracy dead in the streets. In 1972, when almost every city in the Western world considered streetcars relics of a backward past, this town of 200,000 in the Black Forest region of southwest Germany decided not just to preserve its streetcar system, but to expand it. It also created a downtown pedestrian district and an extensive network of bicycle trails. The results of all this have been dramatic: Since 1976, car use has plunged from 60 percent of all trips around town to 46 percent, while bikes jumped from 18 to 28 percent of traffic and transit from 22 to 26 percent. This is proof positive that rising auto traffic is not an inevitable fact of modern life. And Freiburg, a charming university town dotted with parks and sidewalk cafés, has thrived, becoming one of the fastest-growing cities in Germany.


By American standards, this city in southern Brazil with an annual per capita income under $3,000 is impoverished. But 99 percent of its residents say they wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. So what’s special about Curitiba? Under the leadership of former mayor Jaime Lerner (now governor of the Brazilian state of Parana), this city of 2.5 million has become a showcase of ecological and humane urbanism. Seventy percent of its trash is recycled. Shantytown residents get free groceries in exchange for picking up garbage and enjoy access to youth programs, health clinics, and day care facilities. Eighteen percent of the city is parkland, and volunteers have planted more than 1.5 million trees along its streets. Curitiba pioneered the idea of “surface subways,” avenues reserved just for buses that ensure speedy and efficient transit service. Although the city has one of the highest car ownership rates in Brazil and has seen its population double since 1974, auto traffic has declined by 30 percent over the same period. Much of downtown is a bustling pedestrian zone, which writer Bill Mc-Kibben says is “as alive as any urban district in the world.”


This port on the Strait of Malacca shows that booming cities can compete in the world economy without sacrificing their soul. Penang feels far more relaxed than most Asian cities and looks much the way it did decades ago, with bustling marketplaces and winding streets lined by traditional “shophouses.” Once common throughout Southeast Asia, this appealing architectural style incorporates housing above a first-floor storefront, fostering both commerce and lively street life. With 500,000 residents encompassing Malay, Indian, Chinese, Arab, and other peoples from around the world, the city proves that calm cosmopolitan multiculturalism is possible.

Porto Alegre

When activists were planning an international summit meeting on how to broaden democracy in the global economy, they aptly chose Porto Alegre as the site, a city of 1.3 million in southern Brazil that’s become an international symbol of participatory politics. For 12 years, the governing Workers’ Party has opened decision making about the city budget to the whole community. Residents gather in local assemblies to discuss what’s most needed in their neighborhoods and then elect representatives to help the city council implement these financial priorities. The results have been substantial: Unemployment has declined, public transit has improved, and poor neighborhoods have turned around. The city has also established a Department of Human Rights and Citizenship, which promotes the rights of Afro-Brazilians, the disabled, women, and gays and lesbians. The United Nations recently honored Porto Alegre for the best human rights record in Brazil and also ranked it number one in the country for quality of life.


Beset in recent years by suburban flight and urban decay, Denmark’s capital city responded with exceptionally creative measures to reinvigorate hard-hit neighborhoods. Vesterbro, a shabby district near downtown notorious for drug deals, was targeted for revitalization. But this was not urban renewal as we know it, which destroys a neighborhood to save it, or gentrification, which clears up problems by pushing out residents. Instead, old tenement buildings were rehabbed through generous government grants (even in cases where it would have been cheaper to build new ones), and local residents helped draft the plans. Playgrounds, pedestrian plazas, energy-conservation measures, and traffic-calming were added at the suggestion of the immigrant families, senior citizens, and young people who live in Vesterbro. Although the district is still poorer than surrounding areas, it’s beginning to show a vitality equal to the rest of central Copenhagen, where 50 percent of commuters bike to work and residents enjoy evening strolls through one of the largest and liveliest pedestrian zones in Europe.

Other Contenders:

Antigua, Guatemala

Delft, Netherlands

Sydney, Australia

Amsterdam, Netherlands

Stockholm, Sweden

Prague, Czech Republic

Leeds, England

Dublin, Ireland

Quebec City, Quebec

Vancouver, British Columbia

Research: Sanhita SinhaRoy

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