Columnist: Cities Breaking Free To Reshape Their Destinies

WASHINGTON -- Big decisions? Courage to break free of economic restraints, ideologies, "standard" practices? Can the world's cities make those moves and shape their own destinies?

The short answer is "yes" -- and in a range of distinctive, exciting ways.

This was the conclusion of a group of urbanites, from the United States and abroad, who gathered at the Brookings Institution last month.

A prime example: London's expansive vision for its 2012 Olympic Games site. The city promised from the start to transform a melange of rail yards, canals, electric power towers and industrial land, located on a key axis eastward from central London to the Docklands area, into a vibrant piece of the capital.

And now fulfillment of the promise is clearly under way, Ricky Burdett of the London School of Economics, an adviser to the project, told the conferees. In place of the dusty emptiness of many ex-Olympic sites, the area is being enriched with an expansive new park named for Queen Elizabeth II.

Together with selected landmark buildings from the Olympics, the site will have a mix of housing including family-sized units, a 2,000-student all-age school, a major health center and sports facilities. Previously, the area had one road across it; now there will be 38 new entryways and connections to nearby neighborhoods, many highly ethnic and low-income. Already, a major shopping center has created about 10,000 jobs, many of them part-time positions for Asian women who live nearby.
Plus, the borough of Hackney, in which a third of the park sits, has been vastly strengthened by four new stations on London's Overground rail system. About $400 million of the Olympic budget was kept back for the site's new features, to be administered by a London Legacy Development Corporation chaired by the mayor of London -- the first body ever created to assure successful Olympic Games follow-up.

Portland, Ore., approximately 5,000 miles to the west, was cited as another breakthrough city. It has a 35-year-old urban growth boundary to curb sprawl, plus America's only regional governance structure. And it leads in transportation -- not just regional light rail but America's first streetcar service of recent times.

Its status as the epicenter of a public transport renaissance in America has also yielded the Portland area a major economic benefit -- the headquarters of United Streetcar, the only U.S. firm now manufacturing modern streetcars. CEO Chandra Brown reported the firm is now actively marketing its streetcars to such cities as Oklahoma City, Boise, Charlotte and San Antonio.

Copenhagen, urban design studio leader Oliver Schulze reported, aims to be No. 1 globally in cycling and walking. More than 50 percent of Copenhagen citizens already get to work or school this way. On foot or cycle, Schulze noted, one is able to "take in the city" and make it an everyday environment. For children, this spells an early sense of autonomy, as they learn at a young age to cycle to school.

Hong Kong, architect Jonathan Solomon told the Brookings conferees, is pioneering an amazing new city form that mixes public and private space vertically in an amazing array of sky-high buildings. Public and private space is mixed in tiers of a single structure, from layered shops and offices to literally dozens of floors of residences. As world population concentrates and spirals upward, the Hong Kong model may resonate across continents.

Washington, D.C., is another innovator. In a close political battle of the 1960s, it decided to build its Metro rail system rather than let the then-popular concept of massive freeways crisscross, divide and pollute the city. Today the Metro carries well over 200 million passengers a year, second only in the U.S. to New York. The subway cars are so packed it's hard to imagine present-day Washington even functioning without its Metro.

And Washington is now considering another innovation. Mayor Vincent Gray has just unveiled proposals to create the "healthiest, greenest and most livable" city in America with a raft of measures to curb energy use, reduce traffic and boost access to fresh fruits and vegetables. By 2032, a quarter of all commuter trips would be by bike or foot and at least half by public transit. Major chunks of energy would be delivered from nearby wind farms.

A pessimist might answer: Great ambition, but unless you get the suburbs into the act, it will be just a half -- or quarter -- act. That's the dilemma facing many urban innovations, not just in the U.S. but worldwide. One top concern: lack of coherent regional approaches on climate.

But as Amy Liu of Brookings notes, cities and regions will reap dramatic rewards as they invent ways to move forward to develop clean economy products and practices. National governments won't be the key innovators, and that's the essence of the 21st-century game.

Neal Peirce's email address is

(c) 2013, The Washington Post Writers Group

The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of the National League of Cities.