The city hopes to encourage startup businesses and small-scale redevelopment projects by creating ‘pink zones’ with a simpler approval process.
The city (Detroit) hopes to encourage startup businesses and small-scale redevelopment projects by creating ‘pink zones’ with a simpler approval process. PHOTO: SKIDMORE, OWINGS & MERRILL

Cities are the future.

In 2008, for the first time in history, more human beings lived in cities than in rural areas. The United Nations projects that by 2050 nearly two-thirds of the world’s projected 9.7 billion people will be urban.

Some urban planners scratch their heads about how it’s all going to work. As ever-denser, more populous cityscapes continue to emerge, the eternal struggle to balance growth and quality of life shows few signs of abating.

Yet some ideas that address these types of problems are in place already and gaining traction in a handful of cities, including a few that are right under our noses.

To find out what urban-development policies and experiments currently hold the most promise, we asked more than a dozen experts—urbanists, architects, planners—what cities they think are worth watching now.

Their choices were illuminating. While the world’s megacities—Tokyo, Jakarta, Shanghai, New York City—get a lot of attention, for the most part the experts we asked picked cities a tier or two lower in size. None of the cities they highlighted, they thought, were doing everything right. But in all cases, the cities are taking some actions that the experts say demand our attention.

The five we ended up with aren’t meant to be exclusive. A larger list could have included London, considered by many to be the world’s most dynamic city, despite increasingly unaffordable housing. Seoul and Amsterdam, meanwhile, are among the leaders in putting “smart city” tools into the hands of their citizens.

With that in mind, here are five innovative cities that are worth watching.

DETROIT: Reducing red tape for neighborhood redevelopment

Detroit, which emerged from bankruptcy in 2014, doesn’t have a lot of money for revitalizing all of its neglected areas. So it is trying something more radical: setting aside areas where normal development rules don’t apply.

Developers and designers complain that, like many cities, Detroit’s onerous and outdated rules make it too difficult to rebuild or repurpose long-neglected retail areas. To try to reduce those obstacles without a time-consuming and expensive rezoning process, the city is proposing a handful of “pink zones,” where red tape will be cut to help small developers and entrepreneurs open new businesses and revive aging commercial strips. The goal is not to eliminate zoning but to ease some of the constraints faced by new projects, like minimum-parking requirements or environmental-impact reports.

With a $75,000 grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the city planning department intends to recruit designers and planners to come up with a general framework for anyone who wants to start a new business or build in those areas. This might include pre-approved plans that can be used by builders to speed up a new development.

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