Atlanta's Betline project has converted 22 miles of railway tracks into biking and pedestrian pathways—energized with diverse and urban artwork.
Atlanta's Betline project has converted 22 miles of railway tracks into biking and pedestrian pathways—energized with diverse and urban artwork. (photo: Erik S. Lesser / EPA / Redux)

Eight Ways to Build a Better City

Here are some innovative ideas towns and cities across the country have adopted to make the world a better place, one mile of singletrack at a time

Atlanta's Betline project has converted 22 miles of railway tracks into biking and pedestrian pathways—energized with diverse and urban artwork.
Will Cockrell

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To put together our list of the best towns ever, we scoured more than three decades of coverage and created a Special Advisory Council. Those experts came up with a list of the 25 best burgs in the U.S., plus put us on to eight big ideas transforming the places where we play. Presenting a few ways to make some of our favorite spots even better. 

Build Bridges for Animals

The Liberty Canyon Wildlife Corridor—a green space that spans 10 lanes over Highway 101—is one of the country's fiercest conservation projects. It aims to allow animals to cross safely from the Simi Hills to the Santa Monica Mountains.
The Liberty Canyon Wildlife Corridor—a green space that spans 10 lanes over Highway 101—is one of the country's fiercest conservation projects. It aims to allow animals to cross safely from the Simi Hills to the Santa Monica Mountains. (Bryan Christie Design)

Southern California’s San Fernando Valley, best known for sprawl and strip malls, is the setting for one of the most ambitious conservation projects in the U.S. The Liberty Canyon Wildlife Corridor will span ten lanes of Highway 101, making it the largest such crossing in the world. When finished, it will enable all kinds of creatures, from lizards to mountain lions, to pass between the Simi Hills and Santa Monica Mountains. “Big cats and other species can thrive in relatively small home ranges,” says Paul Edelman, chief of natural resources and planning for the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy. “But they need connections between habitats to avoid inbreeding.” Urban wildlife corridors aren’t new, but nobody has tried anything on this scale before. Designed by urban greenspace pioneer Clark Stevens, the project will cost an estimated $50 million to complete and is expected to be open in 2021. 

  • The bridge’s concrete skeleton will measure 165 feet wide. “Any narrower and many species won’t feel secure enough to venture across,” says Edelman.
  • The span will be topped with up to four feet of soil to support vegetation and enable cover for burrowing ­animals like gophers and shrews.
  • Creating and main­taining habitat on either side of the overpass requires moving 1,000 tons of soil. The south side presents an especially complicated challenge, with a bypass road and an existing riparian zone located some 45 feet below the highway. 
  • Vegetation will borrow from multiple ecosystems and include plants that have distinctive scent trails to guide critters across. Planting patterns will strike a balance between providing cover and allowing ease of movement. “Animals need good sight lines to feel safe,” says Edelman.
  • Eight-foot-tall fences will extend two miles along the highway to help ­funnel animals ­toward the corridor and away from dangerous crossings. 
  • The biggest bene­factors will be apex predators like bobcats and mountain lions, which are sometimes killed while trying to cross freeways.

Invest in Local Business 

Memphis, Tennessee is one of the country's most entrepreneurial- and small business-friendly cities.
Memphis, Tennessee is one of the country's most entrepreneurial- and small business-friendly cities. (Davel5957 / Getty)

In the current age of serial entrepreneurs and tech-startup incubators, Memphis, Tennessee, is investing in that old-school bedrock of commerce: the small ­local business. MemShop, launched in 2012 as a city-sponsored initiative, provides businesses with rental assistance, managerial training, marketing services, and a prenegotiated six-month lease for a space. No idea is too small: among the 15 startups supported by the program to date are a cookie shop and a hula-hoop studio. “We launch businesses in clusters, one neighborhood at a time,” says MemShop fundraising and program director Cynthia Norwood. “All of them go through the training at the same time, and some end up mentor­ing each other.”

In 2013, the program helped launch six businesses on historic Broad Avenue, including the Memphis Guitar Spa, which repairs instruments. “This is a town with a tremendous amount of creativity,” says the owner, Kevin Ferner. “But there isn’t as much capital here as there is in larger cities, so it’s challenging for small businesses.” Like his neighbors, he takes pride in Broad Avenue’s turnaround. “It used to be you couldn’t walk down this street without a pistol,” he says. “Now we’re the anchors of the block.”

Get More Singletrack

Who needs more paved trails? Not Portland.
Who needs more paved trails? Not Portland. (Lincoln Barbour)

There’s a crazy notion going around Portland, Oregon: a dirt trail network that traverses the entire city. The Off-Road Cycling Master Plan calls for the development of a continuous loop that could be as long as 50 miles. “In many cities, the off-road riding happens in a state park or other large public space,” says Michelle Kunec-North, a program manager for the city. “We’re trying to put that approach on steroids, with trails in all 1,425 city-owned properties.”

The project was launched after surveys revealed that while about 12 percent of county residents had ridden off-road within the past year, municipal planning didn’t give the activity the same consideration as less popular sports like tennis and skateboarding. The new master plan suggests a mix of beginner terrain, singletrack, and technical flow trails. Right now it’s only a blueprint—it’ll take at least two decades to complete—but cyclists are focused on the long game. “In 20 years, fast-growing cities like Portland are going to have a lot more people,” says Nat Lopes, founder of Hilride, the trail-­building company the city has contracted to help develop the project. “Unless you plan now for parks and open space, there is going to be a lot less of them.”

Embrace Public Transportation

Many mountain towns battle traffic issues, but Aspen has lead the way in committing to (creative) public transportation.
Many mountain towns battle traffic issues, but Aspen has lead the way in committing to (creative) public transportation. (Bryan Christie Design)

In 1993, the average number of cars on the street in Aspen, Colorado, during peak traffic hours was about 1,100. Fast-forward to today: the resident population has jumped 31 percent, tourism is booming, and the average number of cars is… 750. While many mountain towns battle congestion—vehicle miles in Colorado increased by 22 percent from 2000 to 2015—Aspen remains a unicorn of relatively ­uncrowded streets. How? It started with a commitment to free (and frequent) local buses and has only gotten more creative. 

  • 1,100: Bikes in Aspen’s bike-share program, We-cycle, which launched in 2013.
  • 5: Down­towner electric taxies. The golf-cart-style vehicles, which are equipped with heaters and ski racks, can be hailed with a mobile app.
  • $6 million: The city’s annual budget for public transit. Aspen also spent $9.5 million on the central Rubey Park Transit Facility, completed in 2015.
  • 9: Vehicles in Aspen’s hybrid-car-share program 
  • 1.1 million: Approximate number of people riding the free public buses on local routes around Aspen in 2016. Five million riders use buses in the broader Roaring Fork Valley, the second most for any region in Colorado.  
  • 50: Wi-Fi-equipped buses in the Roaring Fork Valley’s rapid-transit fleet.

Woo the Stars

Detroit's Third Man Pressing vinyl production.
Detroit's Third Man Pressing vinyl production. (Michelle and Chris Gerard)

Want to revive your postindustrial city? Ask for help from the famous, wealthy locals who call it their home. “When cities revitalize, part of the first wave of investment comes from what we call friends and family money,” explains Peter Chapman, executive vice president for the Detroit Economic Growth Cor­poration. Detroit should know. In February, ­garage-rock icon Jack White flipped the switch on a new 10,000-square-foot record plant for his label, Third Man Pressing, adjacent to the record store he opened in late 2015. By flying his brand’s flag so publicly in Detroit, White, who was born and raised in the city, has legitimized it as a creative hub.

An even more promising harbinger for Motor City is investment by Dan Gilbert, the Detroit-born billionaire ­founder of Quicken Loans. Since Gilbert moved his company to town seven years ago, he has developed huge blocks of real estate, including the landmark building at 1400 Woodward Ave., which he’s converting into a 130-room boutique hotel in partnership with upstart watch and leather-goods brand Shinola—known for stamping its wares with Built in Detroit. According to Chapman, that kind of endeavor is what convinced Microsoft to plant a 40,000-square-foot office in Detroit, opening early next year. “They believe Detroit has the talent,” he says. “People think this is where the educated millennials are moving.” 

Feed the Fish

Seattle is using their waterfront to help out salmon.
Seattle is using their waterfront to help out salmon. (Bryan Christie Design)

Waterfront is prime real estate. But when Seattle decided to revamp a mile and a half of its decaying naval yard along Puget Sound, the designers factored in the needs of an often overlooked constituency: fish. Chinook salmon are considered a sacred species by the ­native tribes of the ­Pacific Northwest and have long provided a livelihood (and favorite meal) for many Washingtonians. As a result, James Corner Field Operations, the New York agency behind Manhattan’s celebrated High Line elevated park, ­collaborated with marine biologists to create a seawall and promenade that includes restored habitat for migrating juvenile salmon. 

  • Salmon prefer to migrate in shallow water. Since the seafloor had been dredged for years to allow passage for large boats, the new design raises the bottom using large sacks of stones.
  • While people love walking along waterside overhangs, nearshore ecosystems require abundant direct light. To meet both demands, Field Operations designed a sidewalk studded with a grid of translucent glass blocks that can support tens of thousands of pounds.
  • The concrete panels that make up the new seawall are heavily textured, to make it easier for underwater plant life to anchor on, and also feature ledges that help protect fish from predators. 
  • Native trees and plants add shade for humans and habitat for birds. They also provide nutrients to the marine ecosystem when vegetation, soil, and insects fall into the water. 
  • Storm-water runoff is directed toward the large planting beds, which act as filters, vastly reducing pollutants spilling into the sound.
  • Farther offshore, a restored kelp forest offers habitat for marine species like otters, herons, and crabs.

Plant a Seed

Bringing the farm to the city in Austin.
Bringing the farm to the city in Austin. (Benjamin Rasmussen)

As the fastest-growing city in America, Austin, Texas, is literally consuming its surrounding farmland, with housing developers buying up acres from small farmers cashing in on skyrocketing land values. The dynamic threatens both a rural way of life and the ability to buy local produce in the birthplace of Whole Foods. Now the city government and Austin businesses are responding with a strategy aimed at making this ground zero for urban farms nationwide. 

First, new municipal policies—like a 2013 ordinance that allows ­farmers to sell produce on their property and raise fowl, rabbits, and fish—make it easier to start new growing operations. Second, a wave of young tech-minded ­entrepreneurs have created a number of incubators and investment funds to nurture food startups. And organizations like the Texas Center for Local Food are fighting to retain surrounding farms that are still determined to feed the city. “Two million people just means more demand for local food,” says the center’s executive director Sue Beckwith. “We’re hoping to create a new industry by better connecting rural producers to local markets so they can make enough money to keep their farms.”

Turn Art into an Adventure

Along Atlanta's colorful Eastside Trail.
Along Atlanta's colorful Eastside Trail. (Dustin Chambers / The New York Times / Redux)

When it was first conceived, Atlanta’s Beltline was a wildly ambitious project: 22 miles of abandoned railway tracks converted into a biking and pedestrian path that would connect dozens of neighborhoods in a city that’s long been defined by sprawl and traffic jams. Though it’s still a work in progress—some ten miles have been developed since 2006—the greenway is already breathing new life into Atlanta in the form of art. A two-mile section of the Beltline known as the Eastside Trail has emerged as an eclectic outdoor gallery featuring sculptures, murals, and space for performing artists. 

“Most of the people on the Beltline are walking their dogs or getting groceries or commuting,” says Elan Buchen, the Beltline’s project manager for art and culture. “They might come across some weird performance or a booth with artists doing haiku fortune telling. Then they keep going, looking for more—before you know it, they’ve walked a mile.” Meanwhile, the annual Lantern Parade, a music and arts procession staged the first Saturday after Labor Day, has become one of the defining events of the Beltline. “At the first one, in 2010, there were a couple hundred of us,” says Buchen. “Last year we had over 70,000 people.”