"TOP TEN" Cities Have Urban Design Plans

By Bruce A. Race FAIA posted 12-18-2012 12:31


Think about your favorite neighborhood. Does it have a center? Does that center have an important street, public space, business, or watering hole that provides social and economic gravity at a neighborhood scale? 

Now, imagine a map of the city. Where would you take your prospective business transplant for a neighborhood dinner or coffee? Besides bad food and lousy service, what other factors could result in a disappointing experience? Here’s my list: 

  • I can’t find a parking space
  • The bus doesn’t go there
  • There aren’t any crosswalks
  • I get hassled by panhandlers
  • It is treeless, dirty and streetlights are missing
  • It is a boring and uncomfortable walk

All six things are “outside the property line” that is, in public streets and spaces. Great neighborhoods with exceptional living and visiting experiences are high performance places. They have active and accessible streets and spaces that are well designed AND managed on BOTH sides of the property line.

So, who is responsible for creating those spaces? We all are. We know instinctively that these favorite places create economic value and that building them requires coordinated public and private investment.

As urban designers, we want to nurture existing places and create new ones to grow and diversify our local and regional economy. But how do we get there? Through good urban design on a broad scale—not just for postcard places.

Urban design is a civic enterprise that defines a community’s aspirations and can bring them to life. An urban design plan allows stakeholders to imagine places that do not exist yet and provides the directions to make them come true. Urban design is a business plan for placemaking.

It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that successful cities have urban design plans.

I reviewed “Top 10 cities” from four business magazines. I wanted to know if they had regional and citywide urban design policies, downtown urban design plans, design review and historic preservation commission review.

In addition, I researched each top city’s commitment to developing a multi-modal transit system to support nodal economic development. I reviewed Wall Street Journal’s Market Watch Best Cities for Business (2009); Kiplinger’s Best Value Cities (2011); Forbes America’s Most Livable Cities (2009); and The Business Journals’ Best Places for Small Businesses (2011). Here is what I found out.

  • Wall Street Journal’s 2009 Market Watch: Best Cities for Business top 10 cities have downtown urban design plans, design guidelines, preservation guidelines and design review. All but one of the cities (10th-ranked Bridgeport, Conn.) have citywide urban design policies. The WSJ cities have light-rail transit or are planning for it. Des Moines, Iowa, was rated best for business.
  • Kiplinger’s 2011 Best Value Cities Top 10 have sophisticated planning and urban design systems with regional or citywide policies. They have downtown urban design plans, design guidelines, preservation guidelines and design review. Charlotte, N.C., has a light-rail system and Nashville, Tenn., has bus rapid transit. With the exception of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, all the rest of the best value cities are planning for rapid transit in some form. Omaha, Neb., was ranked as the best value city and Cincinnati was 10th as an “up and coming city.”
  • Forbes’ 2009 America’s Most Livable Cities top 10 have made a commitment to quality investment. Each has city or regional urban design policies, downtown urban design plans, design guidelines, preservation guidelines and design review. Forbes’ top cities already have or are planning for comprehensive transportation systems. Portland, Maine, was top-ranked for livability and Lincoln, Nebraska, was ranked 10th.
  • The Business Journals’ 2011 Best Places for Small Businesses lists Austin, Texas, as the best. New York City was listed 10th. The top 10 cities have comprehensive urban design policies and are planning for nodal economic development around transit.

Regardless of their size and regional settings, there is a common theme among cities making the “best cities” lists: placemaking is a priority. They are cities that plan for and invest in quality for the ENTIRE city. Their downtown and neighborhood places are connected physically and programmatically, providing a high quality of life demanded by people who start and run businesses—particularly the creative types that create and grow small businesses.

These are the people we want to attract. They expect more than great food and efficient service when they go out for dinner. They expect a great environment—inside and outside the restaurant.

 Comparison of TOP TEN Cities

Cities and /or Metropolitan Areas

Citywide Urban Design Policies**

Downtown Urban Design Plan**

Design Review**

Historic Preservation Policies and Design Review**

Lightrail Transit**

WSJ  Market Watch: Best Cities for Business 2009 (1)

1 Des Moines, IA

Under study

2 Washington, DC

3 Omaha, NB

Under study

4 Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN

5 Boston, MA

6 Boise, ID


7 Denver, CO

8 Salt Lake City, UT

9 Dallas-Fort Worth, TX

10 Bridgeport, CT


Commuter rail service

LRT planned

Kiplinger: 2011 Best Value Cities (2)

1 Omaha, NE

Under study

2 Charlotte, NC

Regional plan - area plans

3 Nashville, TN

Regional plan - area plans


4 Colorado Springs, CO

BRT/LRT planned

5 Knoxville, TN

Regional plan

Under study

6 Lexington, KY

Regional plan - area plans

BRT/LRT planned

7 Little Rock, AK

Regional plan - area plans

Downtown Trolley

8 Wichita, KS

BRT planned

9 Cedar Rapids, IA



10 Cincinnati, OH

Comprehensive rail/streetcar plan

Forbes: 2009 America’s Most Livable Cities (3)

1 Portland, ME

Under study

2 Bethesda, MD

3 Des Moines, IA

Under study

4 Stamford, CN

Commuter rail service

LRT planned

5 Tulsa, OK

Under study

6 Oklahoma City, OK


7 Cambridge, MA

8 Baltimore, MD

9 Worcester, MA

Regional planning


10 Lincoln, NE

BRT planned

Business Journals: 2011 Top Cities for Small Businesses * (4)

1 Austin, TX

2 Oklahoma City, OK


3 Charleston, SC

Studying trollies

4 Charlotte, NC

Regional plan - area plans

5 Seattle, WA

6 Tulsa, OK

Under study

7 Raleigh, NC

Planned for 2019

8 Denver, CO

9 Washington, DC

10 New York City

* Based on Metropolitan Area statistics

** Based on Incorporated Core City

(1) http://www.marketwatch.com/story/tortoise-wins-race-for-best-us-city-for-business-2009-12-16

(2) http://www.kiplinger.com/guides/best-cities/index.html?si=1

(3) http://www.forbes.com/2009/04/01/cities-city-ten-lifestyle-real-estate-livable-cities.html

(4) http://www.bizjournals.com/bizjournals/on-numbers/scott-thomas/2011/04/austin-tops-small-business-rankings.html