The Best Cities For Urban Design In The World

Copenhagen, Denmark
Copenhagen, Denmark | © Alexander Spatari / Getty
Photo of Courtney Stanley
9 February 2017

Urban design is the way cities are shaped in order to best connect the local populations with their environments. Urban designers or planners bring together architecture, public space, sustainability, social equity, transportation, and other aspects of city life to create a space that consciously addresses each issue. In no particular order, these are 9 of the best cities for urban design around the world.

Singapore City, Singapore

Singapore has been consciously designed from its start as a British colony in 1819 to the present-day independent country, and it has shown that having a long-term vision is essential to creating a successful city. Built on a patch of seemingly unusable swampy ground, Singapore is famous for its innovative architecture and its man-made green spaces that thrive in the midst of the high-density city. The city has unique ways of managing waste, sewage, and air conditioning. The current policy creates partly self-sufficient towns so that not everyone relies on the city’s central area. It maximizes land use by building up and down and reclaiming land. It embraces the newest technology and prioritizes the building of affordable housing.

Jewel Changi Airport, Singapore | © Tong Thi Viet Phuong / Getty Images

Zurich, Switzerland

Zurich is often dubbed the best transit city in the world, and once you visit it’s clear why. The buses, trains, trams, and ferries arrive frequently, work cohesively, and are relatively cheap. The success of Zurich’s transit system means there are fewer cars on the roads—meaning less pollution, fewer accidents, and no more obtrusive parking lots. Zurich is also a leader in climate protection, a title the city holds by reducing car use, funding research for renewable energy, and reducing the use of CO2 per person. Zurich’s urban planners also emphasize the separation between urban and recreational areas.

Grossmunster Cathedral, Zurich, Switzerland | © PixHound / Getty Images

Copenhagen, Denmark

Copenhagen shows up at the top of one list after another announcing the most environmentally friendly cities. The city plans to be carbon neutral by 2025 through the implementation of wind power, biomass fuel, waste incineration, and other alternative energies. The city’s design has prioritized fixing the city’s sewage treatment facilities, which has led to better water quality, and creating sustainable architecture, which includes building sustainable drainage systems, recycling rainwater, creating green roofs, and managing waste efficiently. The city’s plan also emphasizes building streets and squares that promote cycling and walking.

Mountain Dwellings, Copenhagen | © Haitong Yu / Getty Images

Seoul, South Korea

When Seoul was designed as a capital city in the 1300s, political figures made sure the city was well-planned, and the city has ensured that a plan is in place throughout its history. Today, Seoul is working on the 2030 Seoul Plan, which is the city’s first plan designed by the citizens. After discussing with professionals, the citizens’ five core issues were; a people-centered city without discrimination, a dynamic global city with a strong job market, a vibrant cultural and historic city, a lively and safe city, and a community-oriented city with stable housing and easy transportation.

View of Deoksugung palace from Seoul City Hall, Seoul | © Kelly Cheng / Getty Images

Chandigarh, India

Chandigarh was one of post-colonial India’s first planned cities, and it is famous for its architecture and urban design. The BBC even hailed Chandigarh, India’s most prosperous, clean, and green city, as one of the most successful ‘ideal cities.’ The city took shape after India gained independence, and Punjab, which was then split between India and Pakistan, needed a new capital city. The city was designed by famous French architect Le Corbusier, and he devised a plan to match the shape of a human body, complete with head (the capital), heart (the city center), lungs (the open, green spaces of the valley), circulatory system (the network of roads and cycling paths), and more.

Tower of Winds structure (Corbusier, 1955), The Palace of Justice, Chandigarh | © Edmund Sumner-VIEW / Alamy Stock Photo

Amsterdam, Netherlands

Amsterdam’s famous canals aren’t just there to draw in tourists; they’re the result of meticulous planning. When Amsterdam was being flooded with immigrants in the 1600s, the series of concentric, half-circle canals were constructed to serve as tools of defense, water management, and transport. Unfortunately, the original plans to the canals have been lost, but historians have speculated that they originated as practical versus ornamental additions to the city. The canals were built between 1613 and 1656, and they are still in use today (though some have been filled in). The city expanded again in the 19th century with a city plan that aimed to add housing and improve public health. Today, driving in the city center is discouraged. Instead, there are many public transport options, and bicycle culture thrives in the city, which is full of bike racks, paths, and garages.

Jordaan area of Amsterdam, Netherlands | © Tom Lau / Getty Images

Washington, D.C., USA

In 1791, a plan was created by urban designer Major Pierre Charles L’Enfant to design the capital city of America for George Washington. The so-called L’Enfant Plan developed the ten-mile square plot of land into what it is today. L’Enfant’s plan, which was later revised by Andrew Ellicott, placed the White House on a ridge parallel to the Potomac River (though he wanted it to be five times the size of the building actually constructed) and laid out broad streets and avenues in a grid system. The city fell into disarray in the early 1900s, and the McMillan Plan was created to reconstruct the city back to L’Enfant’s design. The city’s well-planned design could be revamped to better control traffic—a 2010 study said Washington-area commuters spent 70 hours a year in traffic delays, tied for the nation’s worst road congestion.

Lincoln Memorial, Washington DC | © Sergey Borisov / Alamy Stock Photo

Düsseldorf, Germany

Düsseldorf was heavily bombed during World War II, but afterward, the city was reconstructed at a rapid pace, bringing it huge economic growth. Düsseldorf is well-connected with multiple train systems, including Deutsche Bahn, Rhein-Ruhr S-Bahn, and Rheinbahn. The city is a hub of innovative architecture, most notably the Gehry buildings located on the harbor. The buildings were part of a redevelopment project to bring the harbor-town back to life.

Gehry building, Dusseldorf | © nimu1956 / Getty Images

Machu Picchu, Peru

Although this 15th-century Inca citadel is no longer populated, it is still a marvel of urban design. Constructed on the top of a 2,430-meter mountain in Peru, the site is believed to have been built for the Inca emperor Pachacuti, and the area is continually being restored to give modern-day tourists an idea of what it originally looked like. Machu Picchu has an amazingly constructed water management system that included channels, canals, terraces, and stone chips, which all helped to keep the heavy rainfall from destroying the city, and the buildings were also specifically built to be resistant to seismic activity. And the Incas did all of this without using the wheel. Machu Picchu was discovered in 1911, and today it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with around 400,000 tourists visiting in 2000.

Machu Picchu, Peru | © Korbinian Spintler / EyeEm / Getty Images

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