The Best U.S. Cities, by Design

Architectural firm RMJM Hillier weighed sustainability, awards, and both expert and residents' opinions in its list of top 10 U.S. cities for design

By the end of 2008, 3.3 billion people will live in urban areas, according to a report released by the U.N. last year. As such, the design of these cities—and the quality of life in them—becomes an ever more critical issue.

Architectural firm RMJM Hillier put together a survey of the best cities in the U.S. for design. The results, released June 25, put Chicago at the top of the list, with New York a close second. Los Angeles, Washington, and Portland, Ore., were also featured.

"Realizing that economic opportunity and environmental beauty can be mutually compatible, cities are adopting policies or instituting programs to clean up the environment, build quality buildings, enhance infrastructure, and promote community through public spaces," the report's authors write. In other words, design can be a clinching factor in attracting residents, visitors—and dollars.

Quality of Life and a Creative Environment

To come up with the list, RMJM Hillier compared U.S. cities with populations over 500,000 according to 10 design-related categories, including the number of buildings featured on the National Historic Register, the quality and quantity of public transit systems, the number of "green" buildings and level of sustainability, and the number of architectural and design awards won. They also consulted the heads of local chapters of the American Institute of Architecture.

After whittling the list to the 10 cities with the highest rankings, pollster Zogby International conducted interviews with adult residents of those cities, asking them to describe the quality of life and the creative atmosphere of their environment. Then, adhering to a perhaps less than entirely scientific methodology, the cities were ranked.

Although the Big Apple outperformed the Windy City on several criteria (including its number of Community and Housing Awards—received for design excellence in residence building and community planning—and its overall collection of 17 AIA awards for innovative architecture), Peter Schubert, RMJM Hillier design director, says Chicago's position as a bright-green city tipped the scales. "The green aspects of a city—its sustainability, environment-friendly initiatives—were the most important features of design we considered," he says. Schubert also cited Chicago's long history of architectural innovation and its reputation for being design-oriented as further reasons it took the top slot.

For Harmonious Living

In this survey, only manufactured design was considered—natural advantages such as rolling hills or soaring mountains were discounted. Schubert says that Los Angeles was able to beat out more traditionally green cities like Portland, San Francisco, and Denver thanks to its aggressive new green initiatives and because of its attempts to reduce existing urban sprawl and create a denser city center.

Because a city's design feeds directly into its citizens' quality of life, Schubert says growing cities need to integrate more sustainable design plans not just for the sake of the environment, but for residents. "That's what a city is all about," he concludes. "People joining together in a beautiful environment. Good design—sustainable design—makes for a more harmonious living situation."

See's slide show of the top 10 U.S. cities for design, as ranked by architecture firm, RMJM Hillier.

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