Connected Cities, economic development, Houston, Portland, San Francisco, Seattle

Portland, Oregon, where a downtown soccer stadium is linked into one of the “smartest” transit systems in the country. Photo by Steve Wanke.

What makes a city “smart?” What makes it “fast” (in terms of economic growth)? What are the comparative benefits of each? How can a smart city get fast and a fast city get smart?

Reading this article from Fast Company about the 10 “smartest” cities in North America reminded me of this article in Forbes from a few months ago about the fastest growing cities in the U.S. I couldn’t help thinking of the children’s fable about the tortoise and the hare.

Forbes’ list of the fastest was driven by financial indicators alone, not taking into consideration some of the social and infrastructure lenses that Fast Company’s smartest list calibrates.

The most striking observation is that the three fastest-growing cities on Forbes’ list are all in Texas while the “smartest” lists don’t recognize any of these cities. Perhaps that is because the “smartest” list includes Canada. And what about Utah and Arizona? What makes fast-growing Provo and Salt Lake less “smart”? While we cannot predict booms and busts it made we wonder if part of the reason to be smart verses fast is so that a city’s growth is smooth and sustained.

The two cities that are common to both lists are Seattle and Portland—both cities in the U.S. Pacific Northwest with a high focus on sustainability and driven by a significant tech sector economy. Portland is famous for being the first city in the United States to eschew federal transportation dollars for urban highway improvements. As a result they now have one of the most transit-rich urban cores in the world. Portland has also seen an uptick in manufacturing (Streetcars and Bicycles) as well as white collar jobs associated with the Portland sustainability brand.

Houston, a city I called home for six years, is famous for its sprawl. Since recruiting a sustainability director, Laura Spanjian, from San Francisco, there have been advances in major policy initiatives. Yet the lack of comprehensive planning (the city still operates with “super neighborhood area planning” or SNAP) results in a disjointed development pattern in which the large development areas are not aligned with connective transportation infrastructure. The resultant traffic and decaying urban fabric separating the improved SNAP neighborhoods would suggest that it will be wise to focus on growing smarter.

San Francisco is one of the top 10 “smart” cities yet it sits at number 14 on the “fast” list. Efforts at fast tracking pro-business tax policies have catalyzed a rapid influx of technology to downtown San Francisco, which should speed the city’s rise on the fast list. Meanwhile its challenges with affordability could challenge its standing as the #2 “smartest” city.

“Top Ten” lists are always fun to read, but comparing different methods of ranking makes for thought-provoking analysis. Like the slow and steady tortoise, the long-term-looking city may see the more sustainable growth. Yet the tortoises will need to get more agile in the short term to stay competitive.


Stephen_Engblom-63_89x100Stephen Engblom ( leads AECOM’s Design, Planning + Economics practice in the Americas.


Originally published Nov 24, 2013

Author: Stephen Engblom