The 9 Worst-Designed Cities in the World
From sky-scraping metropoles to up-and-coming centers breaking the "large town" mold, cities come in all shapes and sizes. But with that diversity comes one simple truth: no city is perfect. They constantly evolve, much like living beings, but sometimes, their systems break down, too. Just ask anybody who's sat in a traffic jam or stood on an overloaded subway car.
To get to the bottom of what qualifies as "badly designed," we picked the brains of several urban planners to highlight the flaws of some of the world's biggest cities. In the end, that birthed a list of nine cities that, for various reasons, are gigantic messes in some way or another.
When your country's capital is also declared your country's worst city, you know you've got a problem. Jakarta's dismal transportation infrastructure is compounded by its ever-increasing number of car owners, as more and more are forced to commute to and from the suburban sprawl surrounding this megacity. The result? Jakarta's citizens spend 400 hours a year in traffic, with the average trip clocking in at about two hours. If you think that sounds like the worst traffic in the world, well, that's because it actually is.
Where does the responsibility lie? Well, since the duty of maintaining and developing Jakarta's infrastructure falls on the local government, and development contracts are often renegotiated annually, long-term projects are pretty much an impossibility.
United Arab Emirates
Dubai's pretty much a byword for outrageous excess these days, possessing the world's tallest building, a fleet of police supercars, and one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. But as an example of great design? Well, Dubai's kind of a disjointed nightmare of skyscrapers and residential estates that lack any sense of cohesion. It's pretty much impossible to walk anywhere, since the entire layout is connected by massive roadways and arterials leading from one giant development to the next.
On top of all that, the city lacks shared public spaces, leading to an overall void of togetherness that cities often develop around parks and squares. Unless a ski resort inside a shopping mall or a Ferrari museum is your idea of a shared public space. In that case, well, you're probably too rich to care anymore.
Jakarta's got world-class traffic problems, but if you're looking at just the US of A, it doesn't get much worse than Atlanta. The traffic here is legendarily awful, due in large part to the massive urban sprawl that resulted from A-Town's boom in the '80s and '90s; the fact that the Interstate 75/85 connector sits smack dab in the middle of downtown Atlanta just exacerbates the problem. These astronomical congestion problems could, of course, be alleviated by the presence of effective mass transit, except Atlanta's hamstrung by the woefully inadequate MARTA system: a plus-shaped subway line whose much-needed expansion is perennially blocked by special interests. Hooray for putting up metaphorical roadblocks to prevent literal roadblocks!
Rangoon used to be the capital of Myanmar (or Burma, if you're nasty), until the country's government decided a change of scenery was in order in 2005, and officially declared an empty field 200mi to the North a great place for a new capital. Fast-forward a decade, and Naypyidaw has grown to roughly six times the size of New York City, complete with 20-lane highways and widespread Wi-Fi access. Sounds great, right? It is... until you realize it's in the middle of nowhere, and pretty much nobody lives here except government officials.
Yes, the reported population count sits at around 900,000, but that figure is widely considered fabricated, and the massive streets are empty during what should be the busiest times of day. If cities are meant to be lived in, Myanmar's new capital is a resounding failure thus far. Seriously, you can hear echoes half the time, it's so empty.
Another victim of non-homogenous planning, São Paulo was developed piecemeal over the course of the 20th century, transitioning from a small, concentrated, urban environment into a sprawling, 3,000sqmi metropolis, with the rich living in the center and the poor pushed to the periphery. That's nothing new with city development, but to alleviate the congestion from resultant commuters, São Paulo replaced one of its most lively neighborhoods with the Minhocão: a two-mile, elevated, noisy eyesore of a highway that winds its way directly through the heart of the city, passing painfully close to many residents' living quarters.
The city's moneyed contingent, however, opted to avoid the congestion issue in the most affluent way possible -- commuting via helicopter. As a result, São Paulo actually has the world's largest fleet of helicopters per capita. Like Doc Brown, where they're going, they don't need roads.
Beantown's home to the most beautiful neighborhood in America, but don't let looks alone fool you: it's also consistently ranked as one of the nation's most difficult cities to navigate, thanks in large part to the maze-like layout of its streets. Although the common explanation for Boston's willy-nilly street set-up is that the roads were originally built on top of wandering cow paths, the truth is that they simply weren't laid out according to an actual plan.
Additionally, street locations were determined largely by convenience and the avoidance of geographical features. These defining geographical features largely disappeared as the city's usable area expanded through landfilling, a fascinating process you should definitely watch unfold in GIF form right here.
And even though it improved Boston in many ways, the "Big Dig" project is enough to make Robert Moses turn in his grave. Estimated to have cost $22 billion (that's with a "B"), the titanic construction and redevelopment project took the greater part of 25 years to plan, delay, delay some more, and finally wrap up. When terms like "crushing debt" and "insolvency" get thrown around, you know a project's in bad shape. The Big Dig won't be paid off until 2038, either, according to the Boston Globe -- just in time for anyone who paid for it to not reap the benefits.
While São Paulo suffers from a lack of design, Brazil's capital city is often panned for being handicapped by too much design. The brainchild of renowned Brazilian architects Oscar Niemeyer and Lúcio Costa, Brasilia was created from one holistic plan back in the 1950s, with its airplane-inspired layout and modernist concrete architecture intended to make this capital city hold strong into future decades. Unfortunately, a visually appealing capital doesn't necessarily make a good city to live in, and Brasilia's earned a reputation as being sterile and artificial, enlivened only by the vibrance of the local population. You could say the same for an insane asylum.
Population, unfortunately, is another area where Brasilia falters. Originally designed to house only 500,000, the city has drawn nearly 3 million inhabitants over the years, forcing it to expand beyond the elegance of the original Niemeyer/Costa plan. So take that beautiful nucleus, patch on a few extremities, and you end up with a Frankenstein's monster of a city in one of the world's booming economies.
On its surface, Missoula looks like just another Montana city, albeit its second-most populous one. That's until you notice its weird "Slant Streets" neighborhood, so named because it's the only section of town that doesn't follow a grid pattern, with streets running diagonally toward the Clark Fork River instead. This offbeat part of town actually dates back to the 1890s, when the area below the river was first being developed. Two lawyers wanted to break away and establish a new town imaginatively called South Missoula, and began laying out a street plan that ran parallel to Bitterroot Wagon Road; unfortunately, the town's moneyed interests said "no dice," and surrounded their street plan with a grid that completely threw everything out of whack. Thus, Slant Streets was born.
As if that weren't enough, Missoula also developed numerous needlessly complicated intersections, the most heinous of which is a five-lane intersection appropriately nicknamed "Malfunction Junction."
Proving once again that capital cities are a hotbed for planning disasters, Dhaka suffers from urban disfunction on just about every level. Transportation infrastructure is virtually nonexistent -- to the point where only 60 of the city's 650 major intersections have traffic lights, many of which may or may not actually work at any given time. Add to that the millions of rickshaws, cars, motorcycles, buses, and bicycles that have to share the roads every day, and it's a wonder anyone gets anywhere in less than a lifetime.
Thanks to this dreadful transportation situation, most of Dhaka's nearly 15 million inhabitants are unable to commute from outside the city, and many are forced to endure slum conditions within city limits just to be able to get to work. This, in turn, leads to poor sanitation and water treatment issues. Not shitting where you eat is a great theory -- but one Dhaka's planners seem to have not accounted for. If there's one city that symbolizes what total planning and design failure look like, it's Dhaka.
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Gianni Jaccoma is the SEO editor for Thrillist, and he now realizes his gripes with the NYC subway system are pretty minor. Follow his gridlock musings on Twitter @gjaccoma.