We are used to the place we live in. It seems familiar and comfortable to us. That’s why, in my opinion, the only chance to evaluate cities fairly is to come there as a tourist. I’ve been to hundreds of cities in 35 countries and noticed that a livable city doesn’t mean a small/big or poor/rich city. Sometimes supercities in Asia could be more comfortable than in Europe or the U.S.

I’m sure that almost everyone has heard about “sustainable cities” designed to provide positive ecological, economic, and social impacts. In these cities, people reduce waste, air pollution, energy use, etc. While we are working on global projects to achieve these goals, we can still do little things that make our cities more sustainable. Here are my top-5 things that seem small but make cities better!

Public Restrooms

I think public restrooms’ availability makes cities cleaner, more comfortable, beautiful, and sustainable. Unfortunately, most major cities in the world do not have this opportunity. The only way to visit a restroom in DC, New York, Paris, or Moscow is to go to a cafe. But most restrooms in restaurants are open only to clients. It means you need to buy something you don’t need or lie by pretending you’re buying something to get to the restroom. It’s crazy, isn’t it?

The lack of clean and accessible public restrooms is damaging not only people but also the cities themselves! That’s why you could see people going to the toilet on the street in most big cities! Even if you have never seen it, you’ve sniffed those smells or seen the tracks on the road.

In some countries such as India, the lack of restrooms has caused a significant sanitation problem resulting in health and ecological issues. That’s why the Indian government has launched the world’s largest toilet-building campaign. Over the past few years, about 110 million of restrooms have been constructed throughout the country. If you travel to India after the pandemic ends, you can see public restrooms everywhere.

Another excellent example of public restrooms’ availability is the Istanbul system of public restrooms. You can find clean and well-maintained restrooms everywhere in the city center. The admission fee is only 1 Turkish lira (around $0.13); you can also enter restrooms using your transport card.

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Fewer Cars, Fewer Parkings

It’s crazy how the beauty of the city can be eliminated by cars parked along the streets. That is what you can see in my home city, St. Petersburg, in Russia. Every time I come there after a long trip, I’m unpleasantly surprised about the plethora of cars parked around the city. You can’t walk freely, you can’t enjoy city views, and you can’t breathe fresh air after all. 

In this case, I like the experience with congestion charges, when people need to pay to enter the city center in their car. You can find these congestion charges in London, Milan, Stockholm, and Singapore.

Another way to reduce the number of personal cars in cities is to significantly increase the parking rates and simultaneously decrease the parking spaces. With parking rates in New York or Moscow, you won’t want to go there by car.

Other ways to reduce the number of personal cars in the cities are building bike roads, providing preferable access to public transport and vehicles with more than two passengers, and developing a public transportation system.

Streets of Istanbul

Eco-Friendly Public Transport

We can’t reduce the number of personal cars and open cities to people without a good transportation system. Public transport should be comfortable (without large crowds during rush hours), accessible (with many stops and express lines for those who traveled from the suburbs), clean, and affordable for most citizens.

Of course, we can’t say that building a successful transportation system is a little thing. But what makes an excellent public transportation system even better? The choice of transport! Electric trolleybuses and trams are more eco-friendly than ordinary buses. You can quickly feel it! When trolleybuses and trams get stuck in traffic, you won’t breathe polluted air while passing by, as you will do with buses.

Tram in Lisbon. Photo by Khachik Simonian on Unsplash

My favorite public transport is the ferry. God blesses cities with developed ferry systems such as Istanbul, Bangkok, New York, and Venice (but the last city has no other choice). Riding on a ferry is more scenic, fast, and comfortable then stuck in traffic on bridges and roads—moreover, no need to build bridges, tunnels, and junctions. You already have everything you need. All you have to do is buy a boat.

Honestly, I still do not understand why some cities with rivers do not build water transport systems. One of these cities is my home city, St. Petersburg, in Russia, where I live on the Gulf of Finland. It takes me about 1-1,5 hours to get to downtown, but I’m sure I can do it within 30 min if we have public water transport.

Istanbul Ferry

Walking Streets, Wide Sidewalks, and Public Spaces

When we finally deal with public transport and reduce the number of cars in the city, this is the perfect time to build more walking streets, enlarge sidewalks, and create cozy public spaces. There are many good examples around the world! One of my favorite examples is the former women’s prison in the Argentine city of Cordoba. A few years ago, the depressed building of the former women’s prison was transformed into a public space with comfortable recreation areas, cafes, and shops.

I love cities with wide sidewalks and walking streets such as Arbat in Moscow, La Rambla in Barcelona, Istiklal Street in Istanbul. Unfortunately, most of these streets are not very green. In that case, I like Washington DC because the city has a lot of trees.

Istiklal Street in Istanbul. Photo by Alwin Kroon on Unsplash

Garbage Bins for Recycling

Finally, what makes life more comfortable, cities more sustainable, and ecology better? Reducing waste, significantly decreasing the use of plastic packages, and recycling everything you can! Here I wrote about why recycling is so important these days. In this article, I only want to add that placing garbage bins for recycling throughout the city is also very important.

Here are some excellent examples! You can find recycling trash bins on the streets of DC, Istanbul, and many European cities. While I still do not understand why we cannot see this type of container in New York, Bangkok, or Moscow.

Recycling trash bins in Spain. Photo by Alwin Kroon on Unsplash