Cities are wonderfully dynamic places with bright lights, people doing interesting things, and new cultural experiences on every corner. In facing challenges from climate change to pandemic preparidness, it's more important than ever for cities to think differently and to reimagine what's possible. In coming up with a list of the 10 most forward-thinking US cities, we considered several factors including overall quality of life, natural scenery, economic innovation, population dynamics, and more. Each of the cities we explore here scores well in one or more of these categories. These are 10 places in the US redefining what it means to be a great city in the 21st century.
7. Minneapolis, Minnesota
10. Charleston, South Carolina
Vermont’s largest city is positively quaint by global standards. Long associated with progressive environmental trends, Burlington is blessed with great natural scenery. Set on the shores of Lake Champlain, Burlington is surrounded by rolling hills and fantastic summer hiking. In winter, the skiing is some of the best in the Northeast. Local residents have long prided themselves on their environmental stewardship. Shops and stores cater to eco-friendly residents and the city’s entire ethos is one of sustainable living. Outdoor enthusiasts can swing into town, fill up on organic food, and then head out to Camel’s Hump State Park or take the ferry across Lake Champlain to explore the Adirondack Mountains. In the evening, venture back for a great arts scene, some entertainment down by the waterfront, or just stroll from brewpub to brewpub chasing the latest flavors and bold experimentation in microbrewing. Whether you’re up for some arts and crafts, trying to find tasty, locally-sourced foods, or just eager to see what’s on tap, Burlington stakes a solid claim to forward-thinking. This is certainly a place to check out in 2019.
Boulder sits at the steps of the Rocky Mountains and is riding the waves generated by Colorado’s economic renaissance. Young people are flocking here to enjoy the clean air and easy access to great outdoor adventures. As a smaller cousin to nearby Denver, people find in Boulder a sense of community and belonging. Grab yourself a cup of excellent coffee and head out to explore the arts scene. The city’s Museum of Contemporary Art showcases talent from around the region. In the downtown area, there are a host of galleries to explore. Once you’ve enjoyed the visual feast on offer, grab a table at one of the many local restaurants where chefs are eagerly serving up exciting dishes. Those looking for some Rocky Mountain adventure can tube down Boulder Creek or canoe in Boulder Reservoir. A hot air balloon ride will get you above the trees and afford some perspective. Here you can see the mighty mountains in the distance and appreciate Boulder as one of the most forward-thinking destinations in the US.
The Motor City might not spring to mind when you consider forward-thinking destinations. However, this is what makes Detroit’s recent transformation so remarkable. As urban redevelopment proceeds apace, Detroit is on the cusp of an important economic revitalization that will see this old industrial city remerge from the ashes. Today, visitors can tour the Detroit Institute of Arts and marvel at the incredible frescoes painted by Diego Rivera, enjoy casino thrills at the MGM Detroit, or explore Henry Ford Museum. As a cultural melting pot, Detroit’s culinary scene is an eclectic mix of Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, South Asian, and Central American cuisine all rolled into one. New and exciting music is on offer every night in the city’s youthful Corktown District, which is gaining a regional reputation as a place for artists and young people to come discover themselves. As a city once written off, Detroit today has a spark and energy only found in those most forward-thinking cities. The Motor City is once more Michigan’s economic engine.
Nashville is still home to the Grand Ole Opry, but this is no sleepy southern town. Nashville’s investment in tech infrastructure has paid dividends as many startups are avoiding the exorbitant housing costs in Silicon Valley and opting instead to locate east of the Mississippi. Nashville maintains its iconic status as one of America’s music towns. Gibson guitars is headquartered here and major music industry players have offices and studio locations. As a result, there’s always something fresh playing in one of the many bars, nightclubs, and cafes found throughout Music Row. The combination of southern charm and digital natives gives Nashville a positively bubbly atmosphere. It’s only a short distance to scenic areas like the J Percy Priest Reservoir, where you can enjoy great boating or fishing. As the sun goes down, the sights and sounds at the Opry come alive and the stage regularly features some of country music’s biggest stars. Nashville is well-positioned to continue capitalizing on its successes, making it one of the most forward-looking US cities.
We’re off to the great Northwest with a stop in crunchy Portland, Oregon. Portland is a fantastic city with loads of great things to do. Whether it’s hiking in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area or just enjoying Portland’s recreational bike trails, the Northwest is a great place for nature-lovers. Add to it Portland’s many pubs, restaurants, and coffee houses and you’ve got the perfect recipe for a dynamic city. Be sure to snap some pictures at Multnomah Falls and find a few hours to enjoy Washington Park. Central Portland buzzes with activity and the areas on either side of the Willamette River host an eclectic array of dining and entertainment. The coffee and beer culture here is world class. Definitely devote some time to exploring the scene, which alone can keep you busy for days. Portland residents are known for their high levels of community engagement so you’re sure to happen upon a farmer’s market or local craft sale. It’s hard to go wrong in a town like Portland, which is why we’ve added it to our list of the most forward-thinking cities in the US.
Boston hums with activity and character. One source of its dynamism and innovation is the sheer density of top-tier colleges and university clustered in and around the city. Harvard, MIT, Boston University, Tuffs, Boston College…these are all incredible institutions that bring a vibrancy to the city’s night life and supercharge the region’s economy. One of the best ways to see Boston is to follow the Freedom Trail. Laid out across the cities, it takes you past famous historical sites. Begin at Boston Common and walk past Park Street Church and King’s Chapel. Then press on to the site of the Boston Massacre and Faneuil Hall. See where Paul Revere lived before walking to the Old North Church. At night you can head across the Charles River into Cambridge and check out some of the upscale bars and restaurants around the Harvard Campus. Walk through historic Harvard Yard and visit the stunning Sanders Theatre. The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum is in South Boston along the waterfront. Finally, the areas around the New England Aquarium are great for sightseeing and snapping photos of Boston Harbor. There’s a lot going on in Boston any time of year, so this is clearly one of America’s most forward-thinking cities.
7. Minneapolis, Minnesota
The Midwest is where you’ll find the America’s heart and soul and Minneapolis is a great Midwestern City. Start your visit at the University of Minnesota campus and stroll along Scholars Walk. There are lots of small shops and cafes along University Ave. Work your way towards the Mississippi River and the Minneapolis Stone Arch Bridge. Enjoy the waterfalls and currents down by the river and snap some pictures against the Minneapolis skyline. After crossing the bridge, you’ll come upon Mill City Museum, which highlights the region’s industrial prowess in flower manufacturing. Nearby is the famous Guthrie Theater, an iconic regional stage widely considered a stepping stone to Broadway. The innovative works put on by the Guthrie are highly entertaining and well-worth it if you have a chance to get tickets. In Central Minneapolis, you can tour the business district and head towards Loring Pond. The pond is part of a green space development where you will find the Walker Art Center. Known for its collection of contemporary art, Walker is one of Minneapolis’ great cultural institutions. Depending on when you’re in town, there is probably a Twins game or maybe the Vikings are playing. Minneapolis is a forward-thinking city alright, and that’s why it’s on our list.
Austin is something of an anomaly in this otherwise deeply traditional state. Home to the University of Texas’ flagship campus, Austin has a youthful vibrancy that’s more in step with trendy towns on the coasts. Austin is refreshing and a great place to see how forward-thinking and progress can penetrate deep into a proud Texan culture. Start at the UT-Austin campus. In fall when the Longhorns are playing, campus is electric. Tour around the South Mall and past various campus buildings before heading towards the Texas State Capitol. The capital building’s historic architecture is impressive and the surrounding parks and lawns are a great place for a stroll. Further south along Congress Ave, you will come upon the Mexic-Arte Museum. The collection here features new and upcoming Latino artists. Look for a good café before venturing down by the Colorado River. Riverside green space developments have made this an exceedingly good place for a picnic or just some simple relaxation. If you enjoy outdoor activities and natural landscapes, make a point to venture west of town to the Hamilton Pool Preserve. This natural swimming hole is a great place for pictures and a stunning natural backdrop. Austin really shines during the annual South by Southwest festival. A hodgepodge of tech, film, music, and art, SXSW as it’s called brings together the best forward-thinkers from around the country. This is a big reason why Austin is one of the most forward-thinking cities in the US.
9. Missoula, Montana
Montana is Big Sky Country and Missoula is a fantastic launching pad into some of the region’s incredible natural beauty. The University of Montana campus is a fitting place to start your tour. After looking around a bit, head for Phyllis Washington Park on the eastern edge of campus. This is where you’ll find the start of a nice set of trails leading into the surroundings hills. Hike up to see the giant "M" for a great view over the town. Once you’ve savored the view and wandered back down, the paths along the Clark Fork River are lovely in the summertime. Wander through some of the streets in town and find a nice local café. There tend to be lots of community events so look for a farmer’s market or art fair. Outside Missoula you can access some wonderful backcountry. If you head north, you will find Flathead Lake, which is part of the Flathead Indian Reservation. Beyond is Flathead National Forest. A few more hours north is Glacier National Park. If you’re visiting Missoula, certainly try to building a day or two into your schedule so that you can make your way up there. Given all it has to offer, we’ve decided to include Missoula on our list of the most-forward thinking US cities.
10. Charleston, South Carolina
For our final stop, we’re visiting Charleston. Founding in 1670, this port city has a long and storied history. Though its roots go back to the Colonial Era well before the founding of the United States, Charleston is building on its reputation as one of America’s most friendly destinations. Start on Washington Square and wander through the French Quarter. Visit some of the churches and then be sure to check out the Old Slave Mart Museum. The museum is a powerful testament to painful legacy of slavery in America. Charleston’s historic connections run deep. Visit the historic Fort Sumter where the American Civil War started in 1860. Back in town, find a walking tour and witness the past come alive. Across Charleston Harbor you can explore harbor front restaurants, play a round of golf at Patriot Point Links, and visit the USS Yorktown museum. The past is never far behind, even when you’re looking to the future. As Charleston continues to find ways to integrate the past with the present, it is a fitting place to end our look at the most forward-thinking US cities.
These 10 places are where you want to visit in order to get a sense for what the future might hold. They aren’t the biggest cities in the US, nor the most luxurious. These are the cities looking ahead, making use of opportunities and resources, and finding new and innovative ways to reinvent themselves. These are 10 of America’s most forward-thinking cities.