The 9 Worst-Designed Cities In The World

04/22/2015 12:46 pm ET | Updated Jun 22, 2015
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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 in the worst traffic city in America, 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 2 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.

Atlanta, GA
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!

Boston, MA
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 setup 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.

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.

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  • 1 Houston
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    The Texas metropolis scored big points with voters for its genre-spanning cuisine, like the dry-rubbed barbecue, big burgers and urbane gourmet markets. The common denominator, though, may be decadence, exemplified in the varied local interpretations of pecan pie. You can try the deep-dish chocolate fudge version at Three Brothers Bakery, or the Bayou Goo (a pecan crust with a layer of sweet cream cheese, custard and chocolate chunks) at 24-hour diner House of Pies. To cleanse your palate with some brisket, go to longtime barbecue favorite Goode Co., which is also famous for its Brazos Bottom Pecan Pie.

    Photo: Three Brothers Bakery
  • 2 Providence
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    Don’t ruin your dessert by eating too much dinner in the Rhode Island capital, which ranked near the top of the survey in a number of gastronomic categories—from hipster food trucks and notable restaurants to sweets-filled bakeries. Long-timers love the chocolate macaroons and clam-shell-shaped scafilgione cookies at Scialo Bros. Bakery, which has been around since 1916, but it’s hard to turn down the relative newcomers, too, like the ginger-biscuit scones at Seven Stars Bakery or the lemon cake with coffee curd at North Bakery. Speaking of coffee, the city also ranked near the top for its java, but these sugar-happy Yanks aren’t known for drinking it black. The state drink is coffee milk—moo juice laced with sweetened coffee syrups, like the excellent elixirs at Dave’s Coffee. All that sugar and caffeine perhaps resulted in high-energy locals, who readers ranked as being highly intelligent and active.

    Photo: Nicholas Millard/
  • 3 Atlanta
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    No wonder the Georgia city—where the home-grown soda seems to flow like water—won the bronze for sugar. After you’ve sampled the many international variations at World of Coca-Cola, you can get your daily Coke fix in a few other ways. At West Egg Café—an example of why the city also ranked well for both brunch and diners—one of the most popular desserts is the Coca-Cola cupcake, topped with Coke-flavored frosting and bottle-shaped gummies. At Octane Coffee, you can try the Ameri-cola—half espresso and half Coke on ice. Of course, you should balance your diet with some fruit: Try the pink-lady apple cobbler, or the Hummingbird Cake (with pineapple, pecans, and bananas) at Cakes & Ale in Decatur. The locals still do a good job of counting calories: they ranked highly in the survey for being attractive and reasonably athletic.

    Photo: Cakes & Ale
  • 4 New Orleans
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    Plenty of people come to NOLA just to overindulge in certain liquids, but you could easily map out a bender on desserts, too. You’ll find the original Bananas Foster (with dark rum and banana liqueur) at Brennan’s, a famed version of Baked Alaska at Antoine’s and, of course, the gold standard of beignets at Café du Monde. But that’s before you’ve even gotten to the Creole pecan candies known as pralines (in New Orleans, say it prah-leens, not pray-leens); Aunt Sally’s, which makes classic pralines, has been around since 1935. The most recent sweet star in town, though, is macaron and candy shop Sucré on Magazine Street (look for its sister property, Salon by Sucré, to open during spring 2015 on Bourbon Street). Readers ranked the locals as being friendly, but also a little fruity: they won the survey for being quirky.

    Photo: Chris Granger
  • 5 New York City
    See More of America’s Best Cities for Sweet Tooths

    The Big Apple gets credit for some over-the-top originals—like the gold-plated (and $1,000) Golden Opulence Sundae at Serendipity3, or the seminal cronut at Dominique Ansel Bakery in Soho. If you don’t want to get up early for the croissant-donut hybrids, come at 3 p.m. for the bakery’s cookie shot, a cup-shaped chocolate chip cookie filled with sweetened milk. To empower yourself with dessert-making skills, head to the Williamsburg kitchen of Milk Bar, which offers behind-the scene classes based on its cookbook (you might learn to make their infamous, buttery Crack Pie). For a lot of New Yorkers, though, the city’s biggest sweet spot is still Magnolia Bakery, in the West Village, which is as famous for its banana pudding as it is its cupcakes. Each of Magnolia classics are great values at under $4—not bad for the priciest city in the nation, according to readers.

    Photo: Magnolia Bakery
  • 6 Los Angeles
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    This trend-conscious city played a starring role in the cupcake boom (thanks to the original Sprinkles in Beverly Hills), but you might not know it from looking at the fit, attractive locals, according to voters. Between rounds of people-watching—which rated well here in the survey—try the eclairs at Beverly Hills’ Chaumont Bakery, the fruit tarts at Santa Monica’s Huckleberry Cafe, or the brown-butter-smoked-salt-and-dark-chocolate cookies at Culver City’s Platine. And happily, this is a town where you can always reinvent yourself: at Donut Friend, in Highland Park, you can customize your own donuts with fillings and toppings (though it may be hard to pass up the Lemon Weapon, filled with lemon cream and blueberry jam).

    Photo: André Labrèche
  • 7 Minneapolis/St Paul
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    These Minnesotan cities racked up big survey scores in the hipster realm—brainy locals, bookstores and craft beer—as well as food trucks and gourmet markets. In the Mill City Farmers Market and the Midtown Market, for instance, look for Salty Tart—acclaimed for its coconut macaroons and Surly Brewing Co.-fueled cupcakes, Or, sit on one of the front-row kitchen stools in downtown Minneapolis’ Angel Food Bakery (upstairs from restaurant Hell’s Kitchen) and get a version of the cities’ acclaimed theater scene: while you nosh on your flaky cruller, you can watch the small-batch bakers as they ice cakes or knead dough.

    Photo: Travis Anderson Photography