It has been our best year yet at Guardian Cities. We broke open a major ongoing scandal about London’s segregated playgrounds, told the story of why concrete is the most dangerous material on Earth, and profiled some of the roughly 800 people who died homeless in the UK. Each of those projects was tipped for major journalism prizes.
Globally we spent a week reporting live from Tokyo, and then from the cities of South Africa; explored underground cities; examined how cities are increasingly being built from scratch; and profiled the next 15 cities set to reach “megacity” status of 10 million people.
We also found the best and most exciting examples of when European cities “get it right”; looked at the great canal revolution, for which we published our first print supplement in collaboration with the Observer; and kicked off the award-winning the illustrated city, a series of graphic comics by illustrators around the world giving their takes on urban issues in a less linear way than newspapers generally do.
In the US we examined how cities are sweltering in unprecedented heatwaves, the various ways the Bay Area’s cities are being radically transformed, and took a deep dive into the rust belt city of Cleveland, where we identified the “city champions” helping to improve their communities despite the decades of inaction of sclerotic local government.
Last but not least, our divided cities documentary series has been telling original, reported stories about how cities are increasingly split by huge global schisms – from wealth to food and walls to heat. The series premiered in Rotterdam in October to great acclaim for producer Anetta Jones, director Max Duncan and Guardian executive producer for documentaries Jess Gormley.
All those aside, 10 individual stories attracted the most visits by readers – and here, in ascending order, they are:
10. ‘An indictment of South Africa’: whites-only town Orania is booming
Incredibly, 25 years after the fall of apartheid, there is a town in South Africa that refuses to accept black people to live and work. Orania, a small Northern Cape settlement, is littered with old apartheid flags and monuments to the architects of segregation. A key piece in our South African Cities Week, edited by Nick Van Mead, the story sparked outrage.
9. ‘They are barbaric’: Turkey prepares to flood 12,000-year-old city to build dam
Hasankeyf, on the banks of the Tigris River in south-east Turkey, is thought to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements on Earth. But this jewel of human history will soon be submerged, as part of a controversial dam project, despite residents’ protests.
8. ‘Moment of reckoning’: US cities burn recyclables after China bans imports
Oliver Milman reported how cities across the US were struggling to adapt after China banned the import of recyclables, leading some municipalities to burn vast volumes in of plastics, paper and glass in incinerators – and terrifying the locals who feared for their health as a result of the air pollution.
7. ‘Outrageous’ and ‘disgusting’: segregated playground sparks fury
In March, Guardian Cities’ shocking revelations that a multimillion-pound housing development in London was blocking children of less well-off tenants from using some communal play areas sparked outrage. James Brokenshire, then Conservative housing secretary, called the situation in south London “outrageous”, while there was also criticism from the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan.
6. The US city preparing itself for the collapse of capitalism
In something resembling good news, Kingston, New York is trying to build an inclusive and self-sufficient local ecosystem. Its anti-capitalist, anti-establishment healthcare model sees artists trade work for healthcare (“some artists say the care they received even saved them”) and it has its own regional micro-currency.
5. ‘We all suffer’: why San Francisco techies hate the city they transformed
San Franciscans have long complained that tech workers ruined their city, driving up rents and homelessness and eliminating diversity. Now even the tech workers agree. A terrific piece of reporting from the Guardian’s excellent San Francisco based reporter Julia Carrie Wong.
4. Too poor to play: children in social housing blocked from communal playground
The original scoop – in which Guardian Cities revealed that a developer, Henley Homes, had blocked social housing residents from using shared play spaces at its Baylis Old School complex in south London – led many readers to contact us about other examples of segregation in housing developments. The campaign eventually led the government to announce it would ban segregated play spaces in all new housing developments across England. Reporter Harriet Grant and editor Chris Michael were nominated at the British Journalism Awards for Campaign of the Year.
3. Super-tall, super-skinny, super-expensive: the ‘pencil towers’ of New York’s super-rich
The face of New York is changing at a rate not seen for decades. Oliver Wainwright, nominated for Arts Journalist of the Year at the British Journalism Awards, reported on a new species of super-tall tower springing up in the city, a result of engineering prowess, zoning loopholes – and an unparalleled concentration of personal wealth.
2. ‘It’s a miracle’: Helsinki’s radical solution to homelessness
Many countries put homeless people in temporary accommodation as they try to get their life back on track, with an apartment as the ultimate reward. Finland, however, views secure housing as the starting point and decided to make housing unconditional. Now rough sleeping has been all but eradicated in Helsinki. This story by Jon Henley in part helped inspire Danny Lavelle and Simon Hattenstone to embark on their series The Empty Doorway, a series of heartbreaking and must-read profiles of people who’d died homeless. The series won for best Feature at the British Journalism Awards.
1. Concrete: the most destructive material on earth
The top-read Cities story of 2019 won the Foreign Press Association award for Environment and Science Story of the Year, part of our special series, Guardian Concrete Week. In this gripping critique, Jonathan Watts detailed the devastating and wide-reaching impact on the natural world of our addiction to concrete – the most widely used substance on Earth after water. “By one calculation, we may have already passed the point where concrete outweighs the combined carbon mass of every tree, bush and shrub on the planet. Our built environment is, in these terms, outgrowing the natural one.”
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