For these last few days, I’ve been wandering east through the Colorado Front Range, Nebraska and Iowa, on my way to the Midwest. This means that, geographically speaking, it’s all downhill for me from here – pun intended.
As readers may know by now, I’m currently on a 3-year, 30-city cross-country trip to write about urban policy reform in America. I’m officially halfway complete, covering 15 cities across the Sunbelt, up the West Coast, and through the Intermountain West. The latter half of the trip will include 15 cities in the Midwest, Mid-South and up the East Coast, ending in New York City in late 2018.
So while there are many great cities ahead, the best geography is now behind me. I was reminded of this on Tuesday, in particular, while driving through Nebraska, which consists overwhelmingly of flat farmland. Much of the remaining eastern portion of the U.S. is flat also, and even the parts that are not, such as Appalachia, don’t achieve a grand scale.
It is different, though, out West. From west of the 100th Meridian, the United States has mountainous geography all over, barreling, depending on the region, through deserts, pine forests and along lakes, rivers and oceans. Together, this creates a stunning and diverse landscape for thousands of square miles.
The places that are really interesting, though—at least to me—are the ones where natural beauty mixes with urbanism, allowing millions of people to enjoy these stunning landscapes daily. Here are America’s 5 most geographically-interesting major metros.
A surprisingly large portion of America has climates that are either Mediterranean, semi-arid, or arid. And there are few places where this lack of rainfall actually makes for interesting surface landscapes – usually it is some combo of dusty soil and thin shrubbery. Phoenix is an exception.
While the city and its suburbs are nothing to write home about, the metro sits within the Sonoran Desert, meaning its surrounding countryside resembles the scenery of an Old West movie. Cacti are routinely over a dozen feet tall. The soil has a rich red coloration. And the many surrounding hills and mountains offer trails where people can view it all firsthand.
The ultimate geographical experience in Phoenix may be driving the Apache Trail. First carved out by the Apache Indians, it is now a narrow road that winds through the Superstition Mountains, overlooking the Salt River Canyons.
Special Acknowledgement: Sedona, AZ
The only east coast city on my list, Miami is the ultimate contrast to Phoenix – easily the nation’s most water-inspired city. This has had the same effect of bringing geographical richness across the region. It begins with the coral blue body of water that abuts Miami—Biscayne Bay—which is flanked to the north and south by similarly-beautiful coastal Atlantic waters that dominate all of South Florida. The reason that the water is clear are that reefs and other physical barriers break up the oceanic pattern, preventing large waves from churning up sediment.
But Miami’s bayfront isn’t the only relationship the city has to water. Thanks to a tropical climate, Miami gets copious amounts of rain; when I was there, I found that it fell early almost every other morning. According to Bustle.com, Miami trails only New Orleans among America’s 50 largest cities in annual precipitation, getting 62 inches on average annually.
This has produced vegetation throughout the city, with elaborate gardens dotting many city neighborhoods. The best outcome may be all the trees—on both public and private property—that bear exotic Caribbean fruits. These include trees growing coconuts, which Miamians chop open and use a straw to drink the juice from. And of course, Miami proliferates with palm trees, which are more common there than in any American city.
Special Acknowledgement: Key West, FL
There’s a bit of rivalry right now between Denver and Salt Lake City, and it is not hard to see why. They are the two fast-growing beacons of America’s Intermountain West, experiencing economic prosperity despite their wildly different cultures and political philosophies. Nestled into this debate about sports, food, beer and culture is one about which city has the better geography.
The debate is interesting, since both Denver and Salt Lake City sit on the east and west ends, respectively, of the southern portion of the Rocky Mountain Range. Denver is about 30 miles away from the actual mountains, meaning breathtaking real-life panoramas are available throughout the metro. The most interesting panorama I found was from an elevated road in the neighboring eastern suburb of Aurora. From just a few miles away, I could see the Denver skyline—impressive in its own right—sitting as a mere speck before a massive mountain vista, off in the distance, that stretched as far as was visible to the north and south.
But I’m still going to pick Salt Lake City, because it is more proximate to the mountains. SLC’s portion of the Rockies is known as the Wasatch Range, which has peak elevations of over 13,000 feet. Some of these mountains tower down over SLC, and even more so over Provo, just 45 miles to the south. The easternmost neighborhoods of both cities actually work their way up into the foothills.
This proximity also causes water runoff, helping explain why there are large lakes that leapfrog these cities to the west – including the Great Salt Lake past SLC, and Utah Lake past Provo. While the Utah Lake is a freshwater lake, the Great Salt Lake is salty, writes Utah.com, because “it does not have an outlet. Tributary rivers are constantly bringing in small amounts of salt dissolved in their fresh water flow. Once in the Great Salt Lake much of the water evaporates leaving the salt behind.”
Special Acknowledgement: Provo
Portland has always lived off its land. In the century prior to becoming a cosmopolitan city, it was a logging hub, with a unique rainy climate that nourishes the growth of massive Douglas Fir pine trees. The small Oregon towns west and south of Portland still depend on the timber industry.
But even as Portland’s economy diversified into professional services, its geography has still been an asset. Many of the city’s professional-class workers are of an outdoorsy bent, and moved there precisely because it remains a beautiful evergreen oasis of different tree and plant species that roll up and down the city’s hills, with the snowy top of Mount Hood lurking in the background. Along with Douglas Firs, the city has maples, redwoods, and much more, and many of the trees still found in residential neighborhoods are massive. Common plants include elderberry, soloman’s seal and several varieties of fern, which densify the city’s forests.
Not all of Oregon is like this. Upon crossing the Cascade Range, the climate becomes semi-arid, and the landscape more like Idaho. In fact the cutoff is stark once driving east down Mount Hood. The reason that Portland and other near-coastal parts of the Pacific Northwest have the forests they do is from persistent rain, which arrives once the Canadian jet stream collects over the Pacific Ocean and moves inland. From there, writes Dennis Mersereau of Mental Floss, “it’s the [Pacific Northwest’s] terrain that locks in those dismal weather conditions. When moist winds blow inland with an approaching storm, the high terrain of the Cascade Range forces the moist air to rise into the atmosphere, enhancing the thick clouds and steady rainfall.”
This causes three feet of average annual rainfall in Portland, which arrives less as downpours, than as a constant drizzle in the Fall and Winter seasons. This means the moisture slowly seeps into the soil — a recipe for lush vegetation. Some of the best areas in and around Portland to experience this are Columbia River Gorge, Forest Park, and the various smaller
neighborhood trails. My favorite is Council Crest Drive, a narrow circular road in the wealthy Council Crest neighborhood that people walk along to experience Portland’s full botanical array. It leads up to a park that overlooks the city and Mount Hood.
Special Acknowledgement: Seattle
The U.S. metro where mother nature has managed to put it all together the best is Los Angeles. The metro may be known for notably unnatural phenomena like congestion, smog and sprawl housing. But those are all the outcomes of having millions of people live in an area – and there are reasons that so many want to live in L.A. Along with the cultural amenities, SoCal has mountains, beaches, deserts, farms, and, if one is willing to drive out a little, heavily-wooded forests, such as those found at Sequoia National Park.
This means that Los Angeles appeals to the two most common types of nature people – those who like mountains and those who like water. The best way for the former types to take in LA’s topography is by hiking the Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook in Culver City. From there, they will not only see the San Gabriel mountains, but the way that so many of LA County’s key cities and neighborhoods—such as Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Silverlake and Los Feliz—roll along one hill or another. Mixed in with the ever-growing downtown Los Angeles skyline, it is a truly breathtaking vista.
But the best urbanism in L.A., and the greater SoCal area, is definitely the beach towns. Santa Monica, Venice Beach, Manhattan Beach and Long Beach—along with the many coastal towns extending south to San Diego—each provide unique looks into how a municipality can integrate with an oceanfront. Many of them are mixed-use, walkable, and one of them, Long Beach, is refreshingly dense. But their common denominator—the thing that gives them a mystical quality—is the Pacific Ocean, which produces the smell of sea salt and the crash of waves in every town.
Special Acknowledgement: San Diego
Of course, when people talk about the beauty of these nature-centric cities, they usually forget to mention one crucial point – the urbanism itself. This is a glaring oversight.
The popular wisdom among many urbanites, namely of the Nimby variety, is that housing development, and urbanization in general, somehow spoils the land, and shouldn’t be allowed. This is a very narrow view for urban America.
The reality is that our nation has no threat of over-development; according to the Census, 62.7% of the population lives in incorporated cities, but these consume only 3.5% of America’s land mass. There is nothing wrong with having so much open land—in fact it’s a great thing—but it means there are countless beautiful places that few people ever encounter.
Many of the natural areas that people truly appreciate, meanwhile, are the ones close to them. There is nothing fundamentally special about the San Gabriel Mountains, compared to other ranges. But they overlook a 10-million-person county that is viewed worldwide as a cultural beacon. To name another example, Mt. Jefferson is another natural wonder along the Cascade Range in Oregon. But it has never held the same significance as Mt. Hood, which on a clear day can be viewed from almost anywhere in Portland. Again, the difference boils down to proximity.
Appalachia is another example of this: although it stretches from Alabama up to Canada, the parts that people seem to most enjoy are where cities have integrated with the mountains—including Pittsburgh, Charleston, Asheville and my hometown of Charlottesville. Development has activated these mountains, making them places that people can actually access and enjoy. In this sense, they create, as so many other U.S. cities do, a nice yin-and-yang between civilization and preservation.
[This article was originally published by Forbes.]
Scott Beyer owns and manages The Market Urbanism Report. He is a roving cross-country journalist who writes regular columns for Forbes, Governing Magazine and HousingOnline.com.
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