Many of the world's greatest wonders are forged by natural forces. Soaring mountains, glacial fjords, and breathtaking underwater trenches are all part of our global ecosystem. However, the ingenuity, creativity, and ambition that goes into designing some of the world's most impressive cities is a feat equally worthy of admiration. Here are five of the most ambitious cities ever designed and what it took to make these urban creations a reality.


Mari, Syria ruins
Credit: Heretiq/ CC BY-SA

If you could go back in time to ancient Mesopotamia, you'd find Mari near the west bank of the Euphrates River. It's one of the oldest sociotechnical urban environments in the world. It's impressive not only for its scope, but also for its groundbreaking approach to urban planning.

But what is a sociotechnical urban environment? Basically, it's a setting where humans interact seamlessly with their surrounding infrastructure (streets, buildings, and public spaces). Today, we have smart cities with sensor-connected buildings and cars. The sensors gather data about energy consumption and equipment use and we analyze that data to improve energy efficiency and building performance.

In its heyday, Mari was a thriving hub of commerce and culture. Its glory days didn't last long, however, since Hammurabi of Babylon defeated the Mesopotamian king sometime between 1760 and 1757 B.C. Today, only a third of the original city remains. Yet, the ruins highlight an early, successful attempt at creating a complex, urban environment.

According to historians, the entire city was built on the concentric ring model. The outer ring was designed to protect the city from destructive floods, while the inner ring served as a defense against enemy attacks. Finally, the entire city was built on a gradual slope with complex drainage systems in the ground — creating an early version of an urban plumbing system.

City planners also dug a canal to connect two bends in the Euphrates River. The city was built around this new water source — making a previously inhospitable land fit for human occupation. With such bold initiative and careful planning, the city was perfectly positioned to capitalize on trade. As a center of commerce, Mari exported lapis lazuli and imported wool, oil, and grain from cities north of the Euphrates. Records discovered in the nearly 300 rooms of Mari's palace complex show a thriving sociotechnical environment unrivaled by most cities in the ancient Middle East.

If we could equate Mari to a modern city, it would be Tokyo.


Skyline of Tokyo with mountain in background
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Undeniably, Tokyo is impressive all on its own. The city has been occupied for centuries and was known as Edo in ancient days. Considering its age, Tokyo's ability to conform to evolving political, economic, and social realities over time is an impressive feat of human ingenuity. Today, it serves as Japan's largest hub for industry, commerce, and finance.

Much is in store for this world-famous city. Tokyo will serve as host for the 2020 Olympics from July 24 to August 9. In preparation for this monumental honor, Tokyo has implemented an impressive urban planning project that will transform the Shibuya Station District into an international business center — rivaling that of London and New York City. This crowded transportation hub once served as a railroad stop in 1885. The sheer scope and ambition of the project is breathtaking.

Essentially, Tokyo will transform the Shibuya Station District with four massive development projects and a rebuilding of the original Shibuya railroad terminal. The first project began back in 2012 with the opening of the Shibuya Hikarie, an impressive skyscraper offering an array of dining, shopping, and entertainment options. The tower's functionality attracted older, wealthier visitors.

In 2018, Tokyo saw the completion of the Shibuya Stream Tower at the south exit of Shibuya Station. Overlooking the Shibuya River, this tower has 35 above-ground floors and four more below-ground. It hosts a luxury hotel, restaurants, and retail shops that attract discerning clientele from all over the world. The Shibuya Scramble Square, which opened in late 2019, offers fine dining and shopping as well as an observatory providing an unobstructed 360-degree view of Tokyo.

In 2020, Tokyo will also unveil to the world the results of the Sakuragaoka zone redevelopment. The region will feature multilingual medical and childcare facilities, apartments, and a startup incubator. If anyone doubts Tokyo's place as an international hub, these massive development projects should erase those doubts completely.


Ruins in Carthage
Credit: Michal Hlavica/ Shutterstock 

Located in modern-day Tunisia, ancient Carthage was a testament to the twin attributes of human foresight and resilience, which were key components of successful urban planning. The Phoenician name for the city literally means "new town" and highlights how Carthage was intentionally designed with a view to new beginnings and longevity.

The Roman legend about the founding of the city is also telling. According to history, Princess Dido fled after her brother Pygmalion ordered her husband's execution. She founded Carthage to start a new life for herself and her people. At the height of its glory, Carthage served as an important refuge for the Phoenician people after Alexander the Great conquered the city of Tyre. It also became the wealthiest trading hub in the Phoenician region. In its heyday, the Carthaginian harbor boasted 220 docks and its naval power was known (and feared) throughout the Mediterranean.

New York

New York city skyline at sunset
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One of the challenges of continuous expansion is that earlier architectural features would be rendered obsolete. That was the case for a stretch of unused railroad tracks in densely-packed New York City. With some ingenious planning, however, the stretch of valuable space has been turned into a public park that has inspired urban planners around the world.

The track was originally built in the 1930s as part of Manhattan's West Side railway. However, when the freight industry shifted from the railcar system to roadways, the tracks were abandoned. Today, the former railroad line has been turned into a popular park offering a fascinating blend of nature and contemporary art. Stroll along the scenic High Line public walkway and you'll see everything from landscape paintings to larger street murals. In some places, the original framework of steel beams has even been repurposed to serve as play spaces for children.

New York isn't the first city to re-purpose unused railroad tracks, but its ability to market the concept clearly and attract such robust public support has made the idea more attractive to other cities.


Ruins in Saqqara
Credit: Anton_Ivanov/ Shutterstock 

There's a reason ancient cities dominate this list. They have proven the strength of their ideas by surviving the test of time. Perhaps, no other city does this quite as impressively as Memphis. Legend has it that the city was founded by King Menes who united two Egyptian factions at around 2925 B.C. Located at the entrance of the Nile River, the city capitalized on the region's theological underpinnings in urban planning.

Memphis once served as the center for the worship of Ptah — the god of artisans. It was also as an industrial and commercial hub. Clothing, painting, and vessels were produced in this sacred city. Most importantly, the high priests of Ptah presided over the work of the city's craftsmen. Memphis was also abnormally large for a settlement of its time — extending 19 miles along the west bank of the Nile River.

By all indications, ambitious Memphis has managed to leave behind a global footprint that has endured for thousands of years. Today, the city's necropolis is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Four groups of pyramids constitute major attractions at this World Heritage property: the pyramids in Giza, Dashur, Saqqara, and Abu Sir. If you choose to visit, don't miss the giant statue of Ramses II at a Memphis museum. It's a breathtaking testament to the brilliance of Memphis' architects and urban planners.