What About Beauty?

This article was first published on Strong Towns, September 24, 2015

If I had to file a complaint against Strong Towns, it’s that our message sometimes gets wrapped up in data, economics, and the like. It can be somewhat hard to comprehend how all the financing and land values work, and at times, I’ve caught myself not totally grasping everything.

In the debate against Randal O’Toole, Chuck Marohn magnificently defended the positive economic aspects of classical city building. This was a complex debate–not for everyone–but it’s safe to say that an onlooker to this discourse already had a vested interest in the outcome for their city and had the mental capacity to understand the nuances at play.

However, I got to thinking. If I were going to approach someone who has never thought about our built environment, how would I go about doing it? Would I start with the data and leave out the safety aspect? Or vice versa? Or would I simply throw everything out the window and just tell them: “Look, our cities are ugly. Do you want to pass this on to your kids?”

A couple weeks ago I was asked to speak to the Blue Earth County Mayor’s Clerks group, a small, but somewhat influential group of government employees. I started my presentation by describing what New Urbanism is, what CNU is and what we’re looking to change. The “ah-ha” moment came when I summarized what “building places people love” meant.

I showed them this:

A place people loved
Above is a familiar scene, if you’ve ever dug into your cities past: the awesome old main street that was torn down because of inadequacy, special interest, or simply hubris. If yours wasn’t destroyed, Jane Jacobs is up in heaven (aka Seaside, FL) smiling.

The caption was “a place people loved.”

The caption for this next photo was: “A place no one cares about.”

place no one cares about

Why doesn’t anyone care about the typical commercial stroad? I’d argue that over anything else, it’s beauty. You get no sense of beauty from neon lights and oversized advertisements. There is nothing that is transcendent of the human experience. Rather, everything on these runways appeals to the lowest common denominators of American consumerism: food and stuff.

A byproduct of having a beautiful place is having high civic pride. When you have a clean room—say, a kitchen—you work to keep it clean, and that helps you feel more productive when you’re in there. We all know the feeling that a dirty, unorganized room gives us. It sucks your will to do anything productive. It can even entice you into making it more dirty by taking the “screw it, it’s already messy” approach to organization. Our commercial stroads are no different. They’re highly unorganized, ugly, and channeling all the entropy of humanity into one place. This leads to a sense of community dejection, and the inevitable outcome of everyone acting in their own best interest and the best interest of their properties. Ugly places breed NIMBYism.

I think this is highlighted in the circus that is the comment section of O’ Toole’s blog post on the debate. People go back and forth debating Strong Towns points, data, intentions, etc., to which I say, “Who cares!” We’re building ugly places that don’t do justice to the greatness of the American dream, or the collective free society our ancestors wanted to build.

Developer R. John Anderson always says, “We don’t have to build Paris on the Sein. We just have to build a slightly less crappy version of America.” I’ll admit that I’m somewhat pessimistic; I think that even if we are capable, we will just barely be able to build the aforementioned vision. But nonetheless, in that idea, we find the argument. Paris is beautiful, ergo, if we can even build something marginally better than what we have, we’re on the right path. Nothing about data, ROI, metrics, land use, etc… Just beauty, plain and simple.

Below is a picture I took in the (albeit very touristy) town of Galena, Illinois. (Go now. You won’t regret it.) When our ancestors dreamed of building a better society for future generations, the buildings were obviously a part of that. Art, music, and architecture were meant to be pinnacles of accomplishment. They were meant to transcend and lift the human spirit. Beauty is meant to highlight order and hard work. A society that doesn’t value either of these things is surely on the road to decline in more ways than one.

Galena IL

In this picture you can see a well-formed city that puts people at the forefront. Yes, the city was almost completely formed before the automobile, as were a lot of American cities. The city, however, did not forsake what was there. It simply continued using the gift its ancestors had passed down and now, because of that beauty, the residents enjoy the economic benefits that come along with it.

Our country is very good at highlighting economics, e.g., it’s better to have an ugly building that turns a profit. Every time something needs to come in on budget, the first thing to go is the aesthetics. The mantra that an ugly building will get the job done just as well as an attractive one, or that an ugly space is better than no space at all, is sadly backward. The affordability obtained by an ugly building will stick out as foolhardy in short order when you realize you have to look at it every day.

An unfortunate side effect of our mobility is that the commons have died and, in that death, our desire for a beautiful built environment has died too. I always find it ironic when people complain about their boring cubicles, but have no problem with our oversized commercial strips.

We can bring it back. We can highlight the beauty of architecture and space.  But policy, public opinion and planners all have to be part of the solution. If not, we’re doomed to a future of “meh” cities.

EDIT: At the risk of looking unprofessional as far as journalism is concerned, I’m adding a small addendum. I’m recommending a great documentary called “why beauty matters.” It deals with multiple art forms but there is a section on architecture as well. Give it a watch.

10 thoughts on “What About Beauty?

  1. Monte Castleman

    People may not think about wide suburban style roads (and Galena has both a sort-of-bypass and highway commercial district), but for “not caring” they sure do a lot of shopping along them. Even in towns like Galena and New Ulm where the downtown is doing pretty well.

    1. Joseph TottenJoseph Totten

      I think this message gets lost and is a poor way to communicate with people who aren’t already in some form urbanist. I interpret “Caring” as caring about each small thing in particular. I care about Grand Avenue east of Ayd Mill, (and to a lesser extent west of Ayd Mill, especially near MAC), I care about Uptown, I care about the U of MN campus, Stadium Village, Marcy-Holmes, St Anthony Main, Como/15th and I care about Dinkytown. All of these places has a certain feel and emotion attached to them. I really don’t “care” about Snelling near Har-Mar. I go there out of convenience, but there is no true emotion attached to the street, or the Cub Foods, or the Target. If it’s the closest one of those I will go there, otherwise I won’t, whereas there are plenty of nearby bars, shops and restaurants in Highland Park, but I will still go outside of HP to go to places I care about. I will transcend the traditional watershed of each store and location because they are unique and individual. Saying that a store, development, or shop isn’t worth “caring” about is never -in my mind- about not caring that the store exists and allows you to get your groceries closer to home, but instead that I will not go to that store from across town, I will not take extra time to go there, just as I doubt you would forgo Bloomington Walmarts to go to the Saint Paul Midway… they’re about the same, but you would prefer to stay in Bloomington and not travel. In some sense “caring” means small businesses mixed in, sometimes it’s a feel you can’t get anywhere else. It is a really strange way to say things (because I care about Midway’s Target, it is mine, it is where I shop) however, I don’t “care” about the Quarry Target now that I am not living a mile south of it. I have no relation to the Taco Bell or the McDonald’s or the TCF Bank branch, however I still feel that tug to go to Black Coffee and Waffle Bar, and Mesa Pizza in Dinkytown (in Stadium Village I will eat there, and that’s about it, the store is cool, but it doesn’t quite have the same vibe.) I feel these tugs because I care about them even when they are not providing me with value at this time. This is a weird concept for a lot of streets writers to get behind, because it also helps NIMBY-ism and faux historicalness (see Jacob Fry’s quotes on why Dinkytown is/isn’t historic), but I would rather have a city of more Dinkytowns and more Grand Avenue (even if it means meters) that takes the place of my second Target than a second Target that takes out two blocks of Grand Avenue.

    2. Nathanael

      “People may not think about wide suburban style roads (and Galena has both a sort-of-bypass and highway commercial district), but for “not caring” they sure do a lot of shopping along them”

      Actually, people don’t.

      At this point the vast majority of shopping is done on the Internet.

      The arena for physical shopping has contracted massively. The remaining major sectors are services (hairdressers, restaurants, repair shops, medical, etc., and I’d include any goods which require a lot of advice during shopping), groceries & perishables, and very large bulky objects.

      The stores for very large bulky objects have always been out in the edge of the countryside, which is now sprawlsville. They will continue to be.

      People choose services based on things other than the location. But they *do* prefer readily accessible downtown services over “random surburban hell” services when all other things are equal.

      Groceries and perishables are another topic which would take a long time to discuss; suffice it to say that there are many active campaigns to have more downtown grocery stores, and people shop at suburban-hell grocery stores mainly because they’re the only ones which exist.

      1. Nathanael

        Basically, physical retail is in trouble period. And for the surviving parts of it, residents would generally prefer to shop more downtown; it’s actually the idiot businessowners who are habitually locating their stores in stroad hell. I figure that problem will be solved by the magic of the free market, at the expense of the idiot businessowners.

  2. Joe

    Good article. But some objections.

    “You get no sense of beauty from neon lights.” False. Old neon signs in big cities across the world are awesome.

    “Ugly places breed NIMBYism.” Also strenuously disagree with this. Linden Hills for a local example. Greenwich Village or many places in NYC for others. Wicker Park in Chicago. Lots of places. Unless you find them all ugly. NIMBYism crops up more in nice old places than in suburbs no one cares about.

    1. Monte Castleman

      Neon is rapidly disappearing too. The Pillsbury’s Flour and North Star blankets signs have been converted to LED. They’re looking at doing so for the Grain Belt sign. The animated Valleyfair sign has been converted. Easier to get LEDs made with sweatshop labor from China than use American crafters to use neon. .

      1. Joey SenkyrJoey Senkyr

        Well, LEDs are also way more energy efficient and practically maintenance-free, but yeah, its probably just that the evil property owners hate America.

      2. Nathanael

        LEDs are awesome.

        Neon is expensive, energy-intensive, wasteful, and uses an extremely rare element which we have a shortage of.

        You can buy American LEDs if you like. We invented them and we still manufacture some.

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