How to Make an Attractive City

So few cities are nice, and very, very few out of many thousands are really beautiful. Embarrassingly, the more appealing ones tend to be old. We haven’t put up a single beautiful city since about 1905,

Alain de Botton (@alaindebotton) thinks that the obstacles to building beautiful cities are not economic. Collectively we’ve got enough money, but we face two main problems:

  • Intellectual confusion: We think no one has a right to say what’s beautiful and what’s ugly. This confusion is horribly useful too greedy property developers. If there is no such thing as beauty, they can get away with murder. There is such a thing as beauty. Sydney and San Francisco and Bath and Bordeaux have it, and most other places don’t. The proof lies in tourism statistics. No one’s ever willingly taken a holiday in Frankfurt or new Birmingham.
  • Lack a political will: We’ve abandoned the design of cities to the greedy rich. We’ve given up believing in democracy. We face and have lost the battle between the public good and commercial opportunism. There will always be a greedy slick lobby fighting for ugly development but we can say no. Beautiful cities have only ever been created when governments impose strict and ambitious regulations to keep the greedy private guys in check.

Alain de Botton has put together a manifesto about how to make attractive cities. Let’s not keep saying beauty is just in the eye of the beholder. There are six fundamental things a city needs to get right:

  • Order and Variety: Balance, symmetry, and repetition are pleasing to humans. A love of order is one of the reasons people love Paris. However excessive order feels alien. The key is to create the kind of “organized complexity”
  • Visible Life: People are happiest when they live in densely packed areas where the human comedy is on full display.
  • Compact: A compact city like Barcelona, Spain, uses a fraction of the energy of sprawling Phoenix, Arizona. All of the most beautiful compact cities have human-scaled squares where people can gather. Ideally, the squares are no more than 100 feet (30 meters) in diameter so that you can make out a person’s face on the other side—lest they become alienating. “Nobody’s built a good square on the planet for decades,” he says.
  • Orientation and Mystery: A city should be easy to navigate for both humans and vehicles, with big boulevards for orientation and warrens of alleyways and small streets to allow us to wander and create a sense of mystery and exploration.
  • Scale: The ideal human scale is five stories high; anything more starts to make humans feel insignificant, small, and trivial.
  • Local: The deadening sameness of cities is a problem. Cities have to use locally sourced materials and build architecture that is born from the specific culture, climate, history, and social traditions of a given place.

While I love the idea of “organized complexity”, I cannot agree on some other points. A city like New York does not make me feel insignificant, small or trivial. Quite the contrary. The Big Apple’s concentration of towers is admirable and I wouldn’t say that Times Square is exactly alienating.

So, I have to agree with de Botton that we are not going to agree to the very last point about what a beautiful city is, but also that we need to get more scientific and identify the principles behind cities’ appeal. It will be the only way to get out of intellectual confusion. Not so sure about the lack of political will.

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Featured Image: Sheung Wan Street Signs

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