Why Modern Cities Are So Ugly…and What We Can Do to Fix Them

published Apr 22, 2015
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(Image credit: Ditty_about_summer)

We tend to think of beauty as being mostly subjective. But if you were to ask a random sampling of 100 people what the most beautiful cities in the world are, you’d probably get a lot of very similar answers. A lot of people might name San Francisco, or Paris, or Prague. But you probably wouldn’t garner a lot of votes for Frankfurt, Germany, or Houston, Texas. What makes certain cities more beautiful than others? And why is it that newer cities often tend to be the ugliest of all?

Alain de Botton, a London-based writer and the author of The Architecture of Happiness, argues that the things that make cities attractive aren’t subjective at all, but instead can be encapsulated in six principles. Which are outlined in the video below:

For those who are at work and can’t watch, the six principles are:

1. Order — some degree of uniformity among buildings;
2. Visible life — people, out and about, doing their people things;
3. Compactness;
4. Coziness and mystery — provided by frequent streets, with a few unexpected turns here and there;
5. Scale — buildings should be limited to five stories max, except in the instance of particularly monumental buildings;
6. Local color — the architecture of each city should reflect a sense of place.

De Botton argues that these six principles can, and should, be incorporated into modern city planning. It’s interesting to compare and contrast these six principles with the four qualities of successful city neighborhoods that were defined by urban planning pioneer Jane Jacobs. Jane and Alain wanted some of the same things: density, lively streets, frequent corners — but for entirely different reasons. In her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs never once defined mere prettiness as the goal of a city — instead, she was looking for the qualities that would create a city that was lively, economically vibrant, and would create cultural and business opportunities for as many people as possible.

Which isn’t to say that we can’t have both. In an ideal world, all cities would be prosperous, and also beautiful. But are these goals at odds with one another? Some of the cities that we think of as being the most beautiful — places like Chicago and Paris — are actually cities that display a great deal of architectural homogeneity. These things happened because of unique circumstances and are very difficult to legislate. And would we even want to if we could? Rules like this could quash the kind of architectural ingenuity and playfulness that created, for example, this delightful, well-known Prague building. What to one person is pleasing and orderly is to another oppressively uniform. But one thing is clear: as the global population shifts increasingly to cities, creating sucessful, and beautiful, cities is more important than ever.

You can read more about de Botton’s theories on beautiful cities on City Lab.