How to Create a Beautiful City

Blowhard, Esq. writes:

An excellent summary. Notice how virtually all of the positive examples are traditional buildings.

About Blowhard, Esq.

Amateur, dilettante, wannabe.
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11 Responses to How to Create a Beautiful City

  1. peterike2 says:

    A naive and hopeless plan, but an interesting video nonetheless. Can’t really argue with the recommendations, though the biggest flaw is the reliance on government at the end. Yeah, THAT will sure stop the greedy developers! I mean I guess it does here and there in remarkable circumstances, but mostly you’ll get just the opposite.

    I would add another item: stop tearing down beautiful old things and building ugly new ones in their place. Since it’s unrealistic to think of fixing up entire cities, the best we can do is stop horrible new developments, like the Essex Crossing project in New York. They are taking the rarest of commodities — open space in Manhattan — and putting up more antiseptic glass monstrosities. Blech.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. peterike2 says:

    This is a good quick summary on what’s going on in New York, horrible building wise, including the almost unbelievably obscene Greenpoint Landing project. And that’s only one of the monsters being born.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. JV says:

    “We’re mostly much better at making things now; cars, planes or phones. So why not then cities?”

    Yes, but those cars, planes and phones looked a helluva lot cooler before we got “better” at making them.

    Some good points here. For me, the biggest negative impact on cities and towns is the catering to cars. Everything from the goddamn garage doors dominating the front of suburban houses (what happened to alleyways and detached garages!?) to soulless and pedestrian-less avenues. Here’s a great illustration of how public space is dominated by cars:


  4. agnostic says:

    The main source of awful public spaces is sociological and demographic rather than technological or artistic — the transplant phenomenon.

    When you are born in a place, live their your whole life, will raise any children you have in that place, and your ancestors stretch back into the past in that place, you feel a level of respect for its natural and built environment. They are not completely inviolable, but altering them willy-nilly is taboo.

    When a place draws most of its population from transplants, or people whose roots go back no further than a single generation, its features are not treated as sacred. They’re just neat things that earlier waves of transplants found it fit to build in their day, but which we might not find so neat in our day, and may very well have to erase and replace to suit the living rather than the dead (those two being alien to each other when transplant-ism is the norm).

    That’s the basic weakness — not feeling that the natural and built environment are sacred. It lets you treat the whole city like one great big Lego bucket or dollhouse for playing around with, to dress it up in one artificial identity or another.

    If you’re lucky, the prevailing fashions will give the city Art Deco rather than the International Style or the International Style: The Sequel. But trying to analyze the differences at the technical level, and propose policies that could steer architecture back toward good ol’ Art Deco, is missing the big picture — that the constant demographic churning makes it impossible to hold something in place. You are reduced to trying to argue for why Art Deco should make a comeback in the fashion cycle, why the neo-Mies look is like so tired by 2015.

    That’s why rural towns tend not to be so afflicted by all the things that trad architecture folks decry. They are not being constantly swamped by wave after wave of transplants bringing their own outside ideas and inclinations about what would make for a totally awesome city, as though it were wet clay rather than a living organism.

    And that’s why some cities show greater levels of affliction than other cities. As much as New York transplants may always be complaining about “there goes the neighborhood,” the city and its population is deeper rooted than a place like Houston or Phoenix.

    How do you keep the transplant invasion at bay? The trick is to not host the institutions that draw status-strivers — globally competitive industries (Wall Street, Hollywood), globally competitive cultural institutions (Harvard, Sundance Film Festival), and so on and so forth.

    Trad architecture misses these larger points because most of the critics are striving transplants themselves. They want to have their competitive career and the wealth and creature comforts it affords, while preserving their adopted city’s traditional character. But the two are incompatible. You can choose one end of the trade-off spectrum or the other.

    It would be best for the return of traditional, human-scale places to discourage the transplant phenomenon, to remind people that they’ll feel more connected to their place if they grew up there and haven’t seen it change radically. That creates a deeper and more enduring sense of belonging than shopping around for a city and tweaking its skin, as though you were purchasing a customized costume for a masquerade ball.

    Liked by 1 person

    • JV says:

      Not sure I agree. Cities have always been places where “transplants” flock too. That’s not a recent phenomenon, and yet, it seems only relatively recently (post 1950s) that city planning and architectural styles have become less and less inviting and aesthetically pleasing.

      Liked by 1 person

      • agnostic says:

        I don’t believe anyone here has a solid impression of how inviting and pleasing various cities were 100, 200, or however-many hundred years ago. Not that the work in social history isn’t being done, but that it’s not widely known for us to have assimilated its finding, or it isn’t very conclusive.

        It’s hard to imagine anyone finding Dickensian London or Manchester to be as inviting and aesthetically pleasing as Midcentury Greenwich Village.

        Cities may always attract transplants, but it’s not as though that attractive power has been constant. With mass transit, highways, widespread automobile ownership, moving companies, and the like, it became even easier for folks in Postwar America to pick up and settle in a new city, if they felt like it. The costs of moving would have been orders of magnitude greater in the pre-Industrial era.

        Even during the Industrial era, railroads must have made it orders of magnitude cheaper for rural strivers to pour into the cities, destabilizing urban life into the everyday anomie that we see in Dickens’ world.


      • JV says:

        If we’re talking architecture, the general consensus seems to favor styles from 400 years ago to the early 20th C. as the most pleasing. Sure, infrastructure was dismal in Dickensian London compared to today, but those Edwardian buildings are awfully nice to look at, and the public squares created back then (and before that) are still attracting lots of people.

        As for mobility, the post-war trend was the mass exodus to the suburbs. Talk about transplants! And of course, most suburbs are ugly as shit and damn near soul-crushing as far as public space is concerned, but that has more to do with the automobile then it does with the newly arrived residents, in my opinion. And I’m not sure the literally millions of transplants to American cities in the late 1800s/early 1900s had a negative effect on city planning and architectural styles. In fact, much of the most pleasing neighborhoods and buildings in NYC were built during that time period.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. agnostic says:

    Today’s consensus is blinkered by the survivor bias — we’re only seeing those parts of the built environment from 400 years ago that have survived the past 400 years.

    To judge Dickensian London, you have to see it, smell it, and walk through it as they did. That’s not possible today, so we either need a good and balanced survey of what folks thought at the time, or a faithful reconstruction for today’s folks to observe, rather than the selective view they get from what is still around.

    Much of Gilded Age New York looked, smelled, and felt like How the Other Half Lives, thanks 100% to all those waves of foreign transplants. Red light districts blighted the landscape.

    New York doesn’t start to look, smell, and feel appealing until the ’20s or so, once they closed down Ellis Island, and rolled back the laissez-faire norms of the Gilded Age. I’ve never seen Romantic recollections or imaginings of early 20th-C New York. More like from the ’40s.

    The suburbs prove my point, although we were talking about cities. The tech developments that allowed more transplants to flow into cities also allowed them to flow into suburbs. Remember that back then, it wasn’t an urban vs. suburban flow — it was the depopulation of rural places, toward urban or suburban living.


    • JV says:

      I only brought up the suburbs because, post-war, people were moving out of the cities (and yes, also out of rural communities) and into the suburbs in droves. During this same time, cities began experimenting with modernist city planning and architecture, which is the style that I think most people find off-putting. So from that perspective, it’s hard to blame transplants for ugly buildings.

      There may be some survivor bias in old buildings, but you’d have to include entire neighborhoods as well. Most of the buildings we love (brownstones, etc.) and street layouts in the currently desirable neighborhoods in NYC were completed between 1880 and 1930, a period of intense immigration. And I don’t include infrastructure in all of this, because that doesn’t enter the aesthetic realm. Sure, I’ll take today’s plumbing over that of the 1880s any day. Conversely, I’ll take much of the architectural exteriors and public spaces of the 1880s over modern versions of the same. Of course, it’s possible to upgrade great looking old buildings with modern infrastructure, so we can have the best of both worlds.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. JV says:

    Meant to add, post-war is also the time when we started designing out cities and towns around the automobile.


  7. Carl says:

    Video treats cities like zoos to be maintained by zookeepers like himself, not the results of billions of free choices. When it’s “planned” (i.e planned by government) it’s lovely (except when it’s not) but when it’s planned by individuals it’s all messy! it even looks -gasp- like no one’s in charge, horror of horrors. What a vapid piece of shit.


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