I stayed at a quaint bed and breakfast this weekend in a charming old mining town on a little mountain in the desert. It’s now home to dozens of artists and artisans – painters, potters, glass-blowers, musicians, etc. – and a favorite for both bikers and tourists alike. Lots of old somewhat dilapidated or restored houses and crumbling streets. I thought to myself – it would be fun to live here. Everything is so old and quirky.
After a while, though, I realized I’d quickly tire of it, run out of options and things to do, run out of choices that I take for granted now. The aesthetics drew me in, much as the aesthetics of any old, charming place might. Indeed, I think much of the real visceral appeal of localism has a great deal to do with the aesthetics of charming places, with our notion of what such charming places must be like rather than the often less-interesting reality.
Which brings me to this observation from Tyler Cowen:
My alternative view is that Americans rate European life so highly (in part) because the buildings from previous eras are so striking and attractive. If all of the U.S. looked like U.S. postwar construction, the country would still impress more or less as it does. If all of Europe looked like its postwar construction, Americans would be less likely to admire European policies and political institutions. Yes I know about Lille, and contemporary Spanish architecture, but in reality most Americans would think of Europe as some kind of dump.
How important are aesthetic considerations in plotting out our cities and towns? Is it a question of form before function (or vice-versa) or can function and form coincide nicely and at a reasonable price? I wonder because many new urbanist projects are very pretty, and walkable a la Europe, and many even emulate older styles of architecture and capture the sense of age (in its quaint and charming manifestations, anyways, if not in its rubble…).
Form and function run parallel in new urbanism, but affordability tends to take a backseat. Expensive zoning laws and regulations, as well as the natural market for these communities, tend to make them expensive. I’m not sure what a reasonable alternative to new urbanism would be to make walkable, eye-pleasing communities a reality for more Americans (and by walkable I don’t mean walk-only) but I think as fuel costs once again rise this will start to be a bigger concern. The question then will become how important a role aesthetics will play, especially for low-income housing needs and the middle class.
I think aesthetics are very important, actually, beyond the “charm” of places, as a sort of subtle but pervasive factor in how we see our day to day lives. When where we live is ugly or stark or devoid of character I think it causes us to value where we live less. And then how we interact with our communities and the world around us is devalued, and there is a cyclical and negative effect on community interaction. Obviously other factors like poverty, crime, unemployment and so forth play larger roles in the degradation of community, but I think they’re all connected.
I have mixed feelings on new urbanism and urban development in general. I’m worried by all the planning, all the added and expensive and inorganic zoning, the whole contrived nature of the project. A part of me would prefer to do away with as many zoning laws as possible, to go back to “old urbanism” as it were. But then, I wonder what that would end up looking like? Can organic, un-zoned communities work without any planners at all? And really, since absolutes are unnecessary, what is the proper mix of organic community growth and planning?
I think keeping places artificially “nice” by limiting development can also make them intolerably expensive, but then again – part of the reason we live in these places is because they’re nice. Oh conundrum!