aesthetics in everything

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!

Please do be so kind as to share this post.
Share

10 thoughts on “aesthetics in everything

  1. That is a somewhat interesting/banal observation by Cowan. Many places in Europe are attractive, because they are so darn attractive. Well yeah. Part of taht is appealing because many places in Europe have managed to hold on to their beautiful history while America have paved a lot of ours. But I don’t think anybody who has traveled much in Europe would say it is all beautiful or anything like that. They have bland and run down. And good public transportation is wonderful.

    New or old urbanism is a big topic. The only thing I will throw out is that I just don’t see how nice cities will be built without some sort of planning. There are to many divergent force in play to let a place grow organically. When Venice was being built walking and boats were it. Now if we were developing city there would be a strong pull to make it drivable, walkable and with good public transpo. All those things don’t fit well and not all of them, walking and public transpo, have strong institutional biases and money behind them.

    FWIW I live in Anchorage which has almost all been built since the 70’s. It is about as generic and bland a city as possible. We have some parks which constrain building and boy that pisses off people. We have a great trail system, which is supported by clubs and the city. I can’t imagine anyway we would have a trail system now if, it hadn’t been put in place 20-30 years ago when there was plenty of land. The trails are chronically under maintained and that is not going to change much. Oh and we have minimal zoning. But we do have a nifty new Target and Super Duper Walmart.

      Quote  Link

    Report

    • Yeah, there’s not really a clear answer to the zoning question. I suppose it always helps to keep decisions as transparent as possible, but beyond that, as artificial a force as a city planner may be, it’s hard to come up with a functional alternative.

        Quote  Link

      Report

  2. 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.

    Would this be Jerome, Arizona? That place was a waste of time years ago. What with all the trendy “quirky” stuff you mention, it must be insufferable.

      Quote  Link

    Report

        • To each his own. I went through there long ago, when it was supposed to be a “ghost town.” It took me about two minutes to get sick of it and leave. I think I went over to Prescott, which was not trendy/quirky back then—although I wouldn’t put it past them to be trendy/quirky today.

          You must love Sedona, then. How about Bisbee? These places must be trendy/quirky to the max by now.

          On the other hand, like I told you once before, if you want a truly religious experience in the Arizona wilderness, get out to Rainbow Bridge by land, through the Navajo Res. There might be some trendy/quirky Indians there but mainly not. Just sand, rock, blue sky, sun.

            Quote  Link

          Report

  3. “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.”

    And, of course, one of the reasons they are nice is that poor people can’t afford to live there. It’s an uncomfortable thing to discuss/admit, but it’s true. On the other end, there are a lot of places that other people, richer than I, like to live because people like me can’t afford to live there. I don’t have professional landscapers. My car is often dirty. I drink beer on the porch and expound about sports late into the night, etc. I have kids I yell at.

    Either way, what would be far more intolerable for a lot of people would be if these neighborhoods became cheaper. And really… that’s hard to debate. It really, really sucks to live next door to people who look like they might be on the Jerry Springer show at any moment. Most of these people are fine, of course, and probably make less noise than I do. But some of them aren’t/don’t. And some of them make meth at home.

    That is, a lot of the “limiting” that you see is not some “unfortunate.” It’s intentional. And we all do it. At least anyone who has ever moved to a better school district.

      Quote  Link

    Report

  4. When I took a land use class in law school, I started off, as I generally do on things, with a pretty hard line “keep the government out” view on zoning and land use regulation. Of course, you need a bit of zoning to keep smokestacks from houses. And you need a bit of regulation to keep noise levels and other noxious uses to a minimum and to certain hours. And it would certainly be nice if we could keep owners in low density neighborhoods from putting up condos, and three-story homes that block my view. All of sudden, you find yourself understanding why we have so many damn intrusions into land use decisions.

    But how to make sense of it, from a principled, rights-oriented point of view? For my part, I think you have to view property rights differently depending on the context. In a highly dense urban environment, one will expect a lot of protections from the ghastly ideas for uses that one’s neighbors might get into their heads. Accordingly, one will have to expect a respective reduction in one’s own property rights. After all, it would be delusion to think that we are each individually responsible for the fate of our urban parcels. The value of homes and business depend nearly as much on our neighbors’ choices as our own. A property rights system in such a context should rightly allow us some say in the limits of those choices.

      Quote  Link

    Report

  5. Great post ED! Interesting subject. Zoning laws can go both ways. On one hand they can prevent eyesores, but they can also impede development. We have a LOT of historic architecture here in louisville. Some friends of ours have a circa 1912 bungalow and they want to do an addition so they can continue to live there as their family grows. My friend is designing it himself because he’s an engineer, but he’s having to jump through a ton of zoning hoops. That can be a really expensive undertaking.

      Quote  Link

    Report

  6. “But how to make sense of it, from a principled, rights-oriented point of view? For my part, I think you have to view property rights differently depending on the context.”

    This is true of everything, not just zoning. There is the classic case of free speech and the theatre, of course. But if you spend any time at all with a bunch of college-age libertarians, you will soon hear them challenge each other’s purity with tons of hypotheticals.

    “I live in a leafy suburb with kids riding bikes and playing soccer all over the place. Should I be allowed to dig tiger pits and place huge bear traps all over my yard?”

    “I have a pharmacy in a thriving central business district, across the street from a kindergarten. I own the sidewalk in front of the business. Should I be allowed to intall a vending machine on the street that dispenses packets of black-tar heroine? What about packets of cyanide?”

    “I post a sign on my front door that says No Trespassing. Someone knocks on my door. Should I be allowed to shoot through the door with a 10-gauge shotgun?”

    Generally, the reasonable answer to all these questions is “No.” But in each case, answering “no” puts the answerer on the slippery slope to smoking bans, Drug Wars and stimulus plans. But generally, I think the idea is supposed to be that the law has to hold people to a reasonable standard. And that it often makes sense to codify “reasonable” so we don’t have to reinvent the wheel everytime someone indiscriminantly starts shooting through doors. The same holds for zoning laws. Do we really need to have a court case every time someone tries to put an oil refinery next to a pre-school? Maybe it would make sense, ahead of time, to try to define some places where we WILL accept industrial and other kinds of development.

    Of course, this all makes sense until someone starts telling you you aren’t allowed to paint your door blue. Or a family of four moves next door to a mushroom farm and two weeks later sues the farmer because they smell manure.

    Ah… the gray areas.

      Quote  Link

    Report

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *