What makes a beautiful place?
An evidence-based approach to designing for diverse tastes and preferences
Aesthetics matter. When people think their communities are beautiful, they walk and socialize more, feel happier, and experience a deeper sense of belonging. Cities can more easily attract new residents and businesses if streets, avenues, parks and public spaces are attractive and inviting. In this sense aesthetics are, or should be, a practical and essential goal for urban design.
The problem, of course, is figuring out what we all mean by the word beauty.
Some people are moved to tears by what they see as the ethereal beauty of the Taj Mahal. Others think the marble mausoleum is just tacky. To some, a quiet suburban neighbourhood evokes feelings of safety and comfort. For others, it communicates banality and boredom.
For everyone who likes a given design, there is someone, somewhere, who hates it. Our tastes vary. That said, human aesthetic preferences do share some consistent themes and qualities — and city designers should be paying close attention to them.
Consistent design that caters to different preferences
Humans are, in the majority, predisposed to prefer some places over others. For example, there is strong evidence that certain environments, such as traditional European main streets, consistently make people feel happier and more comfortable than others, such as wide roads surrounded by asphalt.
And most of us are more likely to say that we prefer to look at, and spend time in, New York City’s Central Park more than we like to hang out in blank parking lots.
On a similar note, it behooves architects to design with the knowledge that the majority of humans regularly feel uncomfortable or fearful in tight spaces — something that likely stems from our evolutionary history.
But studies of visual preferences suggest we need to avoid a one-design-fits-all approach. Various groups of people express distinct and consistent differences in preferences. Psychologists have discovered that they can actually predict people’s preferred landscapes based on their personality traits. People who are “open to experience” have been found to feel happier in dense, diverse downtown neighbourhoods. People less open to experience tend to cluster in quiet residential neighbourhoods. Personality traits are hard to change and are largely determined by genetics.
Yet a set of common factors unite even these apparently opposing preferences.
The two streets above are good examples of what evidence shows North Americans tend to prefer in their environments. One shows a residential street, the other a market street (or main street, as they are known in North America.)
If we deconstruct these a bit, we can see they have a lot in common:
- Both streets feature a mix of trees and plant life.
- They also offer transparent windows, flower boxes, doors, articulation, and ornamentation touches, offering the eye plenty to take in without creating so much complexity as to feel chaotic.
- They don’t confront pedestrians with blank walls.
- They have comfortably wide sidewalks.
- Neither presents pedestrians with noisy, high-speed traffic.
- The facades are of human scale (the right height and width relative to humans to neither be too small — think of Gandalf in the Shire — or overwhelming — like the vast and empty Empire State Plaza in Albany, New York).
- Both streets have buildings that are close enough to the sidewalk to create a sense of enclosure, but far enough to create a space that gradually transitions from public to private realm.
The design of both streets contributes to feelings of joy, belonging and other elements of wellbeing.
And yet, the two streets cater to very different residents. Someone who prefers the privacy and calmness of a suburban neighbourhood might select the one on the left, while someone who likes a bit of urban hustle and bustle would gravitate to the street on the right. The two streets offer distinct options, but many of the features that make them both great places are the same.
Compare the above streets to the two below. Again, these environments appeal to different types of residents, but they both force residents to make unnecessary sacrifices to live in the kinds of neighbourhoods they desire.
With its houses dominated by closed garage doors and sidewalks devoid of trees or other greenery, this suburban avenue imparts a bleak aesthetic. The urban street presents an aesthetic that is equally uninviting. Bare concrete, overwhelmingly-scaled buildings and automobile-dominated streets makes for a visually unappealing area — one that in addition to being ugly, is also likely to impart feelings of stress.
Tastes vary, but don’t feed me cardboard
It is possible that, with time and exposure, people can come to like places that most others find unappealing. You might prefer parking lots over parks, for example, if you have pleasant memories of skateboarding in such spots, or a certain ironic sense of taste. But such preferences are the exception to the rule, and we shouldn’t rely on people’s ability to adapt to spaces that they instinctively dislike, no matter how much designers happen to like them. (After all, studies have shown that the longer someone studies architecture, the more their tastes diverge from everyone else’s.)
The USSR ignored common aesthetic preferences when building many postwar cities. Government authorities built row after row of apartment blocks full of out-of-scale blank walls, believing people’s preferences would adapt to these surroundings over time. But, as Steven Pinker points out in The Blank Slate, it didn’t work: most people felt a sense of alienation in such places and developed no affection for them.
Just because we can learn to like many things, it doesn’t mean governments, developers and designers should be given a free pass to build alienating communities in the hope that people will learn to like them. We are adaptive creatures, but we shouldn’t be punished for our adaptability by being subjected to unnecessarily ugly, inhospitable urban spaces.
To build great places for everyone, urban designers must pay attention to the bounds of the preferences almost everyone has in common. Wise designers offer visual variety–but within consistent standards that pay attention to human preferences and nurture feelings of comfort, belonging and delight.
Return here for more posts sharing the evidence on how to create beautiful places that all of us, in all our diversity, can love.
Happy City is an international urban planning, design and architecture consultancy that uses an evidence-based approach to create happier, healthier and more inclusive communities. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org