Ugliness is as much in the eye of the beholder as beauty of course. I don’t like fish, jazz, modernist poetry, country music, the suburbs, and opera. I’m fairly sure that all of these likes and dislikes could be explained by a combination of nature and nurture, which is to say that had I been raised differently my list might be very different, although I would leave some space for inherent predisposition.
In a recent podcast Jim Kunstler and Dmitri Orlov were asking themselves why America is so ugly. Americans don’t think it is. That’s why it is. Americans see the brand new stretches of “stroadway” lined with Wal-Marts and Olive Gardens and Jiffy Lubes with the bright new cement curb cuts, the fresh mulch, and the deep dark asphalt of the pristine parking lots with their bright white painted lines and they see a thing of beauty. A place like Celebration, Florida is beautiful to the same people however, in spite of the fact that its elements are combined so differently.
Without implying that this is unique to the American experience, I would suggest that what Americans tend to see and conflate with beauty is prosperity. Nothing succeeds like success and suburbs and sprawl development have succeeded in the same measure that urban areas have failed so ubiquitously in North America since World War II.
Alright then, all we need do is make American cities more prosperous, and then they can prosper…wait. That just might be a tad circular as far as the reasoning goes.
In the long run prosperity will be determined by the same rules which determine prosperity in nature, which is mostly the difference in the amount of energy needed to be expended in order to obtain the energy needed to survive. Before we get nature’s verdict on our living situation, however, the key to turning cities around will be marketing. There might very well be some space to take advantage of in terms of pushing Americans toward a more positive view of cities with the death of local television news and its “if it bleeds, it leads” mentality. It’s sufficiently clear that the fear of cities is exaggerated and irrational. The reality that in cities “more means more” gives cities the opportunity to be more things to more people and to use the more democratic 21st century means of communication to get that message out. Just in my relatively struggling small to middling northeastern city there is more to do, more to see, and more to experience than in any other place in the region, and it can all be accessed by an inexpensive regional public transportation system and, you know, feet. People need to know these things are here, and need to feel safe accessing them.