This question of beauty has stayed with me for weeks now. I believe wholeheartedly in the proposition that aesthetic quality is an enormously important characteristic for cities like Springfield to cultivate if they are to survive and thrive at this moment in time. As I wrote just a few weeks ago, however, there is an enormous obstacle, nearly impossible to overcome in its way, which is that, despite protests to the contrary, it is often success which gives places their beauty and not the other way around.
I won’t revisit the entire argument here, though in truth I have many times, that the reversal of cause and effect is the most common fallacy present in urbanism, place making, and planning. I’ve explored it with “Meds, Beds, and Eds”, and downtown marketplaces in particular, and in overall urban design in general. Just a glance at at the methodology of the study Richard Florida references in his post makes clear just how this reversal could work in the case of The Beauty Premium; it was done by looking at “tourist visits and photos of picturesque locations”. Sure, but people only visit as tourists places they regard as worthy of being toured, and that usually involves having been informed by some other source that such places exist.
This brings us to another topic which I have explored, from judgements regarding weather, to crime, the quality of restaurants, and the quality of architecture to just name a few, and that is how strongly and how deeply cultural pressures impact what people believe are individual taste and value judgements. The paradox here is that I believe that as hated as Springfield is by so many of the people who work in it and live in it, the most important thing the city can do, perhaps only exceeded by maintaining fiscal stability, is to foster beauty even if most of what is created will be undervalued or overlooked.
The city is engaged right now in a grand experiment in that regard, refurbishing parks and public spaces in the downtown at an impressive clip, restoring building façades, enhancing the environments in which much urban activity takes place; but will it make a substantive difference in how people in the region, and even in the city itself, value the city and, even if it does, will it be enough to alter the city’s multi-generational trajectory downward?
The beauty of place can be allegorized to be similar to human beauty, but there are enormous differences as well. If I am a very handsome man, perhaps the second or third best looking in my social group, it stands to reason that I might easily be able to attract a mate. Not so for a city. If I am viewed as second or third in my particular cohort, all of our possible suitors may opt for “bachelor number one”; and by and large that’s what we see as happening from San Francisco, to Boston, to New York, and only when the cost of wedding themselves to “polygamist number one” becomes prohibitively expensive, or logistically impossible (or sometimes not even then) do people move on to bachelor number two, all the while bachelor number two or number three’s failures are agglomerating, causing well meaning (or conniving) busy bodies to offer advice on how to compete. Which brings us back to both the misunderstanding of cause and effect and the impact of success on the assessment of aesthetic quality.
As I’ve been mulling these ideas in my head I’ve happened upon some ideas from some of my favorite thinkers on all things urban which have given me a particular ephemeral insight I would like to share. Leon Krier speaks of beauty as the ultimate desire of power, and Kunstler of the ultimate importance of utility to the selecting of place, but also of the importance of beauty to its appreciation. I would posit that we are still living in an epoch when enormous numbers of people in the United States have the wherewithal to move essentially anywhere on a whim. This doesn’t include the Superstar cities, of course, where easy access is only afforded to Superstar people. This is happening at a time when the culture, specifically consumerist culture, has twisted and damaged the public’s ability to see beauty. This has created, at a time when any utility of place is often perceived as ugly, a desire on the part of many to live in places which are the least suited to human survival, for example: so much demand for housing in the desert that communities are fighting over diminishing water while places with a surplus of housing suffer because not enough water is being accessed through their systems.
I can attest that beauty is one of the last attributes most people in and around the city would associate with it. My boosterism often puts me in circumstances where I wax poetic on the aesthetic virtues of Springfield and those assertions are almost always met with bemused disbelief, confusion, or even with contempt. As a matter of fact this often happens while in beautiful places in the city which the contemptuous would admit are beautiful…and in Springfield…but whose connection still seems to them invalid.
Putting even more resources into beautifying a beautiful place whose beauty isn’t appreciated wouldn’t seem to make sense. I suppose I believe that the currently distorted cultural signals regarding what makes a place beautiful will revert to an historic mean of some sort, where water, fertile soil, vernacular materials, and the traditional syntaxes, vocabularies, and grammars of urban design will reassert themselves as meaningful and beautiful.
The city of Springfield, like so many other Rust Belt cities, was selected as a place because of its utility: At the confluence of three rivers, facilitating communication north, south, east, and west; at a location where, on one side of the Connecticut River, many streams fell hundreds of feet in a short distance and made harnessing water power easy, and on the other provided quality soil for growing food, and forests on both sides for multiple uses. Because of its utility, and its prosperity, its residents endowed it with parks, libraries, institutions, municipal edifices, and private buildings of the highest quality, enough, that is, for many of them to have survived for 100 years or more despite minimal interest from much of today’s citizenry. When utility, that is, the need to live in places and in ways which both minimize and produce the commodities we need to survive, Springfield, like dozens of other mostly forgotten places, will reintroduce its people to the beauty of utility.