Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific Standard, GOOD, The Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.
The OpenPlans.org team wants to see if it can quantify what makes one street nicer than another.
As Kaid Benfield noted earlier, beauty in the urban context is especially tricky to define. Most of us can label a building or a street as such when we walk by it, but we’d probably struggle to explain exactly what makes it so. Maybe it's the landscaping, or the sight lines, or the architectural style?
The tech-savvy folks at OpenPlans.org have been pondering this exact same question. And – as is their style – they’re refusing to take "no data" for an answer.
"We’re really interested in helping people organize at a neighborhood level around making places better. And one of the questions is 'how do you establish where a place is at right now'?" asks Frank Hebbert of OpenPlans. You can track a neighborhood's progress or health through census data, population density, crime statistics or any number of other metrics. "But it’s harder to establish the softer feeling: Is this a place I like? Would I prefer the street on the left to the street on the right? That’s not a metric, but a gut feeling about comparing places."
So OpenPlans launched an online project for Valentine's Day called Beautiful Streets, which they’re hoping to use to crowd-source data on streetscapes from, fittingly, the City of Brotherly Love. Using pairwise surveys – a technique we’ve also highlighted to gauge perceptions of street safety – the Beautiful Streets site literally asks people, "do you prefer the street on the left or the right?"
Viewers are asked to pick between two images (or “skip this one”) from a random pairing of 200 streets taken from Google Street View around Philadelphia.
The answers, by and large, are not obvious.
It'll take a couple thousand responses to collect some meaningful data (and that data will be publicly available on the site for anyone else who wants to play with it). With it, the project's creators are hoping to be able to identify common characteristics of a beautiful street (and a better place). Maybe it's the street with trees, or the one that always seems to have people on it.
"This is a way also of bringing up ideas without floating the idea and saying, 'do you like sidewalks?'" Hebbert says. "It puts a lot more of the power of discovery into the hands of the people who are exploring."
So go ahead and help him out. In honor of Valentine’s Day, show this project some love.