The School of Life

A provocative new video featuring Alain de Botton says beauty in urban settings must be objective—and to argue otherwise is a danger to our quality of life.

Most of us would probably be content to say that beauty is subjective. There may be a measure of symmetry or scale in what makes a person, object, or landscape attractive, but ultimately, beauty's not inherent to the thing. It's in the eye of the beholder.

But in the case of cities, beauty is objective, argues Alain de Botton in a provocative new video—and saying that it's not is a danger to the quality of urban life.

"Cities are a big deal," narrates de Botton. "We pretty much all have to live in them. We should try hard to get them right"—in part, by a more "scientific" approach to what makes cities pretty or ugly.

The philosopher, author, and founder of London's The School of Life lays out six qualities of attractive cities:
  1. Order (buildings should be uniform in appearance and layout—to a degree);
  2. Visible life (it's nice to see people walking the streets and working in shop windows);
  3. Compactness (don't sprawl);
  4. Orientation and mystery (a balance of large and small streets should allow for efficient travel... and for getting lost, on occasion);
  5. Scale (a building should be five stories max, unless what it stands for is really worth more air space);
  6. A sense of the local (Melbourne should look a little different from Barcelona, because its cultural and geographic qualities are different).

De Botton has no problem pointing out which cities meet these standards (Paris, New York, Barcelona) and which ones don't (Phoenix, Munich, but also, "most cities," all over the world).

What's the problem in those ug-urban places? Lack of political willpower, and behind that, an intellectual confusion about what beauty is. "We think beauty is subjective, and so no one should say anything about it," he says. "It's a very understandable qualm, but it's also horribly useful to greedy property developers"—the ones who erect hideous, poorly placed skyscrapers and apartment complexes.

There is such a thing as objective beauty, says de Botton. The proof? Tourism statistics. The places people go for leisure, he argues, is a measure of how beautiful we find those places.

Now, that's a troubling metric, by de Botton's own standards; Dubai, Lima, Miami and Los Angeles have all recently topped rankings of the world's urban tourist destinations, cities that, in their global appearance, stretch even the most generous definitions of beauty.

But beauty is an essential quality to live-ability. Multiple studies have shown that the perception of living in a beautiful place is strongly correlated with happiness—more strongly than even things like safety and cleanliness. "Character," or aesthetic distinctiveness has also proven itself key to economic vitality.

De Botton might not quite get tourism stats right, but his message is on point: We—or really, planners—should get more scientific about measuring the beauty of our cities, and that requires less shyness around staking an aesthetic opinion. It's been a long time since looks carried much weight in city planning, and de Botton's manifesto is a clever (and good-looking) push to relight that interest.

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