As the twenty-first century moves forward, cities have – more than ever – become the centers of society. In 2014, the United Nations found that, for the first time in human history, more people lived in cities than not. In the United States, it is even more stark: cities are home to more than 65% of the population, but make up just 3% of the land area.
With this move has come a host of issues. One of these seems superficial: cities tend to be ugly. However, many urban areas have undertaken some creative solutions to this issue of urban beautification. Here are some of my favorites from my travels.
One way to increase urban beautification is by having buildings that are themselves works of art. Older building tend to be square, but today, more and more cities are including fascinatingly designed urban centers. In Chicago, for instance, all new construction has to be “architecturally interesting.”
On my recent trip to Tokyo, I observed ways that this massive city is using architecture to break up the monotony of urban landscapes.
Some interesting buildings in Tokyo, including the iconic “Cocoon Building”
Public art is another popular trend in urban beautification. In my home town of Glendale, California, for instance, there are competitions to paint electrical boxes. Other cities have commissioned statues, murals, and more.
Philadelphia has one of the most extensive collections of street murals in the world, with more than 2,000 within the city. Tours are even offered exploring some of the more unique works!
Just a few of the 2,000 murals in Philadelphia used to brighten up the urban landscape
Some cities are able to carve out green spaces that can add beauty to their otherwise drab streets. Some do this by way of one huge central area: New York’s Central Park or San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, for instance. However, a more modern trend is to create greenery on a street by street basis. Some cities are planting trees; others put up flowers on lamp posts.
In Mexico City, Paseo de la Reforma has been lined by both shade trees and sculptures to add to the beauty in one of the most crowded urban areas on the planet.
Paseo de la Reforma in the Polanco district of Mexico City
Some cities have taken unique approaches to addressing the issue of urban beautification. In Boston, for instance, the blight of the freeway was covered up by the Greenway, a park covering the highway through downtown. Vancouver doesn’t allow freeways to begin with because overpasses block views of the mountains.
In Montreal, the old city is so dense that park area is virtually nonexistent. So boxcars have been parked by the side of streets and turned into mini-parks.
This was a boxcar, and is just parked at the side of the street in Montreal to provide a beautiful sitting area!
Beautification projects and politics have gone hand in hand since ancient times. From monuments to military victories or past/current leaders, propaganda, or even resistance messages, many of the world’s leading cities are filled with such projects depicting politics of the past and present.
In Los Angeles, a unique solution to beautification combined an empty half mile long wall of the Tujunga Wash – basically a drainage ditch – and the politics of minority struggles in California. Called The Great Wall of Los Angeles, it is a series of murals depicting major events in California and American history, largely through the lens of minorities.
The Great Wall of Los Angeles, a series of political murals in a drainage ditch.
Where it all comes together
To me, one city takes all of these things and puts them into practice better than any other: Singapore. The city has fascinating buildings, like the surfboard-esque Marina Bay Sands, green spaces, public art, and more!
A beautiful view of a beautiful city: Singapore
But is this all good?
While most would agree that urban beautification is a good thing, at least on the surface, it does come with a downside. As neighborhoods are beautified, prices go up. Even planting trees along the side of streets has been shown to increase property values by 3%, according to Friends of the Urban Forest, a nonprofit organization. So some are priced out of the market.
Furthermore, oftentimes this effort to beautify a city can come with moves to displace homeless populations. After all, the thinking goes, if we have spent so much money to make downtown more beautiful, we don’t want homeless people messing that up. So homeless are moved elsewhere, as cities set ordnances not allowing them any longer. This is a) not a good solution to homelessness and b) morally repugnant.
I have no answers, and am not using this forum to promote any specific policy changes. I do find it fascinating the ways that cities are working to become more beautiful, and I am also conscious of some of the issues that arise from it. I hope this inspires you to learn a bit more if this is a topic that inspires you!
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