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City Planning and Aesthetics

Updated on October 20, 2009

What is Aesthetics?

At first glance it seems that aesthetics is simply an advanced term for beauty and attractiveness, but this would ignore some important aspects of molding a city. It also includes the feel, design, layout, and description of a city. It is a desire to create a place that is functional and productive along with being attractive, relaxing, and reflective of the city's history and culture. It involves the planning of parks, open spaces, and other public areas along with positioning the city's buildings and streets in such a way that are visually pleasing, easy to use, and promoting of healthy living. In essence, aesthetics represents the soul of the city and how it influences the city’s organs and limbs.

Chicago Skyline

Aesthetics Role in City Planning: Past and Present

In planning today, much attention is given to the “Three E’s”: environment, engagement, and equity. These three fundamentals represent the cornerstones that appear to govern planning theory in recent times. However, there is one theme that floats around and within this triangle, and that topic is aesthetics. When city planning first evolved as a profession, aesthetics was at the forefront of ideology. This was in the early 1900s at the beginning of the City Beautiful movement, whose most notable contribution was Daniel Burnham's 1909 plan of Chicago. Now, on the other hand, aesthetics is hardly included in planning, and I wonder why this shift has occurred.

Why Has This Shift Happened?

I think it's that aesthetics is typically considered not only a subjective quality but a nebulous one—subject to continuously changing standards, styles, and fads. Why plan a city based on aesthetics when the definition of “good” aesthetics is so variable? To find a consensus or an agreement about an appropriate solution would be nearly impossible, and even then the solution would be an ephemeral one—lasting only until a new generation with a new architectural fancy came into power. This is the first reason that aesthetics has been hardly integrated directly into city plans since City Beautiful. The second reason is that aesthetics, if considered more broadly than simply architectural design, wears many cloaks. It is noticeable in environmental standards, in land use considerations, in density requirements, in street widths, set backs, signage laws, a city’s local character, in overall urban form. So while aesthetics may not be so forthright in city plans it is a part of plans, just on a more subconscious level.

I suppose that an important piece of context to mention is the great shift from urbanization in the early 1900s to suburbanization mid-century. The exodus of families out of the cities and into the suburbs has led to widespread low density and high cost “suburban sprawl”. The problems associated with sprawl include excessive travel, high infrastructure costs, loss of open space, geographic mismatch between housing and jobs, and residential segregation by race and income. So whereas prior to suburbanization these problems were not present, now they are at the forefront of our minds. In the past, planners attempted to use aesthetics directly to address societal issues while today our planning solutions are derived from public policy initiatives.

This shift is neither right nor wrong, but just interesting to observe. I wonder what the focus of planning will be in 100 years from now.

More Information on City and Urban Planning

For more information about suburban sprawl or urban planning I highly recommend Suburban Nation by Andres Duany and The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs. Andres Duany is the most influential leader of today's planning efforts in New Urbanism, and Jane Jacobs led the planning field throughout the 20th century.


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