Does it matter how a city or neighborhood looks? Many would say it does, though much less than, say, health or safety. So if it matters to some extent, what makes a place visually attractive? Are there any common characteristics, or is it only in the eye of the beholder?
Maybe "looks" is the wrong word. How about the way a place feels? This would include all the senses -- the different variables that make an area appealing. Of course, people have unique tastes and I don't know if there are any qualities loved by everyone. However, there are places generally considered attractive. They are usually in wealthier districts, but should extend to poorer communities as well. If we work towards achieving this throughout our cities, without displacing low-income groups, we might look back some day and wonder how we ever lived in some of the neglected areas we know today.
Maybe we can start by identifying the places people value most, why they are valued, and how to preserve them. (I'm not sure how best to do this. A popular vote doesn't seem practical, but maybe it would work. I wonder which areas would win out? Greenwich Village, for example, or Times Square?). We could go through a similar process for areas that people find unappealing, focusing on improvement. This might be considered a form of public participation in city planning. At the very least we would find out if there are any shared values among urban populations. If this kind of study reveals anything useful, it might inform the design of new places.
A recent article on preservation in Pittsburgh shows how the adaptive reuse of urban areas can be an effective means of environmental sustainability. Cities are environments, and great urban settings should be valued and protected in a way similar to national parks. This is not a call to restrict new designs, but we can work to make sure the results are worth preserving. Setting standards for the quality of building materials might help. Design standards are another possibility, although that seems kind of arbitrary and stifling to creativity.
I wonder if there could be periodic review processes for all planned and existing development, assessing its contribution to the urban environment and how it might be improved. These reviews could address aesthetics as well as health and safety issues. Public funds might be used to make improvements. Sometimes small changes can make a big difference. A new paint job or facade can transform an area with minimal destruction of existing buildings. In other cases, shoddy construction can be removed to make way for something better. Would we be able to agree on what improvements to make? Who would be involved in the review process? How would we deal with the legal issues surrounding private property? There are many reasons why this would be difficult or impossible, but it would be great to set up a continuous process of developing healthy and attractive environments.
(Photo of Plaza de la Constitucion de Oaxaca (Zocalo) from The Project for Public Places. Photo of Pittsburgh from Statepa.org)