Out of Control Policy Blog

Urban Ugliness

Forget the tangible impacts of development (traffic, water, noise, etc.)...apparently planners should be concerned with ugliness:

    In the planning of cities these days, there's one critically important factor that is, to our great misfortune, routinely overlooked: ugliness.

    While debating the proper use of land -- whether or not homes should be built where farms used to be, or how much traffic should flow along the Hanlon Parkway by 2010 -- there is no official debate about the attractiveness of development. We have statistics on water supply and sewerage, on setbacks and view lines, on the numerical conformation of developments to all the zoning bylaws. But we have almost nothing on how well a development appeals to the eye or the affections.

    This is a huge oversight. Good taste has no official status. Any cowboy without a shred of esthetic training can create a butt-ugly housing project or shopping development as long as the paperwork is in order. And we have to live with it for the next century.

    What is "good taste" when it comes to designing cities?

How about...letting the market work, allowing it to respond dynamically to changing consumer needs and preferences? How about ditching highly prescriptive zoning and subdivision ordinances that micromanage all creativity out of development projects, implicitly creating the incentive for developers to design for the purpose of code conformity rather than giving them the leeway to innovate?

    How did we get here? Why is it we so blithely sacrifice timeless beauty, classic civic design, and the proven principles of Christopher Alexander's pattern language for such hideous homogeneity? Why is it that places like Guelph that still have civic character are so willing to give it up to corporate blandness, transforming our distinctive someplace into an indistinct no-place, wrecked and sprawling like all the other esthetically bankrupt no-places?

    It's plainly dereliction of duty. Politicians, supposedly in the business of building a great city, are instead approving these monstrosities without a blink, perhaps because other cities are doing it, so what the hell. Hell indeed. Rather than taking the opportunity to beautify, they are uglifying Guelph.

    Shamefully unschooled in what makes a city aesthetically great, and unwilling to pay attention to those who are qualified in the design of greatness, they are, in my opinion, committing serious crimes of bad taste. And the effects will last a lifetime and beyond.

    Ugly is ugly. You never learn to love it, only wonder how it ever came to be acceptable.

Don't get me wrong...I share a certain degree of visceral repulsion at the sight of [insert big-box store with massive empty parking lot here] just like the next guy. But I'm not going there to satisfy my soul's deepest longings; it would be silly to harbor an expectation that a trip to the local big box retailer or fast-food strip is going to satisfy any aesthetic appetites I may have. Function trumps form there. I can satisfy urban aesthetic needs with a trip to the city park or downtown arts district.

And the idea of allowing regulators to decide what constitutes "beauty" or "places worth loving" is frightening indeed. Would you trust your local politician or city bureaucrat to decorate your home's interior? I'd suspect the answer for many is no. So it's indeed puzzling that so many people want to give them such power on a grand scale.

I may be wrong, but isn't beauty in the eye of the beholder?

Leonard Gilroy is Director of Government Reform


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