Mandating attractive urban design

The most recent installment of the American Enterprise Institute’s series Society and Culture Outlook features a piece about the role of urban design in how people use cities. The article “A plea for beauty: a manifesto for a new urbanism” by Roger Scruton is a deviation from AEI’s typically conservative view toward central planning. Scruton favors heavy-handed planning of the appearance of the built environment, essentially advocating for strict form-based zoning codes:

Many suggestions have been made as to how an attraction to the center might be generated. Building downtown convention centers, expensive museums, and concert halls; offering tax credits for city-center businesses; creating enterprise zones; and removing some of the regulations that make living, moving, and trading downtown so difficult have all been tried, and none has worked. And the reason they do not work is because they are addressing symptoms instead of causes. People flee from city centers because they do not like city centers. And they do not like city centers because they are alienating, ugly, and without a human face. Or rather, they do not like city centers when they are alienating, ugly, and inhuman, the normal case in America.

[. . .]

The proof of this is easy to find in the old cities of Europe. People choose to live in the center of Paris, Rome, Prague, or London rather than the periphery. Others who do not live in those cities want to spend their vacations there to enjoy the culture, entertainment, and beauty of their surroundings. These are flourishing cities, in which people of every class and occupation live side by side in mutual dependency while maintaining the distance that is one of the great gifts of the urban way of life. And there is a simple explanation for this: People wish to live in the center of Paris because it is beautiful. It is also lively and rich in every kind of cultural and recreational opportunity. But it is rich because people of all walks of life live there—not just people engaged in specific occupations, but also the cultural elite—and this has made Paris a symbol of the urban experience, the cité pleine de rêves (“city full of dreams”) of Baudelaire.

I disagree on the cause and effect in this process. Cities are beautiful because they are largely the spontaneous result of individuals’ efforts to build attractive places. Scruton cites Washington, DC as an example of an aesthetically well-planned American city because Pierre L’Enfant paid close attention to details like sight lines down avenues. While DC’s layout is certainly orderly, Scruton and I have a different sense of aesthetic appeal. To me, areas of the city that were planned from on high like the National Mall are pretty desolate when not being used for a  festival or team sports. While he advocates top down planning of city design, he doesn’t distinguish between DC’s long blocks and wide avenues and the narrow winding streets of Venice for what planners should look to. Planned urban design can vary in quality, but the evidence that city planning of today produces results that are preferable to cities built before the rise of planning is unconvincing.

I’m in complete agreement with Scruton that for cities like Venice or Prague, urban design plays an important part in their appeal. But there are plenty of places like Singapore, Hong Kong, or many parts of Manhattan that have no problem attracting residents with more modern aesthetics. Traits that lead cities to become less useable, in my estimation, include surface parking, poorly designed open space, wide blocks, and setbacks. These design features come from the top down at least as often as from the bottom up.

One reason Scruton advocates top-down decisions for urban design is that individuals are prone to making poor design decisions, which could ultimately lead people to abandon center cities for suburbs. What he leaves out is that central planning is also prone to creating aesthetically unpleasing urban design. (See, for example, the snout house. I don’t think the free market could have come up with this one without setback and lot size requirements and wide streets.) Scruton laments that suburbs do not bring people together the way that cities do, but this is at least in part a product of centrally planned requirements for suburban zoning.

The real problem with mistakes in top down urban aesthetic design is that these mistakes are likely to be systematically repeated. If an individual architect or business owner comes up with an unpopular building design, the market provides feedback that will identify the mistake. Scruton writes about poor aesthetic design in the context of today’s architectural trends:

Appearances do not matter, when utility stares from every glass façade, and when the demands of the human eye are everywhere repulsed or ignored.

He suggests that the ugliness of glassy towers plays a part in driving people from center cities to suburbs. This doesn’t make much sense to me, as the rising popularity of glass facades correlates with increasing demand to live in city centers. I can certainly see that modern architecture is not to everyone’s taste (the horror of having to live somewhere like this), but precisely because tastes are subjective, we should leave design decisions to entrepreneurs, not planners. Many factors drive people to choose the suburbs over cities, but I don’t see building aesthetics as a major culprit.

  • Colin77

    Agreed — beautiful aesthetics arise from freedom and the competitive drive to do better. Most of the ills that plague cities such as DC stem from too much planning and regulation. Not sure I’d go so far as to call DC ugly, but the city comes nowhere close to its potential.

  • awp


    You pointed it out, but I just want to reiterate, because it is so irritating and common.  

    “individuals are prone to making poor design decisions”

    What is it that these people thinks happens when people become bureaucrats? Do they become gods?

    The only difference I see, is that an individual can only harm himself and immediate surroundings. A bureaucrat on the other hand can destroy a city at a stroke of the pen.  

  • Benjamin Hemric

    Emily, thanks for the link to this piece.  Like you (I am inferring), I’m kind of surprised that Scruton’s writings (as nicely done as they are) have proven to be somewhat popular among people who are otherwise “libertarian” oriented.  (Scruton’s writings on this topic have also been featured in the Manhattan Institute’s “City Journal.”

    I think you make some excellent points — VERY nicely put — but I would make the following two “additional” points.  (These are based upon my quick read of your comments on Scruton — I’m kind of short of time and so I won’t have time for a little while to read the link itself, and my remarks are going to be very sketchy.)

    1) Although I agree with Scruton that beauty is important, I don’t think Scruton realizes how much of the beauty of each of his favored cities is actually “unplanned.”  Yes there may have been a little planning here and there, but the great bulk of the city and the beauty is not planned (in the sense that he is using the word) but a natural outgrowth of the market place when that part of a city was built.  (And as you point out, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.)

    Also I don’t think he realizes how much the most beautiful and the most popular parts of American cities are unplanned.

    2) I don’t think Scruton realizes how much of the ugliness of modern cities is actually the result of planning!  (I see this as an “extension” of what you are saying.)

    Here are links, which I hope you might enjoy, to some of my previous comments on Scruton’s writings:

    a) Roger Scruton’s May 2nd essay on Jane Jacobs
    Submitted by uncleknickerbocker (my nom de plume) on 20th June 2006

    (I believe it used to be attached as a comment to Scruton’s essay, but now it is a separate webpage.
    If the link doesn’t work, you can find it using a search engine.)

    b) 2Blowhards, “More Scruton,” 9/16/2008

    Benjamin Hemric
    Thursday April 12, 2012, 6:15 p.m.

  • Benjamin Hemric

     P.S.: Rereading my comment in the link from June 20, 2006, I rediscovered that there’s one sentence in particular that was very unclear and poorly written:

    (To put Jacobs’ thoughts in perspective, would one say that present day
    conservative economists are advocating for “spontaneity” at the expense
    of needed rules and regulations because they are against the planning
    of national economies, instead of the planning of cities?!)

    What I meant to say — hope this is clearer — is that, for example, most conservative economists are against “national economic planning” and for the marketplace, but that doesn’t mean that they are against all rules and regulations and instead favor a chaotic “free-for-all” (which is what Scruton seems to me to imply by “spontaneity”).  No, they are still, nevertheless, for basic rules and regulations that make the marketplace “work.”  Similarly, although  it seems to me that Jacobs is against overly intrusive planning, that doesn’t mean that she is against all rules and regulations (if that’s what he seems to mean by “spontaneity”).

    In other words, I was objecting to Scruton’s characterization that Jacobs, so it seemed to him, was in favor of having no rules whatsoever.  I see her as being against overly intrusive planning (just as conservative economists are against “national economic planning”), but still in favor of some basic rules (the way conservative economists are, generally speaking, still in favor of some basic rules).

    Benjamin Hemric
    Thursday, April 12, 2012, 6:30 p.m.     

  • enbrian

    I think things like form-based zoning are a good crash course for normally suburban developers. But what happens when form-based zoning turns into a constraint after we’ve relearned what was forgotten in America?

  • Emily Washington

    So true. And the bureaucrat with the power to destroy his city is operating without the positive incentive structure that individuals have.

  • Emily Washington

    Thanks for your comments and sharing your previous responses to Scruton. 

    I think that we interpret Jacobs on zoning the same way. While Scruton seems to want to distance his own ideas from hers, in Death and Life she does argue for form-based zoning similar to what Scruton supports. I believe she says something along the lines of “buildings should be regulated for scale, not use.” However, Scruton might favor a bit more regulation of architectural details than she would.

    The interview that you link to where he suggests that no one without a vested interest could like modern art or architecture bothers me more than the AEI piece. Aesthetic preference is really about the last thing that can or should be legislated.

    While Scruton clearly prefers the aesthetic of New Urbanism, I think that it’s important to acknowledge that planned New Urbanism comes out much differently than the old cities it seeks to emulate. Nathan Lewis does a great job on this:

  • Eric

    USians do not live in center cities because of concerns about crime and school quality. How can these factors possible be left out of your post?

  • Marc

    “Many factors drive people to choose the suburbs over cities, but I don’t see building aesthetics as a major culprit.”

    Form and aesthetics matter. For too long relativists have been dismissing these as personal “taste” issues (“beauty is in the eye of the beholder”), but it turns out there are real consensuses over these things. Few people want to live in and among something like this:

    Save for a few (and not-surprisingly expensive!) exceptions, most American cities look like that. Why go for a half-assed suburb (a city trying to act like a suburb) when you can buy the real thing for less? Why go for a half-assed city when you can buy the real thing too? Most US cities are an unappealing, muddled compromise between two different markets (half city/half suburb) and they fail at serving both markets.

    Still, I think your points are great and generally agree that a bottom-up, fine-grained urbanism aggregates into far more of a cohesive and beautiful urban form than a top-down vision (Haussmann’s renovation of Paris being an exception).

    “He suggests that the ugliness of glassy towers plays a part in driving
    people from center cities to suburbs. This doesn’t make much sense to
    me, as the rising popularity of glass facades correlates with increasing demand to live in city centers.”
    This is the only point that irked me. Correlation is not causation! Duany argues that in expensive cities, people are willing to sacrifice beauty for the sheer ability to find a shoebox to live in:
    “SOLOMON: If people don’t like modern architecture, then why are certain
    units selling so well?

    DUANY: I’ll tell you why. There are victims. We misunderstand each other
    because you operate in a world where there is a scarcity of housing, where
    people have little choice. They are so grateful to find a dwelling in
    San Francisco (or Manhattan) that they put up with housing that they may
    not like. The world that I operate in — the suburban Sunbelt — has the
    opposite: enormous choice. Once you qualify for an $80,000 mortgage you
    enter the threshold of choice. There are 10 projects to choose from with
    four models each. I am referring to unconstrained markets where there
    is good old American choice. When one of our projects doesn’t meet their
    expectations the customer just drives off to buy some shitty Colonial
    or Mediterranean, and that’s a big difference. That’s the difference.
    One of the reasons that we can do modernist buildings in Aqua is that
    Miami Beach is a victim situation. We’re doing modernist high-rises across
    from Manhattan, and it’s no problem. But anywhere else out there in the
    ‘burbs — all those the places that you said you drove by — try to put
    modernist houses out there and you will bankrupt the community builder.”

    I like ornate architecture, but I’d happily snap up a cheap apartment in a soulless glass box just for the ability to live in New York and participate in its street life. But in more affordable places where people *do* have a housing choice (the rest of the country outside SF, Seattle, Boston, Chicago, LA, DC, and NYC), rich, exuberant aesthetics prevail. Aesthetics are not as much of a relativist, easily-dismissed, subjective issue as the “urban theorists” would think.

    Look at the historic preservation issue, for example. I get the impression that a lot of market urbanists disdain preservation. But if there is an unconscious consensus among the general public that almost everything new is palpably inferior to (and uglier than) the surviving prewar stuff, is it any surprise that people throw up roadlbocks to the market’s attempt at replacing richly-detailed, fine-grained urbanism with soullessly-slick, disposable contemporary crap?

  • Tom Volckhausen

    “Agreed — beautiful aesthetics arise from freedom and the competitive drive to do better.”
    Like most blanket proclamations the above is at least half wrong.Pretty much everybody in the world acknowledges Paris as one of the most beautiful cities, yet Haussman forced very severe design restrictions, which is why building facades and floors all across Paris line up. That lack of “design freedom” resulted in the City Of Light, biggest tourist magnet on the planet.Houston has plenty of “freedom and competitive drive to do better” but I have never met the person who claims that Houston has “beautiful aesthetics”.

  • Anonymous

     This is a good point.

    To defend the anti-regulation argument, there is one restriction that Houston has which Paris didn’t– parking minimums which require roughly equal amounts of parking as building floor space. The street layout is also centrally planned, moreso in Houston’s case than Paris’s, resulting in a much larger fraction of Houston’s land area being used for streets. These two things alone are pretty effective at determining the layout of the city.

  • Tom Volckhausen

    Mogadishu has “freedom and the competitive drive to do better” too, but somehow beautiful aesthetics did not “arise”, despite the absence of parking requirements.

    There are no good examples of un-regulated and un-planned beautiful cities that I am aware of.
    Certainly planning, especially US-style sprawl mandates can also result in ugly places.

    The complicated truth is that it is not the presence or absence of planning and regulation that determines if  a city is beautiful, but the quality of the planning and regulation has a huge impact, and all the real world cities that we consider beautiful had very substantial planning, public investment in infrastructure and regulation during their development. Not the simple story that anti-government zealots want to hear.

     London and Paris would be literally un-inhabitable without the public planning and investment in their water and sewer systems, and of course death by disease was a major reason that those investments were made. The model of privately owned sewers, water systems, roads, and transit may be a nice pipe dream for libertarian utopias (as the unicorns gallivant among the rainbows), but it does not and will not function at scale in the real world.

     Unplanned and un-regulated cities quickly implement both planning and regulation as soon as they have the resources. (Check out what is happening in Kigali right now).

  • Tom Volckhausen

    But this ignores the “wisdom of the crowd” inherent in democracy. Feedback from the public in the form of votes provides an incentive structure to ensure that bureaucracy cannot go too far off course.

    Certainly bad bureaucrats and bad regulation  exist, as do plenty of bad developers, architects, and building owners. Democracy provides a feed-back mechanism to ensure that a city’s development delivers the results that the majority of residents consider “best”. Without that feedback mechanism, there is nothing to stop the Donald Trumps or Ray Crocs from destroying the urban fabric, except the finite amount of money they have to spend.

    The incentive structure for individuals is certainly not all “positive”, as greed, selfishness, and corruption deliver plenty of “incentive” to individuals as they impoverish the community. Crack dealers get very good returns and have strong monetary “incentive structure”, but few would argue that they benefit the community as they enrich themselves. I would argue the same about McDonalds and Burger King, though some would disagree.

  • aka_Scoop

    The real problem is that architecture is a deeply broken profession that somehow escapes from all market correction. It teaches students to hate forms — both of individual buildings and urban layout — that laymen mostly love and to punish practitioners who stray from the fold and cater to the tastes of laymen.

    Everyone knows that while plenty of new buildings are fine, any large area of new buildings will be lifeless and unpleasant, and no one has any idea what to do about it. That’s why it’s basically impossible to demolish anything old — because it’s nearly inevitable that it will be replaced with something worse — and why people come up with hair-brained regulatory schemes.

    Imagine how much nicer a place the world would be if everything erected since WWI was as nice as that which preceded it. It would make everyone’s life better, every single day. And we should be to do it. Hell, we should be able to do much better. We’re richer. We have more knowledge to build on. But we build crap instead. Everyone knows it. And, as I said, no one knows how to fix it, even though it seems like it should be simple. So we get people saying it can be fixed with one decent code. (Actually, it probably could be fixed with the right code, but we’ve regressed so far that the chances of enacting that right code are about zero.)

  • Marc

    Tom, it’s certainly true that many old cities that people consider to have been “spontaneously emergent” did indeed have quite a few infrastructure and urban design rules. Cities like Pienza, Siena, and Venice may have had codes dictating build-to lines, the form of street enclosure (how far arcades and overhangs could enclose the street), allowable materials (usually masonry to provide basic fire protection), and so on. And things like height limits and form-based codes have actually been around a *long* time. But I’m guessing that few, if any, prewar cities had 500+ page planning/zoning/code manuals full of abstract legalese, arcane formulas, and abstruse technocratic jargon. I guess the problem is more that we replaced the old practice of urban design with the postwar econometrics-based practice of urban planning.

    “There are no good examples of un-regulated and un-planned beautiful cities that I am aware of.”

    There are several towns along the coast of Italy that were basically shantytowns when first founded, but now are famous tourist attractions:

    These beautiful shantytowns were mostly devoid of top-down planning: there was actually plenty of “planning” here, except it was undertaken by individuals aggregating into larger voluntary groups to get things done a certain way (a public consensus).

    I would argue that the unified architecture and urban design in prewar cities was driven mostly by public consensus. Sure, styles and fashions went in and out, but when it came to attractive urban form there was probably a broad-based agreement on how to do most things a certain way: you didn’t have to create codes to tell builders not to put up blank walls near the sidewalk, for example, because it was self-evident that these were optimal locations for shopfronts and other eye-catching activities in a society in which most people walked.

  • Marc

    Wonderful, wonderful points! If almost everything new is crappier than the old stuff slated for replacement, then it’s not surprising to see people put up roadblocks to free and unencumbered redevelopment! I really think phenomena like historic preservation are merely a symptom of the public’s angst over the unbelievable inhumanity of many modern buildings, as you described so well:

    “Everyone knows that while plenty of new buildings are fine, any large
    area of new buildings will be lifeless and unpleasant, and no one has
    any idea what to do about it. That’s why it’s basically impossible to
    demolish anything old — because it’s nearly inevitable that it will be
    replaced with something worse — and why people come up with hair-brained
    regulatory schemes.”

    Once architects and builders prove they can do better, then the public’s desperate attempt to save everything old will fade away. We were happy to demolish beautiful architecture in the past because we instinctively knew that something even more beautiful would come along. Look at Grand Central Station, for example. Here was the first station:

    It was happily razed for a more beautiful second version…

    The second version was happily razed for the even more beautiful third version (still extant)…

    Not a peep was raised over the numerous demolitions and replacements! We were a confident society back then: we knew our architects/builders could produce a beauty that would resonate with the public, so we eagerly took any opportunity at redevelopment. Could we expect the same thing today?! If some fatuous contemporary starchitect proposed razing GCS and replacing it with some disgusting pile of blank-walled crap (as was the case in 1968 with the proposed Breuer tower, in which the Supreme Court even upheld the station’s historic preservation status), what would the public say? There’d be ferocious outrage!

    We’ve over-regulated development and aesthetics because we lack confidence that new development will be as good as any surviving old development. And the crap churned out by most contemporary architects, builders, and developers constantly re-affirms our lack of confidence. (“See, we knew it would turn out awful!”)