The more beautiful we make our cities, the greater the rewards for us all
Beautiful places attract and delight, tempting us to return to experience and enjoy more of their charms. Paris, for example, ranks as the world’s favorite tourist destination, with 44.9 million visitors in 2018.
What makes it so popular is its exceptional beauty and wonderful attractions, which include 4,000 historic monuments, 140 museums, 361 theaters, 5 opera houses, 4 UNESCO sites, 218 shopping centers, 421 parks and, of course, an incredible gastronomic scene.
Yet Paris was not always so lovely. During the mid-19th century, the city was overcrowded, gloomy, dangerous and unhygienic. When Napoleon III became emperor, he appointed Georges-Eugene Haussmann, commonly known as Baron Haussmann, as mayor and instructed him to make Paris “more beautiful.” This became Europe’s largest reconstruction project, as the city underwent an urban renaissance between 1853 and 1870. The beautification plan included expansive boulevards, beautiful squares, picturesque gardens and grand theaters — all of which are enjoyed to this day.
Improvements to the city have continued through the decades; just last month Mayor Anne Hidalgo announced a plan to transform the Eiffel Tower district into what will be the city’s largest garden. She said the aim is to make it a “place that will become a space for walking, strolling and breathing.”
Across the Atlantic, the City Beautiful movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries pushed for beauty and grandeur in US cities. This was a reaction to the population boom that had caused American cities to become congested, dirty and unsanitary, resulting in social unrest, violence, labor strikes and the spread of disease. There was a compelling need, therefore, for the creation of recreational public spaces that could be enjoyed by all. Advocates argued that the aim of urban beautification was to promote a harmonious social order, instill civic and moral pride, and improve the overall quality of life for all residents.
The interest in improving cities continues to this day, and urban economists have shown that the design and development of a city can have a significant impact on its economic growth and the happiness of residents.
Gerald Carlino, of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, and Albert Saiz, of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, published a research study this year on the connections between urban beauty and economic performance. They found that compared with less attractive locations, picturesque cities experienced greater growth in population and jobs, attracted a more highly educated and skilled labor force, and generated property values that were 16 percent higher. It seems people are happiest, not surprisingly, when they live in a beautiful city.
A notable feature of all the most attractive cities is the plentiful presence of green spaces.
But what qualities make for a beautiful city? Urban beautification involves investment in a variety of public spaces and facilities, including museums, art galleries, historical sites, architecture and cultural centers. Such valuable assets offer huge social and economic value to a city. Additionally, they foster and facilitate social connections and relationships, which is vitally important for improving the happiness of residents.
In 2010, the Knight Foundation and Gallup asked 43,000 people in 26 cities why they consider some cities more attractive than others. The findings of this Soul of the Community Survey indicated that open spaces, physical beauty and social amenities were the primary reasons why people bonded with some cities more than others. Interestingly, the cities considered most beautiful also had the highest rates of gross domestic product growth and the strongest economies.
A notable feature of all the most attractive cities is the plentiful presence of green spaces. According to a global study of more than 290 million people published by the UK’s University of East Anglia in 2018, populations with access to the most green spaces had reduced risks of type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease, premature death, preterm births, stress and high blood pressure.
Researchers at King’s College London, meanwhile, found that “being outdoors, seeing trees, hearing birdsong, seeing the sky and feeling in contact with nature were associated with higher levels of mental wellbeing.”
In 1963, Singapore unveiled a vision to become the world’s greenest city, dubbing itself a “Garden City.” This dream led to the establishment of the award-winning Gardens by the Bay project, which created on reclaimed land a 101-hectare nature park filled with the best in horticulture and garden artistry, and the Singapore Botanic Gardens, which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The campaign also led to the introduction of new flowering species across the city, creating a pervasive green network of nature reserves, parks, tree-lined roads and other green areas. In addition, Singapore’s signature Community in Bloom gardening campaign created 1,400 community gardens and engaged more than 36,000 gardening enthusiasts to help make the city more green.
Surrounding oneself with natural beauty each day has a cumulative, positive effect on happiness. Therefore, policymakers and urban planners need to spend more time planning and implementing city beautification projects to make their cities more attractive, memorable and uplifting.
As the 19th century French writer Stendhal once said: “Beauty is nothing other than the promise of happiness.”
- Sara Al-Mulla is an Emirati civil servant with an interest in human development policy and children’s literature