America’s Infrastructure Should Be Beautiful

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“If anything can save the world,” North Face and Esprit founder Doug Tompkins once said, “I’d put my money on beauty.”

This year, as part of a new campaign called And Beauty For All, we’re challenging NLC and its member communities to put that hypothesis to the test.

We believe that, as our cities work on the theme of infrastructure development in 2018, a comprehensive vision is essential. To that end, And Beauty For All seeks to bring Americans together to restore our environment and revitalize our cities and towns.

Infrastructure development must be about more than the speed at which residents get from place to place and the prospect of short-term economic growth. It should improve opportunities for healthy activities, allow greater access to nature and green space, be sustainable over the longer run, and build a sense of community connection. Beauty is a focus that includes each of these considerations.

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True beauty is life-enhancing. It calls us to awe and stewardship, and demands that we reproduce it in art, in design. It softens us, makes us kinder and less aggressive, awakens generosity in our hearts, and as Harvard philosopher Elaine Scarry argues convincingly, moves us toward justice. The words “fair” as in beautiful and as in just, come from the same root.

Hermann Knoflacher the lead designer of Vienna, Austria’s remarkable public transportation system, argues that beauty stirs pro-environmental behavior: when Vienna added separate paths and greenery alongside traffic-filled streets, its residents were willing to walk three times as far to use public transit instead of driving, or simply to cycle or walk where they needed to go. Their stress levels dropped sharply.

When Vienna beautified its Metro stations, making them varied and artful, ridership doubled, and unexpectedly, crime around the stations was cut in half. “Beauty produces energy in people like a battery,” says Knoflacher.

Beauty was once very much a part of the American dialogue and tradition. It animated the urban parks of Frederick Law Olmsted, the City Beautiful Movement of the early 1900s, and the urban dreams of Jane Addams, Lewis Mumford and Jane Jacobs. It was prominent in the arts and building projects of Franklin Roosevelt’s WPA. And it was the heart of Lyndon Johnson’s efforts to revitalize American cities in the 1960s

Johnson wished to unify America—polarized then as now, especially by race and inequality—around stewardship of its immense beauty and the promotion of beautiful urban design, and he was clear: the beauty he dreamed of was not meant to be a luxury for the fortunate, but a birthright for every American.

Thomas Jefferson, Johnson reminded Congress, had written that communities “should be planned with an eye to the effect made upon the human spirit by being continually surrounded with a maximum of beauty.” Every aspect of urban planning, Johnson said, should center on beauty and community. He proposed a major investment in open space to “create small parks, squares, pedestrian malls and playgrounds.”

Beauty provides objective material value as well as subjective pleasure. Tacoma, Washington, was once declared “the worst city on the West Coast,” by the Washington Post. But the February 2018 issue of SUNSET magazine includes it among the five best cities to live in the West — because it converted ugly, polluted shoreline properties into parks, and aggressively cleaned up hazardous waste sites, attracting $350 million of new investment.

Since then, Tacoma has gone on a beauty binge. In 2014, voters approved a $198 million park bond, likely the largest per capita park bond in US history. The goal of the new bond was to bring greater environmental justice and fairness, with parks in every neighborhood, improving access and health for children and the elderly. A comprehensive study by Earth Economics, an ecosystems services firm, found widespread benefits that far exceeded the cost of the investments.

Vallejo, California, is also actively involved in beautification. The revitalization of our downtown includes an emphasis on public art, a Second Friday Art Walk, and a self-guided Art & Architecture Walk. With a significant grant from the State of California, Vallejo youth are planting trees in the less advantaged neighborhoods.

We hold an annual “Visions of the Wild” festival to connect our residents, and especially our children, more closely with parks and nature. Local nonprofits and government agencies are restoring wetlands, managing citizen science projects, and engaging with an exciting new project called Resilient by Design, which focuses on solutions to climate change and sea level rise.

This year, many American cities will celebrate And Beauty for All Day on or around October 2, the 50th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson’s signing of four major “beauty” bills—the Redwoods and North Cascades National Parks Acts, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and the National Scenic Trails System Act. As we reflect on these momentous bills, we’ll also promote urban nature, beautiful infrastructure, clean urban waterways and urban trails, especially in our least affluent communities, projects that inspire healthier, more sustainable and more socially-connected living.

We don’t need to re-invent the wheel. We almost got there 50 years ago. When we think of new infrastructure, beauty should be at the top of our thoughts. We invite all cities to join the And Beauty for All campaign.

For more information, contact John de Graaf:

About the Authors:

BobSampayan.jpgBob Sampayan is the mayor of Vallejo, California




jdg photo.jpgJohn de Graaf is the founder of And Beauty for All, and a documentary filmmaker




Nick close up in City Hall.jpgNick Licata is the former City Council President of Seattle & founder of the NLC Large Cities Council


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