What Does Beauty Have to Do With Sustainability?

Today on the Streetsblog Network, we step back and take a look at a philosophical question, courtesy of Kaid Benfield at NRDC Switchboard. As we go forward into the 21st century, trying to create sustainable communities, how do we deal with the aging relics of the 20th century’s development patterns?

3305919757_5176ed4360_m.jpgCan we make beauty a criterion for preservation? Photo by Sarah Goodyear.

Are we going to start saving Walmarts, which the National Trust has opposed in one community after another, when they are 50 years old just because they are 50 years old?  The date is not all that far away.  And, make no mistake: they will be representative of a period and style of architecture.  If that’s the principal test, they will pass.  What about urban freeways that sliced through and destroyed historic neighborhoods?  They, too, are now part of history.

Benfield argues that using beauty as a criterion for preservation could help. But who is to define it? Read what he has to say and let us know what you think.

Big news and an invitation from our friends at Transportation for America: This Thursday, Feb. 26, at 10:30am, they’ll be rolling out their national campaign platform, which calls on the president and Congress "to launch a new federal transportation mission that puts an end to America’s oil dependency, helps us compete and thrive in the 21st century, and brings opportunity to all Americans." It’ll be held at the U.S. Capitol, and if you’re in DC you should head on over to hear people like Rep. Earl Blumenauer talk about the future of transportation in America.

Plus: Trains for America has news about the possibility of more funding for high-speed rail, Greater Greater Washington highlights the concerns of older pedestrians, and The Overhead Wire talks about dedicated funding sources for mass transit.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “Are we going to start saving Walmarts, which the National Trust has opposed in one community after another, when they are 50 years old just because they are 50 years old?”

    On present trends, yes. Today what pretends to be environmentalism, historic preservation, and “community planning” is generally opposition to change and nothing more, by people who would be adversely affected or falsely believe they would be adversely affected. True environmentalists are as rare as true conservatives.

    Just try to take something like this down — or put something like this up.


  • James Howard Kunstler talks extensively about bringing back aesthetic standards into our communties. Part of the problem for the last 50 years is the utter lack of caring for our public spaces, because the American Dream allowed people to retreat into their own world (single family home) and forget about the outside. If we are to build communities along New Urbanism principles, we must once again take care in designing buildings and public places that make people appreciate their surroundings.

  • Jeffrey Ribeiro

    If there was a Walmart of exceptional architectural quality, then perhaps it would make sense to protect such a building. An idea like beauty is not a relevant criterion for preservation, as it is subjective but also temporal. In the 1960s, we lost many beautiful Beaux-Arts buildings because they were out of style. Today, many of our Modern buildings face similar, regrettable fates.

    The Walmart analogy reminds me in particular of the elegant Austin Nichols Warehouse in Williamsburg, designed by Cass Gilbert. The City Council failed to see the beauty in this structure, despite Landmarks opposing large scale alteration. Perhaps we can hold out for a rare, beautiful Walmart just as Williamsburg got one exceptional warehouse.

    Buildings should be protected on merits of their architectural and historical significance and importance. A building, whether 50 years old or 200 years old, should never be saved simply because of it’s age.

  • Rhywun

    I think Americans have an innate understanding that most of the stuff we’ve built in the last 50 years is crap, even if they haven’t given it much thought. Most people would probably laugh at the idea of preserving a Wal-Mart, and they’d be right. This stuff wasn’t even built to last–why should we preserve it?

  • da

    Unclear about beauty, but preservation has a huge role to play in sustainability.

    As Rohit Aggarwala said at last year’s “Sustainable Park Slope” public forum, sponsored by the Park Slope Civic Council:

    “The greenest building is the one that is already built.”

  • AlexB

    In New York, it is not illegal to tear down a hundred year old brownstone if it is not in a historic district or particularly landmarked. Despite the inherent wastefulness of building a building on the site of an already existing building, it is inevitable with the passage of time and economic progress. To think that Americans would ever prevent the destruction of incredibly ugly buildings which are as close as it gets to disposable architecture is laughable, and a hypothetical proposition at best.

  • Warren

    As “da” alluded to with the quote above – just like you can buy the greenest car in the world, but the environmental impact of choosing not to drive will far outweigh it, you can build the greenest building in the world, but choosing to re-use an existing building is still the greener option. As ugly as some of these buildings are, I think the key word will be “adapt” as the economy shrinks and resources get scarce. We just can’t afford (and nor can the planet) to re-build everything fresh.

  • Omri

    Warren: that is often true, but not as often as you think. Tearing down Boston City Hall and building something else will pay for itself in saved heating costs in pretty short order, for example.

  • Greg

    The post the Benfeld references is arguably more relevant to this discussion.


    I was reflexively wary of the effort to quantify beauty somehow. Doyon writes:

    “In a 2003 paper, V. Patnaik and others examine the human face and demonstrate how we culturally establish a shared understanding of beauty, concluding it’s the “relational proportion of our physical features that is the primary factor in determining the perception, conscious or subconscious, of beauty.”

    More simply, certain proportions and arrangements are more pleasing than others. Not as a matter of personal opinion but as a collective, cultural agreement. We may not, as a nation of individuals, want to admit that we essentially view beauty in the same light, but tough luck. We do.

    That’s why it’s not such a leap to conclude that our buildings and infrastructure work the same way. Most would agree that, at some point, our built environment stopped responding to a shared, cultural understanding of what’s beautiful and started expressing – at the upper end – the personal artistic ambitions of its designers and – at the lower end – the need to cut costs.”

    I think this is a very promising hunch that would of course require much more research. But if can be proved that beauty is not entirely subjective, it could be factored back into the planning process in a number of ways.


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