Sure money-making opportunities factor in, Florida insists, as well as social networking and services. But how much of our satisfaction with our neighbourhood can simply be attributed to living in a place we consider beautiful?
Apparently a lot. Florida’s team concluded that a beautiful setting is one of the most important predictors of people’s satisfaction with their community. The only stronger link identified in the study was current economic conditions. Good schools and the ability to meet people and make friends were also important indicators of community satisfaction, but not as positively correlated as residents’ perception that they lived in a beautiful place.
But isn’t beauty fleeting, changeable, and above all in the eye of the beholder?When I studied environmental science we learned that, once upon a time, mountains were considered ugly. People traveling through Europe centuries ago would draw the curtains of their carriages when they approached mountainous terrain. The mountains were uncivilised and harboured unseen threats, from bandits to wild animals. Only later were untamed landscapes romanticized (for instance in Emerson and Thoreau’s writing).
Today if you seach for “beautiful Canada,” half the images Google turns up are of rocky, snow-capped peaks. And one photo is of Montreal’s illuminated skyline at dusk.
Through cluster analysis, Florida’s study found that people who described their community as a beautiful place also rated their neighbourhoods positively in terms of outdoor activities (like parks, playgrounds and trails) which suggests that the participants perceived naturey places as more beautiful.
But is there an innate attraction to living near nature? (Note that access to outdoor activities ranked 6th and physical beauty ranked 2nd terms of importance). Can we build places that satisfy our desire for beauty? Or perhaps a better question would be: can we define a kind of beauty that fits our desire for urban living?
My neighbourhood (NDG around Sherbrooke street) wouldn’t exactly win any beauty contests but I love the unique, shoulder-to-shoulder triplexes, the old trees, the laundry-crossed alleyways and the eclectic, colourful store-fronts. If someone called me up to survey me about NDG’s “beauty and physical setting” I would likely give it a thumbs up.
Which makes we wonder: are Florida’s respondents rating their communities against some “objective” or culturally-created standard of beauty? Or is the correlation so high because people simply have a knack for finding beauty in the places that they love?
As more people world-wide make our homes in cities, I believe that there is a growing sense of urban aesthetics in popular culture (I recently noticed huge black-and-white prints of iron fire escapes for sale at Ikea).
Now that the majority of urbanites no longer work gruelling factory jobs nor live directly beneath smoke-stacks, even industrial landscapes have acquired a certain majesty. Red-brick factories, with their high arched windows, and greystone triplexes that were once merely functional have become coveted real estate.
Of course it isn’t just a matter of learning to appreciate what we’ve got. We can surely add beauty to the city by insisting on quality architecture, creating green spaces, preserving views (for instance of the river and mountain), planting flowers…