HALIFAX – Historical photos level an accusation: Halifax has been failed by generations of streets, subdivisions and towers that no longer offer the dignity once found here. It can seem, perversely, that the only way to have beautiful places is to protect what was built before the Second World War.
And beauty is no frivolous luxury. The visual feel of place is the stage for how every moment there is experienced. Saying that beauty contributes to quality of life is like saying that flour contributes to bread. Without streets and neighbourhoods for which people feel proud, the city cannot expect residents to stick it out when things here are hard — and as the press often emphasizes, things are hard.
There are many reasons urban aesthetics have suffered: cheap materials, mechanization of construction, poorly designed zoning, car-oriented development. I would like to offer another: beauty is competing in a game at which it is disadvantaged.
Decisions are made about what is built based on words and numbers, and beauty is not easily expressed in words or numbers. In a world of competing needs, issues that lend themselves more clearly to calculations tend to take priority.
Square footage is a hard number and provides certainty for investors. Our visual experience of a place is as much a fact, but cannot be easily calculated. As a result, we are saddled with hundreds of thousands of over-sized monster homes built from cheap materials and poor designs with little regard for the common sense of place created on the street.
The difficulty debating aesthetics has created a sense that beauty is subjective, and if subjective, not important. Why invest in something that everyone will see differently anyway?
In a very practical sense, however, beauty is not subjective. If it were, tourists would distribute their travel evenly throughout the globe. They flock, of course, to beautiful places, and the more beautiful a place, the more they go there. People spend time in beautiful parks; they avoid ugly ones. The choice of companies, talent and entrepreneurs to live somewhere also depends, in part, on what it feels like to be there.
Another, even more telling method of judging aesthetics can also act as a useful definition of urban beauty: do people from there say, “you have to see it”? People from some places say this. People from others do not. That difference indicates a failure. Why are we investing billions every year on places residents would not recommend?
Subjectivity is a misdiagnosis of the problem. The problem is that beauty lends itself less easily to abstraction, and without clear words and numbers, it is difficult to coherently debate an issue. Accessibility issues have made important gains over the last few decades because it is hard for someone to say a wheelchair can get into a building if it cannot. People can, and often do, get away with saying a building is “consistent with local character” or “creates a sense of well-being,” when they do not. The problem is not a lack of consistency in people’s experience of place, but rather in the difficulty in articulating it.
So what do we do? I propose two solutions.
First, we must do more to promote and defend those aspects of urban beauty that are now understood. “Human scale” and “enclosure” are two that have an enormous impact on wellbeing. They capture, in short, the difference between a sidewalk beside a row of houses, and a sidewalk along an empty lawn and a highway. Without these two qualities, pedestrians will only pass through a place when necessary and will not linger there.
The impact of these two characteristics is such that they should be as fundamental to whether developments are allowed as fire safety. To achieve that, greater consensus must be built around the meaning of these words. By consistently holding such terms to a standard–and not allowing anyone to call a building, for example, “human scale” if it is not–that they can come to be respected.
Aspects of beauty that are not broadly understood should also be actively promoted. It is not enough that planners and architects compare the impact of certain qualities. These differences must be articulated in media and in schools, with example after example, so that one day saying “this lacks a sense of place” will be enough to stop a project.
Second, for those aspects of beauty that will never be articulated in words, we must be willing to have taste. Our respect for rationalism has lead to a loss of regard for anything we cannot express without calculations. Gut feelings, however, are not only relevant; they lead to our actual experience of a place.
Lunenburg, a town so beautiful it has been given UNESCO World Heritage Status, was built by loggers and fishermen with a sense of taste, developed through hands-on experience, and enforced by a set of social norms. We may no longer be able to rely on tradition alone to create beautiful towns and cities, but we can rebuild, fortify and defend the social norms we have lost. We must no longer allow a failure in our language to stop us from creating places we are proud of.
Note from the author: Some have taken this article as an attack on suburbs. On the contrary, rural, suburban and urban areas all have the potential to be beautiful, and there are many good examples around Nova Scotia of each. Everyone, no matter their choice of lifestyle, should be able to say, “Where I’m from is beautiful. You have to see it.”
“The choice of companies, talent and entrepreneurs to live somewhere also depends, in part, on what it feels like to be there.”
Yes, that’s why Lunenburg, the community you use as an example of what we should strive to be, is alive with companies and Burnside and is dead. Oh wait. That’s not actually true at all. Lunenburg has fewer people living there today than 20 years ago, despite all that beauty.
Calgary wasn’t beautiful when it started to boom. Southern Ontario wasn’t and isn’t a place manufacturing set up shop because of the beauty. Wal-Mart isn’t thriving because of place.
There are successive generations who’ve made decisions to locate in cookie cutter suburbs because beauty comes WAY AFTER things like where their steady job is, schools, and the sticker price of the house. Go live in a suburb for a year – people LIKE those neighborhoods. There isn’t a vague sense of ennui that drips from Bedford.
People who have never been an entrepreneur, much less run a large company, should stop making statements on what companies do and do not care about. Companies make the flowery statements about the beauty of a place and the quality of the people to take the edge off the fact they’re getting your tax money to locate here. It is the definition of a “nice to have.”
Fantastic. Lots to digest.
You’re right that economics drives where people and businesses locate more than aesthetics, but the latter can’t be totally discounted.
In any case, the thrust of this piece for me is not about where people and businesses choose to locate, but why it’s so hard for us to make beautiful places nowadays. This wouldn’t be an issue oif the exurbs and power centres and so on were actually nice-looking. (We can discuss all day what is and isn’t beautiful, but I hope we can all agree that, say, Granville Street is better looking than a big-box power centre full of asphalt surfaces and one-storey building-supply stores.)
This isn’t specific to Halifax, of course. This is a global problem. Why have our un-exciting but dependable architectural traditions been tossed aside, despite that we haven’t come up with widely agreed upon new ones?
This means that some new buildings and developments are gorgeous, and others are worse than banal, built with zero regard for aesthetics. And none are harmonious in the way that streetscapes and cities were for urban civilization’s entire history, until about 1950 or so. Even run-of-the-mill buildings in the past tended to at least be passably dignified. Boring maybe, and similar to all the other run-of-the-mill buildings, but based on a decent standard template. Now, the worst buildings are aesthetic disasters of bizarre proportions and cheap synthetic facades.
A culture that considers a decent baseline level of aesthetic beauty a “nice to have” instead of a “must have” is missing something critical to building a worthwhile culture.
Further to what I wrote up above: This image linked to below contains a pretty good before-and-after of how we used to build telephone/electrical substations (disguised in decent-looking buildings to fit into the neighbourhood) and how we build them now (ultra-utilitarian, no concern for appearance).
Many nowadays won’t even have a wall around them–just a tangle of pylons and wires, fully visible to everyone.
“We can discuss all day what is and isn’t beautiful, but I hope we can all agree that, say, Granville Street is better looking than a big-box power centre full of asphalt surfaces and one-storey building-supply stores.”
Yes – we can. But we can also discuss the fact that Granville Street small shops, with all that beauty, cost an arm and a leg. Cobblestones cost more than asphalt to install. Statues cost something, as do stone/preserved facades. And those costs are reflected in the rent, the taxes, and the operating costs of those areas and are then passed on to the consumer and the taxpayer.
People forget that the rise of suburban and cheap design has been mirrored by the decline of the middle and lower classes. People can’t afford to shop in stores like that anymore, which is why Granville Mall for all its beauty is a ghost town and Wal-Mart thrives. We don’t make those investments anymore because we’re taxed to the hilts and people can’t afford to go any deeper for beauty.
Point being – design comes after something else, which is a Halifax where more than a few are prosperous and able to focus on beautification. The latter beauty, as you say, can’t be discounted, but it absolutely is the most top of mind thing for most city planning enthusiasts in this city. They skip the part which is the most important.
I think Granville is struggling not so much due to the expense of the beautiful buildings but because, years back, everything to the north of it was destroyed for an interchange and a parking lot, meaning that very few people actually pass through any more, killing the foot traffic. The Cogswell has to be removed and Granville reconnected at both ends to the street grid if it’s to really become successful again. (Plus more people have to live nearby, which is happening.)
Anyway, cheap design didn’t come in tandem with the rise of the middle class. It actually came about in the 1960s, in tandem with the greatest growth in the middle class in history. It’s only recently that the middle class has begun declining again–at the same time, interestingly, that people have started to return to city centres in large numbers, and in some cases begin to build new suburban communities in a more old-fashioned, walkable style, with more attention paid to appearances as well. (With mixed results, it has to be said.)
While I appreciate the topic of beauty in cities and generally feel that aesthetic concerns are often left out of the debate, we have to remember that Halifax is not unique in scarring the city core with large-scale urban renewal projects. Maybe we are just slower to recover.
As well, sometimes it is too easy to romanticize the past. Cities are by their very nature messy. Cities (or a portions of a cities) that we often think of as beautiful are that way because power and decision-making was centralized, and city planning was done with brute force. These monumental cities were only possible because people were exploited and abused. For that reason, we will never see their likes again. This resulted in one type of beauty that survives today.
The beauty you allude to is more the small grain stuff. This has less to with density – which most contemporary planning discourse seems to focus on even though everyone in the room defines density differently – and more about intensity of use. Intensity is what gives a city its character. Unfortunately, our planning regs and building codes are all made for greenfield development. They don’t work on building or street retrofits. As a result, it is difficult to maintain or redevelop small plots of land. These small plots was what allowed more people to participate in city building in the past. Today, to be profitable or even technically viable, you need to buy, consolidate. This is why our density all looks the same and why we don’t get the intensity of use on the street that you do get with the same density achieved on small plots. This is really how you get what you talk about with “human-scale” and “enclosure”. The maintenance of the plot structure in Amsterdam, for example, is an interesting study in maintenance of plot size, intensity of use and resulting beauty and vibrancy of city life.
You end on a really interesting note – the role of tradition and social norms. With far too little immigration in Nova Scotia, we can still point to tradition as a guide for our future and our planning documents are full of these references. But should we? Historically, cities are intended as places where everyone should feel welcome, but no one should feel “at home” or that they own it. Lunenburg, can and should preserve what it has as it is a homogenous, and beautiful town, but Halifax – as a regional centre and capital – needs to reflect on what it wants to be. Is our idea of beauty preserved in the residue of the past – of which there is little left from what it once had – or is it created in a new vision for the future – which RP5 misses by a long shot.
Interesting article and conversation. Alfred, with all due respect, I disagree with the accuracy of a number of your statements. I’ll go through them quickly.
“…Granville Street small shops, with all that beauty, cost an arm and a leg. Cobblestones cost more than asphalt to install.”
Cobblestone costs more upfront, but lasts far longer. Over the life of the road, it’s much cheaper. I was in Puerto Rico a few years ago and they had cobblestone roads – still taking high volumes of car traffic – that were well over one hundred years old. Our roads are constantly in poor shape precisely because we’re using what is cheapest, not what is most cost-effective.
“Statues cost something, as do stone/preserved facades. And those costs are reflected in the rent, the taxes, and the operating costs of those areas and are then passed on to the consumer and the taxpayer.”
This is a strong argument for density. Looking at the average taxes and services in urban, suburban, and rural areas is really fascinating! In urban and suburban HRM, the average amount of taxes paid are about the same for a home. But services to an urban HRM home are substantially lower than for suburban HRM, both on an ongoing basis and for the hook-up to services, including roads and water. In fact, while an urban home in HRM pays for its share of services and about 50% more, suburban HRM covers about 70% of the cost of their yearly services. Again, this is all on average. But the averages point to a big difference between what people think is going on and what is actually going on. People in the suburbs think they’re being over-taxed and under-served. What is actually going on is that the urban core is subsidizing the very high cost of sprawling infrastructure. The businesses downtown are paying for themselves and than also subsidizing places like the Bayers Lake Business Park, where we’ve had to build all sort of expensive and inefficiently spread-out services. The business parks are cheap, but they’re cheap on the backs of the urban areas tax dollars.
So, let’s get it straight: it is very efficient to have density. It’s cheaper. Being spread out is very inefficient. It costs a lot for society, and especially for the city and the funding of infrastructure. This is a simple concept and is true for our downtown. There is a great deal we could do to shift the taxes in the HRM in a more equitable direction so that the downtown isn’t overpaying, but it’s not an inherent problem. Simply, it is a matter of fair distribution, fair governance, and a sense of vision.
“People forget that the rise of suburban and cheap design has been mirrored by the decline of the middle and lower classes. People can’t afford to shop in stores like that anymore, which is why Granville Mall for all its beauty is a ghost town and Wal-Mart thrives. We don’t make those investments anymore because we’re taxed to the hilts and people can’t afford to go any deeper for beauty.”
As far as taxes, see the last section. Walmart, and all the other similar stores in town don’t even pay property taxes on their parking lots. They are getting a free ride, being subsidized hugely by the taxpayer.
I know this article stated that it’s not an attack on the suburbs, so I don’t want my comment to transfer to the author. I as well am not trying to attack the suburbs. Rather, I just want to dispute an earlier claim in this comment thread that I do not believe to be true.