Can We Make Ugly Pretty Again?


Of course, these whims never seem like whims at the time to all the elected and appointed officials and developers and construction-company bosses who make them reality.  Ever-widening suburbs, roads, dams–in their given moment, they all seem crucial to the proper functioning of society, because what else would you do with all the people otherwise?  How else would you house them or move them from place to place or power their many useful appliances?  Even the most radical destruction of the formerly beauteous American landscape was once backed by some crisply practical argument.   

The problem is that what’s essential to one generation is an abomination to the next, and yet the detritus of all these previous reshapings lingers on and on…while the meadows and forests and pastures and rivers they replaced are nowhere to be seen.

Examples of ugliness lingering long after all the usefulness has leached out of it are everywhere around me.  Every sad Northeastern mill town despoiling a riverbank is another example–once the center of some thriving industry such as button-on shirt collars, but sadly obsolete since 1906, when the advent of the electric washing machine allowed men to change their shirts as often as their collars. 

Or, for example, those close-in suburbs built right after World War II, with their ticky-tacky little houses and yards.  This week the Wall Street Journal ran a piece about the plight of these increasingly poor inner-ring towns and had the temerity to call the housing stock in one "obsolete."  Well, houses don’t get obsolete, not in 50 years at least.  They just go out of style, sad reminders of a more modest way of life that no longer fits the maximalist dreams of the modern suburbanite.

Clearly, the most short-sighted thing of all that we’ve perpetrated on our landscape is the absolute mess of highways and streets and parking lots we’ve built to accomodate the car. It’s already so obvious that driving-everywhere-to-everything is an idea whose time is passing that even our reality-resistant president is now mouthing phrases like "addiction to oil" and "global climate change."  But that doesn’t mean that American civilization won’t look like a highway rest-stop for many years to come.

We’re a fidgety people and we’ve created a landscape that suits us.  A landscape of things taken up and abandoned because they were never lastingly right.  A uniquely American landscape of cracking asphalt, shuttered factories, and disposable housing that is wasteful of ground, of people, of nature, of beauty, of hope.  It’s an immense national shame, a scorching example of the childish immaturity of our culture, that we’re willing to screw with the eternal for the pleasure of an hour or a day. 

Yet, according to my reading at least, all is not lost.  It only seems as if the meadow once paved is forever buried in its concrete and asphalt casket.  The casket can be pried open, and faster than we think.  Even the God-forsaken burbs could conceivably flower again.

What evidence do I have?  First, Detroit.  Second, Chernobyl.

Detroit–the epicenter of the car-based ugliness of modern life, but also arguably an early warning sign about our car-based culture, since the city itself began collapsing along ago.  Yet, according to The New York Times, now that most of the prosperity and industry has fled, nature is taking over Detroit. Large parts of it are becoming prairie once again.  Enterprising people have been assembling farms in the middle of it.  [If you click on the link, you’ll notice that this story is from December of 2003.  It’s been cheering me up for three solid years.]

More recently, a story in New Scientist took a look at the surprisingly jaunty aftermath of the nuclear accident at Chernobyl.  After 20 years of human abandonment, nature is back in force.  The town of Pripyat near Chernobyl is already crumbling, roots and shoots staking their claim to the structures and hastening the water damage along.  Big predators like wolves and wild boars are reappearing in the area.  This New Scientist story is titled "Imagine Earth Without People," and Chernobyl is just a bit of evidence of the recovery that would occur, faster than you might think, if our noxious influence were eliminated. 

Of course, if we humans wise up a bit, we might not have to disappear in order to improve the landscape.  A little more willingness to admit our mistakes and fix them, a little more respect for nature, and we might even be able to assist with the re-beautification.


  1. I’m glad you mentioned Detroit. We have a great organization here called the Greening of Detroit. They are responsible for planting and maintaining a lot of the more “forgotten” public areas, but they also organize and help with the farms that are developing in the city. Usually, the land comes from houses that were demolished/abandoned and the owner is absentee, which means the city has possession of it. Greening of Detroit works with the city to get the land, and then they work with residents, getting them advice and often tools and seeds, to get started. It’s been a boon for city dwellers who want a bit of nature, but also for a lot of the poor residents who rely on those farms for their produce. Several of the farms also grow food to supply to soup kitchens and homeless shelters. Really great stuff. So, yes, I’ve seen it….the city can become the meadow and the farm again. It’s much better use than having a condemned eyesore of a building sitting there 🙂

  2. In Buffalo, the highway planners of the fifties chopped our largest Olmsted park in half and mutilated several others in the system.

    There is talk now about remediation.

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