What Makes Cities Attractive, and our Intellectual Confusion about Beauty


Pertinent to our discussions here of garden criticism – right or wrong – enjoy this video by architecture writer Alain de Botton.  At about 11:15 he gets to the “first obstacle to beautiful cities” – the intellectually confused position that no one has the right to say what’s pretty or not, a stand that he asserts is “horribly useful to greedy land developers.”


Via Greater Greater Washington.


  1. This was very interesting. Unfortunately, cities don’t have leverage over developers unless we’re in a good economy — politicians compete to get tax-paying corporations into their jurisdictions. In the suburbs, this also means strip malls without any landscaping required to dampen the ugliness.

    This is a great message to architects and planners though. I’ve lived in Boston, NYC and Philadelphia, and would have to say the first two have beauty only in their large parks. Philly recently instead has been developing “pocket parks” to add beauty and community.

  2. I have enjoyed reading Alain de Botton for years, and so glad you posted this opinion piece of his. Cities can have leverage over developers – it’s the responsibility of the citizens to enact laws over developer and development. The easier time to enact these laws are when the economy is good. However, from local government up to big government, the developers have enormous influence in getting the laws to favor them

  3. I enjoyed the video primer. A lot of what he has to say seems pretty common sense, but when it comes to planning and money is involved, things get much more complicated.

    I kind of balked at his comparison of an oil pipeline crossing a river vs. a Roman aqueduct; a little context might have been in order there. Who’s to say that thousands of years from now, people wouldn’t find an ancient oil pipeline beautiful and interesting to look at?

    I also don’t completely agree with his assertion that people are happier living densely, close to one another, where they can see each other all the time–I know I dread a day when I might have to live like that. I love my private, open spaces away from town! But I get his point, I just don’t know how many people would really agree with him. For the sake of the planet, though, I hope people do agree with him.

    As for the question of relative beauty: it’s so often more easy to agree on what is not “beautiful”, than what is.

  4. When development is uncontrolled in a person’s body they call it cancer. Viewed from the air these uncontrolled urban developments look cancerous too. Hurrah for the tiny New Urbanism efforts springing up here and there. I live near such a community and it has really improved people’s quality of life. I know because when I walk through it everyone’s face is smiling.

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