Beauty Kills—A Self-Rebuttal: Or, Why Joel Kotkin isn’t Always Wrong


In my recent post, Universal Beauty and the Responsibility of Cities, I argued that beauty is an essential element of urbanism. Forget all of that for a moment; there’s another side to that coin. Beauty kills. It can turn cities into lifeless museums animated only by tourists, inhibiting creativity and innovation while exacerbating segregation and homogenization. Look at any interior design magazine spread; room upon room of artful still-life orchestration. These are rooms that pose, not rooms that are lived in. Look at fashion models, their faces inscrutable and eyes vacant. True, this is not the sort of beauty I was advocating, but an emphasis on beauty can quickly lead one astray if untempered. Beauty is essential, yes, but it can be as intoxicating as drugs, and potentially as destructive.

Joel Kotkin, in an article written for Forbes titled “Why the ‘Livable Cities’ Rankings are Wrong,” writes:

Recent rankings of the “best” cities around the world by the Economist Intelligence Unit, Monocle magazine and the Mercer quality of life surveys settled on a remarkably similar list. For the most part, the top ranks are dominated by well-manicured older European cities such as Zurich, Geneva, Vienna, Copenhagen, Helsinki and Munich, as well as New World metropolises like Vancouver and Toronto; Auckland, New Zealand; and Perth and Melbourne in Australia…

…These places make ideal locales for groups like traveling corporate executives, academics and researchers targeted by such surveys. With their often lovely facades, ample parks and good infrastructure, they constitute, for the most part, a list of what Wharton’s Joe Gyourko calls “productive resorts,” a sort of business-oriented version of an Aspen or Vail in Colorado or Palm Beach, Fla…

…Yet are those the best standards for judging a city?”

Kotkin continues:

It seems to me what makes for great cities in history are not measurements of safety, sanitation or homogeneity but economic growth, cultural diversity and social dynamism. A great city, as Rene Descartes wrote of 17th century Amsterdam, should be ‘an inventory of the possible,’ a place of imagination that attracts ambitious migrants, families and entrepreneurs.

Such places are aspirational – they draw people not for a restful visit or elegant repast but to achieve some sort of upward mobility. By nature these places are chaotic and often difficult to navigate. Ambitious people tend to be pushy and competitive. Just think about the great cities of history – ancient Rome, Islamic Baghdad, 19th century London, 20th century New York – or contemporary Los Angeles, Houston, Shanghai and Mumbai.

These represent a far different urbanism than what one finds in well-organized and groomed Zurich, Vienna and Copenhagen. You would not call these cities and their ilk with metropolitan populations generally less than 2 million, ‘bustling.’ Perhaps more fitting words would be ‘staid’ and ‘controlled.’”

Zurich (source)

Vienna (source)                                                             Copenhagen (source)

Houston (source)

Shanghai (source)                                                       Mumbai (source)

I doubt anyone has ever accused Mr. Kotkin of being a progressive thinker, and his antiquated belief in growth, both physical and economic, as a sign of successful urbanism underpins his entire argument. He takes issue with the criteria favored by livability rankings, noting:

Cultural institutions, public safety, mass transit, ‘green’ policies and other measures of what is called ‘livability’ were weighted heavily, so results skewed heavily toward compact cities in fairly prosperous regions. Most of these regions suffer only a limited underclass and support a relatively small population of children. In fact, most of the cities are in countries with low birthrates – Switzerland’s median fertility rate, for example, is about 1.4, one of the lowest on the planet and a full 50% below that of the U.S.”

I’m not sure which of the above attributes are undesirable. The “livability” criteria all seem valid, though equally valid criteria are excluded. A compact urban form and a prosperous region are certainly better than sprawl and poverty. I assume that a limited underclass is a goal of all decent human beings, and the importance of a low birthrate is obvious to anyone concerned by our decimation of natural resources, habitat, and other species. Kotkin also seems to suggest that cities require multiple millions of people to support dynamism, a claim that ancient Athens and Renaissance Florence, among many other vital historic and contemporary cities, would refute.

The contemporary cities that Kotkin lauds are hardly models to emulate. All  feature egregious sprawl, pollution, and poverty. They are epicenters of inequality. Much of the built environment in all four cities is ugly, uninspiring, unsafe, and impermanent. I doubt Descartes would approve.

Still, as Kotkin writes, “growth and change come about when newcomers jostle with locals not just as tourists, or orbiting executives, but as migrants. Great cities in their peaks are all about this kind of yeasty confrontation.” In this respect, some American cities outshine their more ‘livable’ European and Canadian counterparts. And it is this essential quality of urbanism, this “yeasty confrontation,” that too great an emphasis on beauty can kill.

Growth can no longer be the goal (mathematical growth, at least— maturation is still an option). But Kotkin is absolutely right that true urbanism is rife with conflict, with change, with dynamism. Uniformity is boring. Homogenization retards cultural development. Beauty can inspire, but it can also stifle. Museums are beautiful places to visit, but who would want to live in one?

The common seed of technology, creativity, and art of all forms is struggle. Conflict. Friction. Kotkin might be wrongheaded in a lot of his views, but his valuation of dynamism over placidness as a key condition for a great city should not be dismissed. Dynamism is about tension, about every yang having its yin. Beauty must grapple with ugliness, tidiness with disarray, cleanliness with grime, success with failure. Great cities—sustainable cities—require urban tension, or they won’t remain livable for long.

This entry was posted in Culture, Josh Grigsby, Livability, Placemaking, Rants, Response Pieces, Sustainability, Uncategorized, What if? and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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