Playing With Politics

A Blog on Law, Politics, Planning, Development, and Other Vices

How City Beautiful Can Help: The Psychology of Recovery

Posted by Roobs on August 23, 2011

Washington DC was the first US city to use City Beautiful concepts when redesigning its Mall

Washington gets a lot of flack lately for reasons both justified and not.  But one complaint many are jumping on is President Obama’s specific jobs plan, or lack thereof.  Obama is now scheduled to give a speech near Labor Day on what he plans to do about jobs and reducing the deficit, presumably in response to the increasingly loud crys from Democrats and Republicans for him to do so.  The real question is what is he going to propose?  We are getting a better picture on what the President is planning: extending the payroll tax credit and extending unemployment benefits. There is also talk of some infrastructure component to the plan as well.  The infrastructure component is where I want to focus this post.

President Obama has shown many that he’s more of a lover, not a fighter.  Despite coming from Chicago politics, he has not been eager to pick a fight with austerity driven members of the GOP and Tea Party.  Instead, he deals and comes back with very watered down plans that don’t do much to help our ailing economy, and in many ways hurts his own political clout and re-election bid.   Obama should take a look at some of the principles of the City Beautiful Movement of the early 20th century to help see why a big push to fund infrastructure, like roads, rail, bridges and buildings, can prove extremely beneficial to not only the economy but to people’s perception of where we are as a nation.

What is City Beautiful (“CB”)

City Beautiful was a movement in urban planning and architecture around the late 1800s and early 1900s.  To put simply, the movement was a means of social reform; to create a “beautiful” city where beauty was promoted, not simply for its own sake, but to establish community cohesion, loyalty and civic virtue among the population.  The idea was that an urban population that was in love and proud of their city are more likely to be better citizens: not engage in criminality and establish moral virtue.  It is similar to the modern sociology Broken Window theory.  The movement has since given way (and inspired) more contemporary urban planning and architecture methods.  However, there are some essential factors to CB that I think should be re-focused in the infrastructure playbook.

How Can City Beautiful Help

City Beautiful recognized the connection the individual has with their physical environment.  Other scholars in urban planning like Kevin Lynch expanded this understanding with his work on how the user experiences his physical environment.  Everyday we exist in a city filled with visual stimuli, such as the buildings, the cars, the people and the landscape.  But our perception also helps fuel our own discontent.  We see a struggling community where buildings are decaying and roads are crumbling and we think our society is coming apart with it.  We think this neighborhood is in decay and the people in it suffer from that decay.  But when we see the construction of the new, we are filled with hope.  New is exciting.  A new bridge is possibilities.  A new commercial tower is jobs.  Cranes represent the construction of the future where we will not only utilize what we are building but where we can take pride in what we have built.  Buildings, bridges, rail and roads are the new monuments that can have the potential to affect the perception of residents just as monuments and columns and Beaux-art architecture fueled the CB movement.

So when we ask to build new or repair existing infrastructure, its not simply for the intrinsic and wise utility of it.  Yes, building a high-speed rail network in California will be an economic boom for the state.  But the construction of and existence of such a system will settle within the residents of California as something to be proud of.  The construction crews laying the track are people with jobs but the visual stimuli of crews and cranes building the future of California to its residents is an equally powerful means to help us push past this economic recession.

The economic stimulus of 2009 was not enough.  Some argue that we should have not done it all.  I say we should have done more.  We should have spent more money fueling the reconstruction of our country after years of neglect: rebuilding our bridges and roads, rebuilding our sewers and electrical grid.  Constructing new and efficient forms of transportation and finally funding existing transit operations.  There are so many projects that need attention by our government that nearly $800 billion is not even scratching the surface.  Jim Cramer, host of CNBC’s Mad Money, spoke with Chris Matthews, host of MSNBC’s Hardball, around the time of the 2009 stimulus and Jim Cramer famously (to me anyway) pointed out the obvious:  $800 billion is not enough because a large city like Boston could go through all of that in a heartbeat to rebuild its ailing infrastructure and still need more.  Again, by fueling these projects; injecting them with funds we can create an environment where people can touch and feel our recovery, improving their own mood and outlook on the economy and our country but also the effort of the President.

Keeping It Beautiful

The Golden Gate Bridge was built during the Great Depression. It is still considered one of the most beautifully designed bridges in the world.

If it was only the physical presence that can help, then City Beautiful would be but a footnote.  However, it’s not only their function but their form that is important.  As residents of cities with national monuments know, we take pride in their presence in part because of their great beauty.  We enjoy them.  So when we ask to build new infrastructure like bridges, we should consider moving beyond utilitarian design where function weighs heavy over form.  Encourage unique design that adds to the skyline and character of the neighborhood and city.  Going for what is simply cheapest robs us of one of the key components of our physical environment that gives us pride: beauty.  The use of unique architecture in what we build helps residents of struggling cities have an object that can manifest their hopes and dreams for a better future.

When Obama addresses the nation around Labor Day to give his jobs speech, I sincerely hope he pushes for a strong infrastructure spending bill.  There are hundreds if not thousands of projects in each congressional district that are on many congressional representative and senator’s wish lists.  Let’s build them.  I want to see him call to not only repair the many dilapidated bridges that families drive across, but to fund future investments like California’s High Speed Rail system.  It’s not simply because these investments are intrinsically wise in their own right as they boost economic development.  Its also because they too establish a tangible message to the community of where we are going as a nation.  We live with infrastructure every day.  We cross bridges, ride on roads and rail daily.  Let us build our monuments to our perseverance and strength as we meet our country’s challenges both today and in the future.

Roobs is a masters student at UCLA in the Department of Urban & Regional Planning with concentrations in Transportation Planning & Policy and Urban Design & Development. He has a BA in Legal Studies and Sociology from UC Berkeley. Roobs is a former Waterfront Commissioner for the City of Berkeley and former paralegal for a law firm specializing in real estate development. 

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