Judging from my own experiences traveling around the United States, I’d estimate 95% of urban/suburban environments are created in a completely utilitarian manner. These places are not constructed with any artistic intent, and therefore lack a sense of place.
The feeling you get when walking through a neighborhood like this is that of being somewhere you’re not meant to be. The only acceptable place to walk is to and from your car to get to the next destination. No attention to detail is given to the physical environment because walking down streets in most of America is an activity reserved for homeless people and stray dogs.
What happens to someone’s brain when they live their entire life in places that make no attempt to provide any aesthetic beauty? When an entire city is composed of single use, utilitarian structures, the people who live there will have no way to interact with their urban environment other than consumption. You’re either spending money inside a business, at home, at work, or in your car driving to one of these places. The typical American neighborhood offers few places outside of the home for one to exist without spending money.
This type of environment trains people to think in singular terms with every physical space dictating exactly what you’re allowed to do within it. Contrast this way of living with the with the way people interact with their environment on vacation.
Now obviously we’re busy people with bills to pay and kids to feed and aimlessly wandering around sightseeing isn’t something we can do all day. That being said, everyday interactions with your environment can be very pleasant if you choose to enjoy them. Walking a couple blocks to get lunch can be a mini vacation if you pay attention and observe the setting with a sense of wonder. A great place to start is by appreciating nature. Even in the most bland urban setting there will likely be trees or mountains to look at. Taking the time everyday to really admire these natural wonders will reinstill a sense of magic and appreciation for wherever you find yourself. Wherever you are at any given moment is a one of a kind place in the world, and we owe it to ourselves as a species to respect our built environments enough to treat them that way.
What makes nature so aesthetically perfect? It’s certainly not that it’s orderly and convenient. The natural world is full of depth and texture so that every inevitable disruption within it is not intrusive on the landscape. When a tree dies and falls down, it doesn’t make the forest any less beautiful. Similarly ancient ruins are beautiful long after they stop being functional buildings. Old cities accumulate a rich patina and display a beautiful type of decay that provides a texture and depth you could never hope to see in a typical modern subdivision.
This beautiful aging process is only possible when things are built with real, solid materials. When buildings are constructed with care and with the intention of permanence, they create a sense of place. These are structures that are built into the Earth and become one with the landscape. Walking into an old stone building with fancy columns and gargoyles evokes a sense of reverence. Comparatively, most modern buildings look like giant pieces of litter. The materials are cheap and age terribly.
There can be no lasting emotional connection with a place that is not built with permanent intentions. How disrespectful is it to fill a town with structures that are designed to be torn down in 10-20 years? If someone is surrounded by these places their whole life, they may very well get the impression that their own lives and the work they do is just as fleeting and unimportant as the strip malls and subdivisions they inhabit. Existing in a place that is genuine and careful in it’s construction allows one to be present and give their own day to day experiences the attention they deserve. The standard model for building in recent history has been dictated by development companies that replicate the same subdivisions, strip malls, and office parks over and over again. These companies have their blueprints that “work” and they stick to the recipe to maximize profits and minimize the creative work needed.
These are not bad people, but they are corporate in their sensibilities and unimaginative. Gone are the days where kings hired master craftsmen to construct every inch of the city with care. Our modern Government officials and corporate oligarchs have turned their attention to the digital realm or their own private mansions. No major effort to beautify the public space is considered by those in power, probably because the people who rule the world rarely have to be in those public spaces.
I’m repeating myself at this point but maybe we can stop building houses out of cardboard and start taking our physical environments a little more seriously. Until then most of us will have to rely on nature for our aesthetic nourishment.