Pretty Matters

January 12, 2022

Does beauty truly lie in the eye of the beholder? Can’t we all agree what sort of photo should go on a postcard? Aren’t Ryan Gosling and my mother universally considered beautiful? Can’t we all look at a Parisian street scene and think, yeah, that’s the life for me? 

Beauty might not be all that subjective. Cognitive researcher, Ann Sussman, makes the point that beauty isn’t so much about what we desire, but what registers in our brain as safe, familiar or full of life. The faces we find attractive tend to be the ones that are symmetrical, young and healthy, those that would provide the best chance to produce offspring. Buildings and streets offer the same sort of insight, and no- I am not trying to reproduce with any Haussmannian building no matter how much I might go on about it. 

An attractive building is one which is familiar, recognizable, easy to comprehend. Ever wonder why the most ominous building on campus is always the architecture building? Because so much effort has been exerted to be “different”, that they become hard to comprehend by design, ie- dumb. If I can’t even find my way into a building, I am going to have a tough time warming up to it- and warmth is what we, as humans, need. 

A street can be warm and inviting in all four seasons. It can make us feel comfortable and safe. The right street can delight us with its proportions and ambiance. A good street will beckon us to linger and propel us forward with never-ending suspense. There is a science to streets and the ones we love the most appeal to our brain as well as our senses. The streets we love are human scale, they don’t over power or dwarf us. They provide a hard edge to make us feel guarded and typically provide a terminus view to pull the eye forward. Great streets are not subjective, they are the same around the world. On the converse, a bad street is universally understood as being, well…bad. 

What we perceive as being ugly is actually our brain registering a space as unsafe, foreign and scary. Sprawl roads are out of scale, they offer no context and are outrageously dangerous. No one looks at a six lane  road and considers how to frame a good selfie. No one puts sprawl on a postcard. I have yet to see a painter set up an easel outside the Costco. These places are not being perceived as unattractive by some- they are ugly to everyone. 

A well maintained downtown is appealing to all. It is built into our DNA to flock to these places. They provide us with what we crave as humans. A scale that feels familiar and safe, an opportunity to socialize with other humans and activity and excitement. 

So back to the premise of this post. Does pretty matter? Don’t be stupid, of course it does. You’ve been listening to too many finance people and they have convinced you that only dollars count, but they don’t know what the hell they are talking about. Do car companies invest in aesthetics? Do restaurants care about presentation? 

Pretty matters. Pretty is what provides us with our first impressions. Appearances are the best means we have to tell someone who we are and what we are about in short order. How we chose to present ourselves externally is our clearest reflection of who we are internally. 

An aesthetically appealing car comes at a premium. An attractive home can demand more on the market. Ryan Gosling and my mother can be sure to get all the swipe rights. Appearances convey valuable information to the viewer. 

So when you see a guy hanging out on the corner, smoking in his PJ bottoms and Steelers jersey, do you assume he is in between meetings with the marketing department and HR or he is taking a break from a Grand Theft Auto marathon?  When people roll into your city, does it look like a designer dress, some slim jeans and a sweater or an adult onesie? Is your downtown a Range Rover or a Yugo?  

Looks matter. The fashion industry is pretty substantial. There is no shortage of gyms and personal trainers. We are obsessed with healthy food. Yes, people want to live long healthy lives, but they also want to look good, because looking good feels good. But we don’t just derive our sense of self from our abs and slacks. We derive our self-esteem from all of our surroundings. Our house is an indication of who we are, as is our block, as is our neighborhood and as is our town. 

A rundown city will eventually be full of rundown people. Those that don’t want to acclimate to declining conditions will shuffle on down the road, and the rest will eventually, and sadly, adapt to their unenviable environment.

Pretty matters. Appearances are how we tell others who we are and what we are about. The appearance of your town is the one marketing tool that is working 24/7/365, announcing 100% of the time what your community stands for. What does the condition of your downtown say about you? What will a stranger glean about your self-esteem when they roll down Main Street? What story does the appearance of your downtown tell about the people that live there?

How is the appearance of your community shaping the self-esteem of its residents? Do you feel confident showing off your town? Are you proud of it? Does it boost your self-esteem to walk around your neighborhood? 

Appearances don’t just influence how others feel about us, they influence how we feel about ourselves. Don’t deny that the right outfit can send you out the door with some swagger. A good haircut can put a little extra wiggle in your butt. Hitting the gym hard might get you confident to bust out some speedos next summer. 

Yes, this is all very superficial. Our actions matter. The decisions we make dictate who we are. Confidence, pride and self-worth stem from our collective actions and how we go about our business. But looks matter and if your town looks like hell, the people in your town are feeling like hell. 

So tune out the bankers and smack anyone that talks about putting lipstick on a pig. You have my blessing. Finances matter, but so does art and poetry and whimsy and beauty. They matter more in fact, because no one is ever going to invest financially in your community if they can’t get invested emotionally. 

We must tend to appearances. Maintenance is not an option. The external inevitably becomes the internal. Our surroundings become ourselves. Our conditions condition us. 

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