Beautiful places attract and delight, tempting us to return
to experience and enjoy more of their charms. Paris, for example, ranks as the
world’s favorite tourist destination, with 44.9 million visitors in 2018.
What makes it so popular is its exceptional beauty and
wonderful attractions, which include 4,000 historic monuments, 140 museums, 361
theaters, 5 opera houses, 4 UNESCO sites, 218 shopping centers, 421 parks and,
of course, an incredible gastronomic scene.
Yet Paris was not always so lovely. During the mid-19th
century, the city was overcrowded, gloomy, dangerous and unhygienic. When
Napoleon III became emperor, he appointed Georges-Eugene Haussmann, commonly
known as Baron Haussmann, as mayor and instructed him to make Paris “more
beautiful.” This became Europe’s largest reconstruction project, as the city
underwent an urban renaissance between 1853 and 1870. The beautification plan
included expansive boulevards, beautiful squares, picturesque gardens and grand
theaters — all of which are enjoyed to this day.
Improvements to the city have continued through the decades;
just last month Mayor Anne Hidalgo announced a plan to transform the Eiffel
Tower district into what will be the city’s largest garden. She said the aim is
to make it a “place that will become a space for walking, strolling and
Across the Atlantic, the City Beautiful movement of the late
19th and early 20th centuries pushed for beauty and grandeur in US cities. This
was a reaction to the population boom that had caused American cities to become
congested, dirty and unsanitary, resulting in social unrest, violence, labor
strikes and the spread of disease. There was a compelling need, therefore, for
the creation of recreational public spaces that could be enjoyed by all. Advocates
argued that the aim of urban beautification was to promote a harmonious social
order, instill civic and moral pride, and improve the overall quality of life
for all residents.
The interest in improving cities continues to this day, and
urban economists have shown that the design and development of a city can have
a significant impact on its economic growth and the happiness of residents.
Gerald Carlino, of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, and Albert Saiz, of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, published a research study this year on the connections between urban beauty and economic performance. They found that compared with less attractive locations, picturesque cities experienced greater growth in population and jobs, attracted a more highly educated and skilled labor force, and generated property values that were 16 percent higher. It seems people are happiest, not surprisingly, when they live in a beautiful city.
But what qualities make for a beautiful city? Urban
beautification involves investment in a variety of public spaces and
facilities, including museums, art galleries, historical sites, architecture
and cultural centers. Such valuable assets offer huge social and economic value
to a city. Additionally, they foster and facilitate social connections and
relationships, which is vitally important for improving the happiness of
In 2010, the Knight Foundation and Gallup asked 43,000 people
in 26 cities why they consider some cities more attractive than others. The
findings of this Soul of the Community Survey indicated that open spaces,
physical beauty and social amenities were the primary reasons why people bonded
with some cities more than others. Interestingly, the cities considered most
beautiful also had the highest rates of gross domestic product growth and the
A notable feature of all the most attractive cities is the
plentiful presence of green spaces. According to a global study of more than
290 million people published by the UK’s University of East Anglia in 2018,
populations with access to the most green spaces had reduced risks of type II
diabetes, cardiovascular disease, premature death, preterm births, stress and
high blood pressure.
Researchers at King’s College London, meanwhile, found that “being
outdoors, seeing trees, hearing birdsong, seeing the sky and feeling in contact
with nature were associated with higher levels of mental wellbeing.”
In 1963, Singapore unveiled a vision to become the world’s
greenest city, dubbing itself a “Garden City.” This dream led to the
establishment of the award-winning Gardens by the Bay project, which created on
reclaimed land a 101-hectare nature park filled with the best in horticulture
and garden artistry, and the Singapore Botanic Gardens, which is now a UNESCO
World Heritage Site.
The campaign also led to the introduction of new flowering
species across the city, creating a pervasive green network of nature reserves,
parks, tree-lined roads and other green areas. In addition, Singapore’s
signature Community in Bloom gardening campaign created 1,400 community gardens
and engaged more than 36,000 gardening enthusiasts to help make the city more
Surrounding oneself with natural beauty each day has a
cumulative, positive effect on happiness. Therefore, policymakers and urban
planners need to spend more time planning and implementing city beautification
projects to make their cities more attractive, memorable and uplifting.
As the 19th century French writer Stendhal once said: “Beauty is nothing other than the promise of happiness.”