New Research Shows What Makes Cities Visually Appealing

November 25, 1997

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- A new study of residents and visitors of two Tennessee cities has identified five factors that make a city visually appealing.

But the results suggest that most U.S. cities don’t do well on visual appeal and are sending messages of “dullness and disorder,” said Jack Nasar, author of the study and a professor of city and regional planning at Ohio State University.

“Usually, public officials overlook the appearance of their cities because they think it is a matter of taste and that it isn’t very important,” Nasar said.

“However, research shows appearance is very important and that people generally agree about what makes a city look appealing.”

The findings showed that the most-liked parts of cities included some of these five elements: nature, open space, historical significance, a sense of order, and evidence of good upkeep (see chart).

The study is part of a new book by Nasar called The Evaluative Image of the City (Sage Publications, 1998). The book reviews research about the visual appeal of more than 10 cities, including New York, Philadelphia, Paris, Vancouver, Columbus, OH, and Gilbert, AZ.

The book focuses more closely on research Nasar led in Knoxville and Chattanooga. Nasar’s team interviewed 160 randomly chosen residents and 120 visitors in Knoxville, as well as 60 residents and 60 visitors in Chattanooga. In both cities, the researchers asked participants to identify areas they liked and disliked visually and to give the reasons for their responses. The researchers then developed evaluative maps for each person showing the liked and disliked areas. They then overlaid the maps, giving a composite map of visual appeal.

From these results, Nasar developed his list of five factors that determine the likeability of a city scene.

Nasar said he was struck by the amount of agreement among participants about what was likeable and unlikeable about the two cities. Residents and visitors had similar views, although residents obviously knew more about the cities scenes they rated.

Participants tended to dislike areas that had a lot of parking lots, billboards, industry, congestion and a lack of coherent styles. They liked areas with a lot of plants and trees, views of rivers and mountains, well-kept buildings, and a sense of organization and order.

“Conventional wisdom says that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but this study and others show strong consistencies in what people like and dislike in the environment,” Nasar said.

The problem, though, is that most American cities don’t pay enough attention to their appearance, Nasar believes.

“Americans live with visual disorder all around us. We may have learned to accept it, adapt to it, or turn a blind eye to it, but I believe we would find more enjoyment in more agreeable surroundings,” he said.

One of the big offenses in many city areas is the hodgepodge of buildings, parking lots and chaotic signs and billboards. Often what is good for an individual or business may not be good for the overall environment. “Alone, each new building or sign my appear harmless or even desirable, but when they are all put together they appear ugly,” he said. “A good example is the strip shopping centers that appear in every city.”

But improving the visual quality of a city is not just good for aesthetics, according to Nasar. Studies have shown that a city’s appearance of disorder and neglect can heighten sensory overload, stress, and fear among residents and visitors. For example, research Nasar has done found that certain design elements of cities can make people more fearful of crime. Although many cities have some sort of design review to control appearance, these boards are hampered by a lack of public input, he said. “Leaders should use a consumer polling approach to see how the public responds to city features,” he said. “This consumer-oriented approach would make design controls more acceptable to everyone and result in more appealing cities.”
-end-


Ohio State University

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