You’re reading Startup Cities, a newsletter about startups that build neighborhoods and cities.
This week: an essay.
Several readers have said they prefer to read via audio. So this week I’ll try an experiment: reading the article. I’m far from a voice-over actor, but hopefully those that prefer audio can enjoy this audio version.
The Death of Beautiful Neighborhoods
In the Financial Times, Tim Harford asks: “Why did we stop building beautiful neighborhoods?” Harford focuses on the UK. But, let’s be honest, this disease afflicts America, too.
Architects and designers offer a common answer to Harford’s query: we stopped doing things the traditional way! If only we went back to Tradurbanism, we’d rediscover urban beauty.
The “let’s build pretty villages” people focus on the physical: traditional materials, Christopher Alexander-esque design patterns, the “human scale.” There’s truth here. But I want to focus on what’s often overlooked by designers: the business of beautiful.
What if Tradurbanism Was Just Poverty?
Urban beauty arises from freedom and constraint. With freedom, complex patterns grow throughout a city. Residents optimize the city on the micro scale, exploiting that freedom. This local optimization leads to neighborhoods with novel features. These neighborhoods form a network that composes a city.
But a unified vibe across a neighborhood or city demands some constraints — a common culture, a common set of materials or style. Architects and urbanists obsess with the “constraint” part. Stones. Two-story buildings. Curvy roads.
But Tradurbanism’s constraints grew in humanity’s natural state: poverty. The constraints of the past were severe: no cars or elevators, small-scale manufacturing, no modern materials, the overbuilding of everything since we couldn’t simulate failure modes on a computer, literally everyone being poor by modern standards. These constraints accidentally created a unified aesthetic because they restricted the freedom of builders.
Tradurbanism wasn’t an aesthetic philosophy: there was no Committee for Medieval Urbanism that published best practice whitepapers for villagers to follow. Medieval villagers did not walk around their town and think, “Wow! How fortunate I am to live in such a picturesque stone village!”
Medieval villagers used “local materials” because there weren’t any container ships to bring them other materials. They didn’t build higher than a couple stories because they couldn’t. Roads were cobblestone because they couldn’t pave with asphalt.
Today’s Tradurbanism is an attempt to re-create the constraints caused by yesterday’s grinding poverty.
Slums: Tomorrow’s Tradurbanism, Today
Today, we have “organic urbanism” with far fewer constraints on materials and culture: slums. Slums are organic neighborhoods built without the constraints of medieval localism and poverty.
Here’s La Limonada, one of my favorite informal communities in LatAm (but don’t plan a visit):
If we swapped out materials, La Limonada might resemble an Italian city like San Gimignano:
As it turns out, the much-less-constrained, modern-material-built, organic neighborhood looks pretty ugly. Most would agree that the bottom-up building in San Gimignano, constrained by poverty, looks better than the bottom-up building of La Limonada which, though poor, enjoys the benefits of a global economy.
These similarities appear on the micro-level too. Here’s a beautiful Italian staircase, sure to fire up a Tradurbanist:
And here’s yours truly descending a not-as-beautiful staircase on the outskirts of La Limonada:
Look at how it descends! Admire how the buildings hug the street and curve to break the sightline! Marvel at the how the plant life frames the path! Something something car free urbanism!
OK, OK. No one aspires for the “LatAm Slum” aesthetic. These neighborhoods are functional. They’re modern: built of cinderblocks (b. 1890), rebar (b. 1850s), and corrugated metal (b. 1830).
People who live in “slums” build this way because it’s cheap and practical. (And because they don’t have secure property rights, making more expensive materials a risky investment.) Like medieval villagers, residents of La Limonada don’t walk around shocked at the beauty of their barrio. They just need a damn place to sleep.
In La Limonada, corner stores and living-room cafés even spill out into the street: mixed-use urbanism powered by plastic lawn chairs and Pepsi Co. umbrellas. Give this dusty staircase 100 years of tree and vine growth, swap out cinderblocks for rough stones, replace the concrete stairs with cobblestones, and you have yourself a pseudo-medieval village courtesy of the rapidly-urbanizing Global South.
We might call a slum like La Limonada: “tomorrow’s traditional urbanism.” Today we yearn for 19th century row-houses or 18th century homesteads or 17th century stone villages.
Perhaps an architect in 2100 will pull up holographic renderings of a Brazilian favela and wistfully call for a return to that “late-stage democracy poverty-brutalist” aesthetic...
We shouldn’t obsess about medieval villages because they reflect a different world. Sure, we can learn from the patterns. We can still agree that a stone church is beautiful. But we should be careful about waxing poetic about cities from an era when donkey sh*t covered the sidewalks and mothers left babies to die in the forest because they couldn’t feed them.
The question for the modern city-builder shouldn’t just be “which stone for the facade?” It should be: how can I walk the tightrope of freedom and constraint in an age when wealth, technology, and globalization have liberated us from medieval poverty and cultural homogeneity?
How can we build with freedom but still create coherence?
Beauty is a Commons
Beauty emerges from the whole. It’s not just the cobblestone path — it’s how the cobblestone path contrasts with the pastel facades and how the flowers on the second floor window drape in the sunshine and the wind rustles through the old-growth trees and... you get the idea.
Beauty is a commons. It doesn’t map to property lines. The limits of a parcel are not the relevant limit for an aesthetic. The beauty of each parcel — each building, each owner’s investment — depends on what surrounds it.
With no constraints, people tend to abuse anything held in common — including the beauty of a neighborhood. We all benefit when everything is beautiful. But I can individually benefit by doing something that detracts from the whole. So I do. I build an ugly McMansion. I gain. You lose. Too bad for you.
Since it drives property values, beauty is an asset. This asset is enjoyed in common. In a medieval village, the constraints of poverty and localism maintained the value of that asset. It was impossible for people to build a gaudy, aesthetic-wrecking McMansion in San Gimignano. That’s not true anymore. Beauty, a neighborhood’s common asset, is easily abused.
History holds a parallel to how beauty became an abused asset. In medieval times, many villages operated common grazing fields. These eventually broke down as technology and demographics changed. The fields weren’t efficiently used and some farmers over-used them, harming the common asset. This is a classic “tragedy of the commons.”
What happened to these grazing fields? They were enclosed. Historians call this period “the enclosure movement.” As society transcended medieval constraints, common grazing lands required ownership to thrive.
Homeowners in many subdivided communities are like medieval farmers, over-grazing the commons: the beauty of their neighborhood. We’ve “solved” this problem today with HOAs and aggressive NIMBYism.
Homeowners with toxic 30-year mortgages block anything that might lower property values. No change is safest of all. The value of the asset named beauty is “preserved” through gladiatorial combat in city councils, planning boards, and HOA meetings.
These solutions don’t work well. Today’s cities are paralyzed by fear of growth and change and yet most of them are still ugly! The worst of both worlds.
Let’s now return to Harford’s Portmeiron, which hides a powerful secret in plain sight.
Beautiful is Good Business
The beauty of a city should be treated as the asset it is. It should be owned, operated, optimized, measured, and valued for its yield to the enterprise.
Traditionally, this means a single company would own and operate the neighborhood, growing revenue by investing in the beauty of the whole. Modern tools like crypto may create other models for owner-residents, such as Andrew Hitchcock’s “crypto co-op” proposal. (Or Endowment Zones, an idea I’ve advocated with free zone innovator Mark Frazier).
I can hear the gasps already. You vicious capitalist! You heartless philistine! How can you say that beauty must be owned?! Operated?! OPTIMIZED?!
Well, let’s look at Portmeiron.
Portmeiron is beautiful and whimsical. And, we must note, it is owned.
Whether we like it or not, beauty is an asset. Every tourist town in history operates on this simple principle. If beauty is an asset, why can’t it be managed well?
In Portmeiron, it certainly is:
All the sentimentalism in the world doesn’t change the effectiveness of entrepreneurial management with good incentives.
The creator of Portmeiron knew this. Here’s Harford:
Williams-Ellis [founder of Portmeiron] solved the problem [of people abusing the beauty-commons] by retaining ownership of everything: “No house or land is sold freehold, complete and permanent control of the whole settlement being of course my basic idea.”
William-Ellis saw that owning the aesthetic of Portmeiron was the best way to steward his asset. And so Portmeiron, built in the 1920s, survived decades of destructive urbanism. While many of today’s subdivided, freeheld neighborhoods descend into hideous, entropic sprawl, Portmeiron doesn’t. It thrives.
In fact, it charges 8 Pounds just to walk around.
Theme Parks: The Transient Neighborhood
Think about this. Portmeiron’s beauty-asset-management game is so strong that it stopped being a real neighborhood that houses people and turned itself into a theme park. Owned is apparently so beautiful that you can make more money renting it out for the day than renting it out to tenants for the year.
I hear the critics now: “Yeah dude but real neighborhoods don’t work this way. Portmeiron is a theme park for a reason!”
But what is a theme park? It’s a neighborhood optimized for transient customers. Is it so ridiculous to imagine a strong aesthetic optimized for long-term customers instead? Poundbury, also in the U.K., already does it.
People vote with their euro-dollar and their feet. Do you really believe that of the 200,000 people that visit Portmeiron each year that no one would be willing to live in such a place? The popularity of theme parks is evidence of huge latent demand for strong aesthetics under entrepreneurial management. Disney, which will soon be building new neighborhoods, understands this.
Indeed, the evidence that owned is beautiful is everywhere.
In the U.S. malls are passé, but spend time in Latin America and you’ll fall in love with the shopping mall. In Guatemala City, the most beautiful “neighborhoods” for a stroll were Ciudad Cayalá (a wholly-owned outdoor mall), Plaza Fontabella (a wholly-owned indoor mall) and Antigua, the old colonial-era capital (built under medieval poverty constraints). Almost everywhere else in the city — which imported 20th Century America’s most disastrous planning ideas — is sprawly, unsafe, and paralyzed by traffic. It turns out that owned isn’t just beautiful, it’s also safe.
Porta Norte is bringing owned-is-beautiful to Panama. Culdesac is bringing it to Arizona. One of the prettiest and most popular mountain towns in America — Vail, Colorado — is basically a giant ski resort operated by a publicly traded company.
Here’s Fidenza Village — an Italian shopping mall — which Harford also notes for its whimsy:
Harford laments the joy of our theme parks and the dysfunction of our neighborhoods:
There is nothing wrong with building a place so joyful that people will pay just to come and look around. The problem is that the joy does not seem to have rubbed off on the places where people live their lives.
But why hasn’t Portmeiron’s obvious secret rubbed off? The answer is deceptively simple. It’s because too few neighborhoods and cities are owned and operated by entrepreneurs — as Portmeiron is.
Owned is beautiful. And we’ll need many more neighborhoods and cities built by entrepreneurs to realize the frontiers of urban beauty.
Thanks for reading and don’t forget: Startups should build cities!