Urban Topos

Vancouver, BC

Vancouver, BC

There are many ways to measure cities: population, unemployment, crime rates, pollution, literacy rates, and so on. Aesthetics is harder to quantify, and so it is easier to ignore, yet beauty is also an important urban variable. Beauty in the manmade environment takes the form of streets, squares, and buildings, so it is tempting for cities to seek improvements in the urban equivalent of facelifts and makeovers: new boulevards, parks, civic monuments. But there is a type of urban beauty that is harder to improve: the natural setting. Cities on islands (New York, Stockholm) have a sort of self-contained magic. Cities with hills (Montreal, Rome) feel as if they are tied to something elemental. Rivers used to be an indispensible attribute for a thriving city, but today they are purely an amenity. A city with an attractive river (Paris, London, Prague)—not too large and not too small—gains not only river walks. Crossing a bridge in a city feels like a temporary natural reprieve. That’s why lovers meet on bridges. The presence of water is always nice, even when its manmade (Venice, St. Petersburg) but not all water is created equal; there is nothing like the view of a beautiful bay (San Francisco, Rio de Janeiro) to spice up the urban scene. Views of majestic mountains (Seattle, Vancouver) are almost as good—plus they mean nearby skiing and hiking. There are inland cities on flat sites without charming rivers or mountain views (Houston, Beijing, New Delhi) that have overcome the lack of a beautiful setting. But the cities with beautiful natural settings will always have a leg up.

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