On walkability, part 5: Aesthetics revisited

[This is the fifth in a series of posts on walkability and city form. If you’d like to read them in sequence, here are part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4.]

Via The Atlantic Cities, I’ve been checking out OpenPlansBeautiful Streets project, an experiment to determine what makes a street beautiful. When you visit the Beautiful Streets front page, you see two side-by-side Google Street Views of randomly chosen streets in Philadelphia. You then click the checkmark on whichever street you think is the more beautiful of the two.* The data goes into a spreadsheet containing locations and votes, which can be downloaded if you want to crunch the numbers yourself. As the Atlantic poster notes, the choices are often not obvious at all. Is the snarl of streets around 30th Street Station more beautiful than a pleasant but architecturally unremarkable suburb because the former affords a glimpse of the towers of Center City in the distance? Do overgrown areas register as dangerously run-down or lushly green? Does a street with humdrum architecture get points for including a park? Is there any beauty at all to be found in highways?

I’m not entirely sure how useful the results will be; I’ve noticed, from my own interactions, that my perceptions of a street’s beauty are skewed somewhat by sunshine, photo quality (there are some cloudy, hazy images in Google Street View that just don’t look good to me, no matter what the street itself looks like), and whether or not I recognize the part of town in the image. (The little jolt of nostalgia — “3rd and Market! I used to pass that corner on my way to the farmer’s market every Sunday!” — sometimes overrides my sense of aesthetics.) And as a commenter on the Atlantic points out, there might be some selection bias at work. But, even so, I’m going to be very interested to see what kind of results come out of the data once they’ve collected enough of it. As I’ve written here before, aesthetics are important if you want to make streets friendly to foot traffic.

It’s also a very useful site for making discoveries about one’s own visual preferences. I already knew I have a strong preference for older buildings, for streets with trees, for varied architecture, for a feeling of enclosure, and for buildings higher than two stories. But looking at these images has also made me realize that I love idiosyncratic things as well, like trolley tracks and Y-shaped intersections disrupting the regular grid. And that I think streets are especially beautiful when there are people using them. I can see a project like this working as a conversation-starter as well as a source of data.

Plus, for me, seeing these glimpses of Philadelphia again is just plain happy-making. Even the streets I’ve never visited, even the ones that are downright ugly. Though it does make me a bit sad that some of my very favorite Philly streets are too tiny and narrow to be on Google Street View in the first place. But I could write a whole other post about those streets, and I probably will, complete with pictures.

* Rather like the entertainingly time-wasting site Kitten War, where you vote for which of a random pair of kitten images is cuter. I wonder if the Kitten War folks have tried to analyze the principles of kitten cuteness? You know, for SCIENCE? Inquiring minds want to know!

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