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Good Design Matters

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Originally appears in the Fall 2007 issue

Clean air, clean water and healthy natural systems are all important to the health and well-being of communities around the world, but, as Mark Twain once said, “We take stock of a city like we take stock of a man. The clothes or appearance are the externals by which we judge.” In other words, community appearance is important too. Unfortunately, many North Americans have gotten used to the ugliness of their communities, accepting it as an inevitable result of progress. Just look around: enormous billboards, cluttered commercial strips and look-alike fast food restaurants are all too common across North America and, increasingly, around the world. There is an immense but often ignored relationship between a community’s visual character and its economic, social and environmental well-being. Yet most land use laws and environmental regulations do little to address visual quality, community character or urban design. As a result, many communities are slowly losing their unique identity.

So what is community character and why is it important? First of all, community character is what makes your town different from every other town. No two towns are exactly alike. Each has a particular street layout and arrangement of buildings, shaped over time in a particular geography by a particular population. The dynamic forces of place, time and culture work to create endless variations on the theme of city, town, village or rural area.

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Edward T. McMahon is a Senior Resident Fellow at the Urban Land Institute in Washington, D.C.