Community Beautification: Oxygen is Beautiful

Community beautification programs are fairly popular and they typically involve adding greenery, picking up litter and that sort of thing. This short video seems to be pretty typical of the attitudes people generally have that flowers and greenery are simply pretty and that's why you should add them to the built environment.

But plants aren't just pretty. Plants provide oxygen, reduce erosion, mitigate heat island effect and much more.

Years ago in GIS school, I learned that a good map will generally be described as beautiful, but that relationship isn't a two-way street.

Simply making a map beautiful doesn't, per se, make it a good map. In fact, adding flourishes solely for the sake of beauty tends to actively undermine the function of the map.

A good map is one that is well designed such that it effectively and efficiently conveys the information it is intended to capture. This tends to have a side effect of being visually appealing but visual appeal isn't really the goal per se.

In the years since I learned that, I have spent a lot of time contemplating exactly what it is that makes humans find something beautiful.

I have concluded that beauty is shorthand for things that have some kind of intrinsic value but it is an imperfect proxy that can be fooled. It is a quick and dirty visual test of value and it is one humans routinely actively seek to hack.

A lot of people think beauty has value in its own right and don't necessarily recognize that it is a quick and dirty proxy for other things. The end result is that sometimes beauty is only skin deep and sometimes it's not.

Long, strong natural fingernails are a signal of underlying health because serious health issues, such as respiratory problems or circulatory problems, negatively impact fingernail growth. This is likely the real reason pretty fingernails are valued by many people.

But when women wear press-on nails it ceases to be a genuine signal of underlying health. Whether intentionally or not, at that point it becomes a false signal of underlying good health.

While beauty is an imperfect proxy, sometimes simply trying to make something prettier will actually remedy more serious problems. You don't necessarily have to understand why for it to work.

This is likely the case with community beautification programs. Their stated aim is simply to make things prettier but they tend to follow certain practices that actually add real value beyond mere beauty.

So if you institute a beautification program, you are probably doing more than just prettying up the place. You are probably doing this even if you don't understand what you are doing, so long as you don't do something that fundamentally breaks the standard process, like substituting plastic plants for real plants.

If you are installing living plants, you aren't simply making the place prettier. You are impacting the actual quality of the environment and that impact is probably overall going to be positive even if your only stated goal is to make things prettier.

Vibrant Cities Lab is a rich resource that provides research, case studies and how to guides. Among other things, they cover how trees improve: In addition to adding plants, beautification programs typically also seek to pick up litter and make things cleaner. Among other things, this can improve public health and safety by making the place less germy and removing tripping hazards.

But it also implicitly sends a signal that "There are people here who care about this area and are willing to roll up their sleeves and do something about it and they are here regularly."

Jane Jacobs suggested that eyes on the street are the key to public safety. Criminals don't want witnesses, so simply having a lot of foot traffic is a deterrent to crime.

Actively cleaning the area up implicitly suggests "Not only are there people here regularly, there are people here regularly who care about the place, who are personally invested and who will do something about a problem." It implicitly suggests the presence of people who can not only answer questions if the police show up, they may well call the police themselves.

There is a general idea floating around that simply making a place prettier enhances economic activity, real estate values and so forth. You see such ideas promoted in articles like this one.

There is ample evidence that prettier places typically fair better economically, but correlation does not imply causation. I have not personally seen any research that really tries to pin down exactly how that works.

I strongly suspect that simply prettying things up is not, per se, the reason for the positive impact on economic health. I think beauty is a proxy because there is strong correlation between the things humans really need in a place and the things we find visually appealling.

The kinds of things we do to pretty things up typically provide a deeper intrinsic value. Most community beautification programs focus strongly on adding live plants.

Oxygen from plants has value for humans whether the plants are pretty or not. Without oxygen, we will literally die in mere minutes.

Our evolutionary wiring likely placed a high value on seeking out things that help to keep us alive. We likely love to be around living plants because oxygen is a more urgent need than food or water.

Maybe it's really oxygen we find beautiful because it is literally life giving. But we can't see oxygen so we use a proxy and decide that oxygen factories -- aka plants -- are beautiful.

It's a robust enough proxy that you don't have to understand the science behind it or the biological processes. You can just jump on the band wagon and add living plants "because they are pretty."

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