Enjoying Beautiful Cities

civic beauty Past research has linked beautiful cities to human happiness. A new psychometric research project by CitiesBeautiful.org focuses on linkages to fifteen categories of civic beauty.  We invite you to participate in that project.

Past Research

What do our individual concepts of beauty reveal about our perceptions, our motivations, even our priorities in life?  The answers to these questions are far more profound than most people realize.  Dr. Ethel Puffer Howes, professor of aesthetics at Wellesley, Smith and Simmons Colleges, wrote in her all-encompassing, landmark book The Psychology of Beauty1:

”I believe the way is at last opened from the traditional philosophy of aesthetics to a healthy and concrete psychological theory…The beautiful object possesses those qualities which bring the personality into a state of unity and self-completeness.”

Stated differently, we say “beautiful!” when we experience a spontaneous and deeply appreciative connection between our true selves and our surroundings.

Focusing on civic beauty, research studies continually underscore the importance of urban aesthetics to humankind.  To cite three examples:

  • Beautiful Places: The Role of Perceived Aesthetic Beauty in Community Satisfaction 2“Research, across various social science fields, finds that beauty has a significant effect on various economic and social outcomes. Our research uses a large survey sample of individuals across US locations to examine the effects of beauty and aesthetics on community satisfaction…The findings confirm that perceived beauty or aesthetic character of a location has a positive and significant effect on perceived community satisfaction. It is one of the most significant factors…”
  • People and Places: Public Attitudes to Beauty 3“We would like readers to take away from this report a sense that the public recognise the time and attention that the subject of beauty deserves and that they are ready to see public figures and influencers taking beauty seriously … They believe that beauty is important in their local area and there is a strong consensus for striving for more beauty in neighbourhoods, towns and cities…A striking example of how much people believe that beauty matters is the way they discuss its importance for younger and future generations.”
  • The City in History 4 – Lewis Mumford warned of the perils of not pursing beautiful cities. “We must give as much weight to the arousal of the emotions and to the expression of moral and aesthetic [emphasis added] values as we now give to science, to invention, to practical organization. One without the other is impotent.”

Fifteen Categories of Civic Beauty

Civic beauty is fundamentally important – but what makes a city beautiful?  Innumerable theories have been offered over the last 2,600 years. CitiesBeautiful.org, a website dedicated to the greater appreciation and deeper understanding of civic beauty worldwide, has researched “common threads” in the writings of 40 of the most famous commentators on civic beauty, from the Ancient Greeks up to the present.  The 40 renowned commentators encompass:

  • Aesthetic Philosophers (e.g., Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, David Hume, Immanuel Kant);
  • Architects, City Planners, Preservationists (Camillo Sitte, Daniel Burnham, Ebenezer Howard, Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, Edmund Bacon);
  • Psychologists, Sociologists, and Other Commentators (William James, Abraham Maslow, Louis Wirth, Lewis Mumford, Jane Jacobs).

civic beauty psychology

Also considered are perceptions of beauty as driven by the biology of the brain. As first theorized by American neuroscientist Dr. Paul MacLean in The Triune Brain in Evolution 5, the human brain consists of three principal components, resulting from three progressive evolutionary periods. Each of the three brains can be linked to differences in how humans perceive beauty.

  1. The Reptilian Brain (Archipallium Brain, R-Complex) administers our physical being. Beauty perceived by this portion of the brain typically involves the five senses; an example would be the pleasurable stimulation of the sights, sounds, tastes, etc. of watching a tropical sunset from a Hawaiian beach with a Mai Tai in hand.
  1. The Mammalian Brain (Paleomammalian Brain, Limbic System) is responsible for our emotional being. Examples of beautiful experiences using this part of the brain include the feelings of awe and wonder when visiting enormous, magnificent structures such as the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.
  1. The Neocortex (Neopallium Brain, Cerebrum) confers the ability for language, abstraction, planning, and perception, and thereby is the locale of our intellectual being. This is the area of the brain that recognizes the beautiful intricacies, symmetries and innovations of the Taj Mahal in Agra.

To recap, then, common threads derive from:

  • The focused observations of acclaimed philosophers, architects, city planners, psychologists, etc., over the last 2,600 years; and
  • The anatomy of the human brain.

CitiesBeautiful.org’s research has gleaned 15 common threads, hereafter referred to as the 15 “Beautiful Facets”.   All beautiful urban places can be described using the vocabulary of the 15 Beautiful Facets.  The vocabulary is analogous to the terms used in evaluating paintings and other works of art – Balance, Variety, Rhythm, Proportion, Unity, Contrast, Emphasis, and so on.  The Beautiful Facets are just such a vocabulary for civic beauty.

For a detailed description of the methodology used in deriving the Beautiful Facets, see the Beautiful Book tab at the CitiesBeautiful.org website.

Psychometric Research Project

The Beautiful Facets are not only fundamental to urban communities but also to individuals as well. Given that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” (as Plato was the first to say), everyone has different preferences among the 15 Beautiful Facets.  Visitors to the CitiesBeautiful.org website can determine their favorite Beautiful Facets by answering a series of multiple-choice psychometric questions, somewhat like an occupational aptitude test.  The visitors’ answers are automatically analyzed and immediately displayed in a bar chart.

Psychology of Beauty

Once visitors establish their preferences among the 15 Beautiful Facets, they can travel virtually to their top beautiful urban places at the CitiesBeautiful.org or put together a list of must-see places for future real-world travels.  For example, an individual who happened to rate the Beautiful Facet of Elegance the highest might naturally first look on the 25 city interactive maps for the (#4 orange) Elegance pins.

civic beauty psychology

Invitation to Participate

Statistical analyses have been performed on the inputs of hundreds of psychometric test takers from around the world. A number of statistically significant findings emerge when preferences among the Beautiful Facets are compared to the demographics of the test takers (e.g., age, education level, number of countries visited).  Further statistical research is now underway.

Accordingly, to have as large and diverse a statistical sample as possible, we encourage you to take the test at the CitiesBeautiful.org website!


  1. Ethel Puffer Howes, The Psychology of Beauty, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1905
  2. Richard Florida, Charlotta Mellander, and Kevin Stolarick, Beautiful Places: The Role of Perceived Aesthetic Beauty in Community Satisfaction, Toronto: Martin Prosperity Institute, Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto, 2009.
  3. People and Places: Public Attitudes to Beauty, London: Ipsos MORI Social Research Institute on behalf of the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE), 2010.
  4. Lewis Mumford, The City in History – Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects, New York: Harbinger Books, 1961 [Lewis Mumford was internationally renowned for his decades of writings on cities, architecture, technology, literature, and modern life.  Among his many awards was the Presidential Medal of Freedom.]
  5. Paul MacLean, The Triune Brain in Evolution: Role in Paleocerebral Functions, New York: Plenum Press, 1990