"Where flowers bloom, so does hope."
Lady Bird Johnson said that more than 40 years ago, but we're just now starting to understand that flowers, and beauty generally, aren't frills for those who can afford them, but necessary ingredients in a safe and healthy community.
When I was a student at UW-Madison, I lived in two dorms over two years. The first was the old Ogg Hall, two towers of cinderblock walls, dim fluorescent light hallways and stainless steel elevators. The place was routinely trashed. When graffiti was scrubbed off elevator doors, some of the brightest students in the world carved their acquired wisdom into the steel doors. The lounges had busted furniture. In short, while I'm not condoning the behavior, the place was treated with the same respect that it seemed to be offering to its residents. Harsh design earned harsh treatment.
The next year, I lived in Adams Hall on the lakeshore. Built 60 years before Ogg, it had a much softer aesthetic, and the very same students treated it with the respect demanded by a warm and stately building. There was hardly any writing on the walls or vandalism of any kind. Humane architecture invited more humane behavior.
I remembered that lesson 20 years later when I became mayor and was confronted with Allied Drive. I pushed through the purchase of a fifth of the housing in the neighborhood. It was of the same vintage and utilitarian aesthetic as Ogg Hall, though in a low-rise form -- big complexes with endless double-loaded interior hallways turned their backs on the street. Both materials and construction were second-rate.
After a year of cooperative design work with the neighborhood, we tore down that awful housing and replaced it with much better buildings, named Revival Ridge. They provided a higher quality environment for residents, and through porches and patios, created more interaction between the inside of homes and the public space of the street. In public safety terms, they put "eyes on the street." Allied Drive is a much safer, healthier neighborhood today in part because of good design.
Charles Blow describes the same effect at a day care and residential complex in Harlem in an op-ed published in last Saturday's New York Times. In large part thanks to the attention paid to natural light, color, quality materials and the use of art in the building, Blow describes the results this way:
There are no security guards. There is no commotion. There are no signs of institutional living like names above doors. There isn't even so much as a crayon mark on any of the walls. This is an oasis of civility and tranquility and culture inhabited -- and to some degree, self-policed -- by people whom the world would rob of those dignities.
As Blow points out, those who think it's too expensive should check out the cost of a year in prison or a mental health institution.
Good design, access to nature, and exposure to artistic expression shouldn't be commodities that only the rich or middle class can afford. Beauty shouldn't just be in the eye of those who can afford to behold it. It should be as common as air, because it is so important to a healthy, happy life.