Community Beautification Protects Property Values

planting flowers for community beautificatio

Just one community beautification project, such as a massive tulip planting or new park benches, generates positive publicity for you. You want your neighborhood to be looking good, don’t you?

A pleasant community appearance adds to home values, helps attract business investment, and just improves the neighborhood reputation. Research shows that beauty is one of the top three factors in creating community attachment, or loyalty, to your particular town or city.

To look good, it's really helpful to understand some urban design principles. When people take what is called visual preference surveys, usually the results are lop-sided. In this technique, participants are simply asked which photo of a similar type of street scene or building they prefer.






Assessing Community Design Factors

First, the hard stuff. We're giving you a seven-paragraph course in urban design principles.

If your neighborhood is completely built up, you often can't alter the most critical parts of community design, but it's good to be aware of them and do what you can to encourage a pleasing design through zoning and other means.

I can hear you booing or clicking off to some other page right now, but the hard truth is that people who don't think they care about community design actually do.

People really prefer some compatibility of architectural styles. Although most people couldn't tell you this off the top of the head, they like the fronts of houses on a block to line up, within a certain degree of tolerance. By the way, they like buildings close to the street too.

People prefer a vibrant scene with some personality over blandness. The trick is not overdoing the variation, unless you are in a true city where layers and layers of complexity are piled on top of one another.

Are these preferences constant for every place and every time? No, but they are usually fairly enduring over the course of a couple of decades. We suggest taking community appearance issues seriously.

Everything does not have to be perfect to have a pleasing neighborhood character. Just have a critical mass of pleasant elements, and unless your eyesores are really bad, the neighborhood still will be well liked. Make your neighborhood just a little bit distinctive.

The right balance between monotony and repetition of similar design elements in a community is important.

It's very pleasant to stroll down a block of three-story brick houses with similar setbacks from the street. The brick may be different colors, the landscaping quite contrasting, the side yards varied, and the window patterns unique, but if the height, material, and front yard setback are similar, the neighborhood will feel great.

However, if every house has the same brick, window placement, and driveway arrangement, the block may be too boring. Many real estate developers now seem to think that the paint and shingles in the same color are cheaper by the dozen, and that having to look at the street number to find your own house won't matter to people. That's not really so.



Design for Smaller Communities

Because we're using the term urban design, you may not think design for small cities and towns is critically important. In fact, in non-metropolitan parts of the country, small town character is what distinguishes one town from another.

If you live in such an area, you've probably heard it said that one town is junky, another town is so well-kept, and so forth. These statements reflect not only property maintenance norms but also the original design smarts.

If your original design was tacky, that's where a beautification campaign to distract the eye becomes critical.


Streetscape: A Common Fix-Up Technique

To improve community appearance, neighborhoods often try to update what is known as streetscape, which pertains to the area between the driving lanes and the edge of the private property.

Partly this is a popular strategy because it is public space, and it's easy for the government to dictate what will happen there.

In truth, streetscape can be quite effective in uniting block faces (the half of a block facing a particular street) or a series of blocks that are discordant in some way. Because streetscape often includes plantings, the effect is to soften the view created by streets and hopefully sidewalks.

Care in the choice of materials and in the quality of the installation makes all the difference in this form of beautification. Try not to choose exactly the same thing as the next neighborhood, because streetscape lends neighborhood identity as well.


Focal Points in Community Design

In addition to streetscape, sometimes you need a focal point. This might be public art, fountains, a clock tower, or even a particularly striking garden or grouping of tall grasses. Like all forms of community development, beautification benefits from thinking in terms of critical mass.

If you already have a lonely statue with nothing around it, maybe you should add planting beds of considerable size, an inviting bench or two, and maybe an interpretive sign explaining "the rest of the story" that can't be told on the bronze plaque.

Just to keep you from being all too serious about the aesthetics of your neighborhood, we thought we'd add a page about the off leash dog park phenomenon on this section of the website.


Volunteer Community Beautification

Don't overlook the opportunity to organize private citizens into their own little community beautification campaign. People might try to out-do one another in installing great-looking window boxes, for example. A common planting palette (a menu of plant choices) in a neighborhood is attractive, for instance, if the assortment of plants offered provides variety.

Your block could get into trying to attract butterflies, hummingbirds, or whatever.

A tree planting project, either on a vacant lot, in a park, or in the parkway between the sidewalk and the street, is great for improving community appearance over the course of a few years at a relatively low cost.

Those are pretty much the building blocks of the positive part of community appearance. Now let's check out how cleaning up some visual liabilities can be important.





Clean-Ups as Beautification

Eyesores in your community are a little bit like the squeaky door at your house. If you let them go long enough, you no longer "see" them.

It always amazes me as a consultant to go meet with an earnest board of directors who have been ignoring ugliness on Main Street for oh, say, 15 or 20 years. They look at each other sheepishly when I point it out. Don't be that community--just face the music and know you need to do something about it.

Denial doesn't help. Newcomers won't join you in overlooking the obvious.

An easy first win, if you've never done a beautification event, is cleaning up your neighborhood park.

Sometimes the first beautification project should be cleaning up your river or stream. Litter collects on the banks and then ultimately in the water, especially when no trash cans are provided.

If you've done a clean-up project already, please share it with the rest of us, tell us your best lessons in keeping it organized, and brag about your volunteers a little bit right on the Internet.

We have forms where you can write a paragraph or so (more if you like), and send photos if you have them, on each of these topics: derelict property clean-up, stream clean-up, park clean-up, or alley clean-up.

The great thing about these projects is that usually the village, town, or city will help you dispose of the trash that your volunteers collect, at a minimum. If they aren't in the habit of regular maintenance, they may be shocked at the volume of trash, but their sense of honor will make them haul it away, even if it takes a few days.


Abandoned Buildings Should Be at the Top of Your List

Abandoned buildings, by which I mean buildings that aren't in use, maintained, or for sale or lease, give a really negative impression. It says that the owner doesn't believe in your community enough to even try to renovate, rent, or sell.

Think about that--someone invested money to buy real estate but now doesn't think it's worth his or her time, trouble, or money to make use of the property.

An abandoned lot is pretty bad too. It's a gathering place for people or kids who are up to no good. It seems to attract debris because people feel comfortable dumping there. People sense when no one cares.

Code enforcement should always be your first line of defense. In most places, you can call in a complaint to your city or village government, providing they have a "code" (law) that can be enforced. The property owner will be the one held responsible for cleaning up the lot or building, even though he or she may not be the one doing the littering. But you can't be sentimental--you have to get that lot or building cleaned up.

Sometimes the first beautification project should be cleaning up your river or stream. Litter collects on the banks and then ultimately in the water, especially when no trash cans are provided.

The good thing about these projects is that usually the village, town, or city will help you dispose of the trash that your volunteers collect, at a minimum. If they aren't in the habit of regular maintenance, they may be shocked at the volume of trash, but their sense of honor will make them haul it away, even if it takes a few days.



Vacant Land or Buildings

Let's say that you have vacant land or vacant commercial buildings that are not "abandoned," as we described earlier. In other words, someone regularly picks up the trash, mows the grass, and tries to rent or sell the property.

I hate to tell you, but that vacancy still might be a problem. Two vacant lots in a row showing the footprints of old buildings makes us wonder about that block, even if the lots are otherwise neat as a pin.

The beautification project of choice for vacant lots is clean-up, planting, and sometimes uniform fencing.

In the case of residential lots, you need to actively seek infill housing projects.

Vacant commercial buildings need to look occupied, so if that means blinds on the windows, someone's teapot collection in the storefront, or a few desks and chairs in space that should be office space, you in the neighborhood organization might find it worthwhile to take these steps. Try to talk the property owner into it, but if you can't, see if they will allow you to do so.



Alleys: Eyesores into Assets

If your neighborhood has alleys, they too seem to be a magnet for trash. Alleys can be positive because they keep the number of automobiles parking on the street down. They also provide realistic spaces for dumpsters and thus relegate garbage collection to the rear of the house.

Beautification isn't easy, but tidy them up and perhaps make them green. The alleys or alley clean up pages will lead to plenty of ideas.


More Visual Clutter Awaiting Beautification

Now you're ready to consider sources of ugliness or mediocrity. We'd like to refer you to some resources for four of these:

Signs and visual clutter. Every business thinks they are entitled to a sign, and they compete to outdo each other in size and garishness. Before you get too critical, wouldn't you be the same? Wouldn't you want the biggest, baddest, reddest sign on the block if your livelihood depended on attracting customers?

Eliminating sign clutter is hard work, but it pays dividends even more surely than a positive beautification campaign.

Big box stores. You might not be familiar with the term but you know big boxes if you are in a Western culture. These are the large stores, usually furniture, discount, or electronics stores, with an even larger parking lot surrounding them. Although they might have other smaller stores in their out-lots, many are freestanding.

The problems are two: (a) the large and often unattractive parking lot causing the loss of pedestrian scale along the street, and (b) the planned obsolescence of these stores in 10-15 years, plus ordinary business failure, means that they frequently move or go out of business, leaving you with a very large space to try to rent, refurbish, or re-purpose.

Office towers. The office tower also presents the problem of the large parking lot, thus interrupting any possibility of street life along the road leading to it. In addition, many are extremely uncreative and lack any hint of human ingenuity and variety. They contribute to blandness in community life.

Beautification of big boxes and office towers requires significant new amenities to create distractions.

Manufactured housing. At the other extreme, many communities and rural areas suffer from unattractive or outdated manufactured homes, which also may be popularly called mobile homes or modular homes. Most do not age well, so even if they have underskirts, attractive landscaping, and a real porch, eventually there comes a time when the mobile home(s) will be problems.

They are not built with the expectation of a life cycle as long as a stick-built home, so the problems are inherent. And yet, they are practical for rural housing when there are not many carpenters available to build an inexpensive home.


Make Good Maintenance the Hallmark of the Community

As we've seen prevention of community design problems is essential to outstanding community appearance. That's related to your zoning, your restrictive covenants, and the quality of real estate developers you attract.

Although removing the negatives through clean ups is a great community building exercise, the best beautification campaigns would have been better as prevention campaigns.

Raise consciousness about community appearance, keep the neighborhood economically viable, and beautification will become a fun project instead of an obligation.

Return from Beautification to Useful Community Development


Search This Site:


Beautification Topics:

Urban Design Principles

Cleaning Up Your Neighborhood Park
Manufactured Housing
Streetscape
Art in Public Places
Stream Clean Up

Click Title for Additional Pages in This Heading:

Abandoned Buildings

Alleys

Big Box Stores

Neighborhood Character

Off-Leash Dog Park

Office Tower

Sign Regulation

Small Town Character