Us Folks: Beautiful Places Make Better People

Do beautiful places make happier people? Can the built environment promote civility? I like to think so.

The most awe-inspiring buildings I've been in were churches. For hundreds of years, houses of worship were the best buildings people could make from the materials at hand—the pinnacles of human ideals of beauty. In general, traditional religious architecture has certain patterns in common: soaring ceilings, golden ornaments, glass and tile mosaics, carved and polished stone. Traditional cathedrals, mosques, and temples convey a sense of vastness in space and time, and in wealth and power. They were built to lift people out of their ordinary lives with a representation of heaven on Earth. Even as a non-believer, when I'm standing in the sanctuary, I can almost see it.

If religious temples can promote a relationship to God, what kind of secular architecture could foster better relationships between people? Can city planners build an environment that, through its very structure, promotes civility and heals prejudices and fears?

It's hard to prove that beautiful places form better people. It is easier to show how bad architecture degrades us. Acres of parking lots keep us from gathering together, cookie-cutter strip malls loosen our connection to a place. Speeding cars on busy highways discourage us from lingering. Isolation degrades our mental and physical health.

If a city was to attempt to promote civility through architecture, what might it do? The first step is to get people out of their cars, so planners may start with a pedestrian thoroughfare, a defined area that is spacious, but has a sense of enclosure. They might add many places to sit in the sun or shade. A water feature would be nice. The space might be surrounded by shops, places to eat, things to do, people playing music. A variety of activities would be allowed, attracting a diverse mix of people of different incomes, ages, and backgrounds.

In other words, Knoxville's Market Square.

It's difficult to say anything that hasn't already been said about our beloved, revitalized Market Square, except to note that one square isn't enough. We need more pedestrian-only mini-plazas, throughout the city. In Prague, where I lived for a year, there was the Old Town Square in the center, but small pedestrian-plazas existed every few blocks in every part of the city, and they were always full of people.

Sociologist Elijah Anderson calls these spaces "cosmopolitan canopies." He defines them as "settings that offer a respite from the lingering tensions of urban life and an opportunity for diverse peoples to come together. ... Under the canopy this sense of familiarity often breeds comfort and encourages all to be on their best behavior, promoting peaceful relations."

In his 2011 book The Cosmopolitan Canopy, Anderson employs another delightful term: "folk ethnography." If ethnography is the study and collection of information on human cultures, folk ethnography is, Anderson writes, "a form of people-watching that allows individuals to informally gather evidence in social interactions. Through personal observation, they may come casually to appreciate one another's differences and empathize with the other in a spirit of shared humanity."

Market Square, which has folk art on display at the Saturday Farmers' Market, folk music performed by unkempt buskers, and pseudo-folk cuisine at Tupelo Honey, also provides fertile ground for folk ethnography.

Have you ever noticed feelings of contentment on a Farmers' Market day when everyone is gathered around the fountain, complimenting each other's dogs and children?

"How cute," we say to each other, "How precious."

It sounds trite, but it's not. It's folk ethnography, and it might save our secular human spirit.