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Beautification of Your Community Matters

This feature requires JavaScript to be turned on. Community beautification should be high on your agenda as a local leader or a neighborhood or community organization.  Simple projects range from planting some pretty flowers or shrubs to painting planters, benches, sign posts, or whatever is beginning to look a bit […]

hands planting pink flowers

Community beautification should be high on your agenda as a local leader or a neighborhood or community organization.  Simple projects range from planting some pretty flowers or shrubs to painting planters, benches, sign posts, or whatever is beginning to look a bit tired. Volunteer-led projects such as these are one of the quickest ways to inspire more community spirit, socializing, and action.

A visually appealing community increases property values, attracts
businesses, and improves the neighborhood’s image. Beauty is one of the three most influential factors in community attachment, which means loyalty, to your particular town or city.
Some research even shows that a nice-looking neighborhood promotes good behavior.  To help you realize these benefits, we wrote articles on the topics below; if you are uncertain which to select, use the Search box at the top of the page. (This article continues after the grid.)

Volunteer Community Beautification

To get started with beautification, you might create an opportunity to organize private citizens into
their own little community beautification campaign right at home . 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 or block unit or club 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. If you happen to live in a subdivision or condo development where the developer neglected to plant trees, you might focus your effort on making sure home owners select and plant appropriate trees to eventually give you a much healthier and more beautiful place to live.

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 15 or 20 years. They look at each other sheepishly when I
point it out. Try not be that community–just face the music and know you
need to do something about it.

Denial does not help. Newcomers and visitors will not 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.

Assessing Community Design Factors

Now let’s move to some more advanced considerations about the long-term appearance of your neighborhood. First we’ll lay the groundwork for the positive vision you will want to aspire to. Then we’ll talk about some things that detract from the beauty of your community and how to handle them.

To make your neighborhood look great, it is very helpful to understand some urban design
principles. When people take what are 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. Often these show an amount of agreement that amazes the event organizers. So we can confidently predict that aside from a few cultural oddities, there are some universals you will want to consider.

So here is a super-brief introduction to urban design principles.  The truth is that people who do not think they care about community design actually do.

If your neighborhood is completely built up, you often cannot
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.

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. They appreciate similar building heights, even though they probably couldn’t verbalize this.  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

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

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 But Often Expensive 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 and well-chosen street trees, the effect is to soften the view created by streets, parking lanes,  and the sidewalks that we hope you have.

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.

The Need for Focal Points in Community Design

In addition to streetscape, sometimes you need a focal point. Good architecture should take care of this, but since many communities are not posh enough to attract the best architecture, you may have to take a beautification approach. 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. Often these are pretty ugly, but as our page shows, sometimes they can be visual assets.

As You Move to Addressing Negatives, 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

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

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. Another viable tactic is working with property owners to promote very short-term leases to pop-up businesses that want to try something new for a short time.

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 Potential Eyesores 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

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 three: (a) the large and often unattractive
parking lot causing the loss of pedestrian scale along the street, (b) a large building that is undistinguished architecturally tends to lower standards for other nearby commercial buildings and cheapen the appearance of the community, and
(c) 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

Beautification of big boxes and office towers requires significant new amenities to create distractions and offset the bulk of cheaply produced large buildings.

• Ugly chain link fences.  This is just the beginning of our planned “ugly” series, but this one is common to both suburban and urban neighborhoods.  In good condition, they are practical indeed.  The problem becomes rust and poor maintenance.

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

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

If you raise consciousness about community appearance to keep the
neighborhood economically viable, beautification will become a fun
project instead of an obligation.

  1. Community Development

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  3. Beautification

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