A specialist in urban aesthetics wants to turn the city into a living room for all

According to postdoctoral researcher Sanna Lehtinen, aesthetically sustainable cities are always the result of compromise.

Visuality, iconic buildings and monuments, such as the New York skyline and Sagrada Família in Barcelona, are the first things that come to mind when thinking about urban aesthetics. In addition to this surface observed by tourists, the study of urban aesthetics examines levels of experience that go deeper: how residents experience the residential environment familiar to them and how cities can be developed in an aesthetically sustainable manner.

“Signature buildings, towers, monuments and other special characteristics are part of the macro-level, that is, the way cities are observed superficially,” says Sanna Lehtinen, doctor of philosophy and postdoctoral researcher in urban aesthetics.

At the same time, the micro-level delves deeper, relating to, among other things, the everyday experiences of people living in the city. What does a city look like to people while they live, work and otherwise spend time there?

Lehtinen's ideal city is one which as many people as possible consider their own. She asserts that research is needed to determine what kind of cities are needed to fulfil the needs of different people.

Promoting diversity

“Exclusionary urban planning is unequal, hostile as well as ethically and aesthetically unsustainable,” Lehtinen states.

By this she means, for example, designing benches not amenable to having a rest and spaces that prevent young people from hanging out. Lehtinen considers diversity an important factor. Everyone must have the right to live and enjoy living in their hometown.

“The city can be an extension of your home, much like a second living room,” notes Lehtinen. “It’s public space, not anyone’s private property. It must be available for use.”

Diversity is also supported by buildings representative of their particular periods of time. For instance, brutalist concrete architecture, considered ugly by some, evokes plenty of debate. According to Lehtinen, new can co-exist with the old.

 “Why should we tear down products of a certain era and replace them, in the name of conformity, with something that will, in turn, be demolished a few decades later?” Lehtinen asks.

“Furthermore, renovating and planning should be increasingly carried out in accordance with the principles of sustainable development and the circular economy.”

Environmental values are important to urban aesthetics, as green areas increase residents’ wellbeing. Lehtinen finds it a positive trend that, these days, more and more green roofs and courtyards as well as urban gardens are being built to promote wellbeing. No longer are carefully trimmed lawns the one and only ideal. Instead, they are being transformed into urban meadows which boost biodiversity. Urban aesthetics and urbanism are not the opposite of nature. Rather, urban perceptions of nature are becoming increasingly diverse.

What makes a city aesthetically sustainable?

Lehtinen says that the aesthetic values pertaining to cities are also affected by cognitive, ethical and ecological values. What we find pleasant or aesthetically interesting always reflects, to a certain degree, our knowledge of the subject or phenomenon in question, and whether we otherwise consider it desirable. Not many would be so quick to admire even the most gorgeous sunsets in an urban setting if they knew that particle emissions generated by traffic have an impact on the intensity of the colours in the sky. Another thing that is important to understand is that aesthetic values constitute a broad spectrum of characteristics not limited to beauty. In a city, not everything can be purely aesthetically pleasing.

This means that aesthetic values are calibrated according to what is known about the functionality of various solutions. A good example is the renovation of the Alvar Aalto-designed Finlandia Hall in Helsinki, now in its early stages. In conjunction with the comprehensive renovation project, the Carrara marble used as the building’s facade material, not well suited to Finnish weather conditions, will finally be replaced with a more durable option.

Sustainability and aesthetics are organically linked to urban architecture and planning: more consideration should be given to what will be demolished and how new buildings are built. Lehtinen believes that increasingly multidisciplinary collaboration is needed to investigate how technical challenges, the aesthetic layers of the city and the principles of circular economy are taken into account, in addition to costs, when making decisions about pulling something down.

According to Lehtinen, cities are the result of compromise, also aesthetically, since they manifest the preferences of several generations and parallel communities. Besides supporting contemporary urban culture, temporal and stylistic aesthetic diversity is what makes cities feel alive and pleasant to live in.

Aesthetics can contribute to urban planning

Philosophical and applied aesthetics has a lot to give to urban planning. Lehtinen thinks that we are living in interesting times, as Helsinki, for example, is busy with new construction sites from which entire new city districts are springing up. Construction is guided by value judgements.

The environment affects people even though people do not always have the chance to influence their environment. What matters, among other things, is what we see and how we move from one place to another.

“In terms of experiencing, it makes a difference whether you observe the city in your everyday life for a significant portion of time on public transport or behind the wheel of a car.”

In addition to visual features, the city is associated with smells, flavours and soundscapes characteristic of it. This way, various food cultures and urban technologies become part of a multisensory urban experience.

Urban aesthetics is an important research trend

Sanna Lehtinen works as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Helsinki’s Helsinki Institute of Sustainability Science (HELSUS) and the Department of Philosophy, History, Culture and Art Studies at the Faculty of Arts.

She collaborates with NEMO architects, a company specialised in aesthetically sustainable urban planning, supervises several theses and doctoral candidates, as well as teaches aesthetics at both the University of Helsinki and Aalto University. Lehtinen dreams of consolidating urban aesthetics as a research field of its own.