Alain de Botton explains how to build a beautiful city

Given my considerable professional interest in cities — I spend a lot of my time writing or talking about them — you'd think I grew up as one of those kinds who rushed straight to SimCity every day after school. And for a year or two there I did play it (or rather, its sequel SimCity 2000) quite a lot, but never seriously: when starting a new city I always used the terrain editor to build a giant hill I could fill with cheap hydroelectric plants, and I usually set the place on fire before too long.

Yet the question of how to build cities well intrigues me, as it seems to have started intriguing everyone else, more than ever. Alain de Botton takes on the subject in the fifteen-minute animation above, "How to Make an Attractive City." As a writer and speaker, de Botton has paid a great deal of attention to these questions of beauty, usefulness, and pleasure, and the video comes as just one of the attempts at an answer put out by his School of Life.

In his book The Architecture of Happiness, de Botton asks why we fetishize old buildings rather than building new ones even better suited to our age. "How to Make an Attractive City" expands the question past our individual structures to our giant collections of them: why haven't we built a city many people love since the early 21st century? Taking a close look at the qualities of the attractive and unattractive cities of the world, de Botton settles on these six points to emphasize:

  1. Not too chaotic, not too ordered
  2. Visible life
  3. Compact
  4. Orientation and mystery
  5. Scale
  6. Make it local

Does your city offer the proper balance of chaos and order, a good deal of visible life, a reasonable compactness, a sense of orientation as well as a sense of mystery, a human scale, and its own unique local qualities? Or does it offer (like Phoenix, the standard urban whipping boy that de Botton also brings out for a flogging) the opposite of all those things? Either way, or at any point on the urban spectrum between, it has much to teach you about cities themselves if you observe it well — much more than the SimCity monstrosities I so delighted in throwing together and destroying, anyway.