Public Sector Aesthetics – Why They Matter

In Culture, Economic Planning, European Politics, Health Care Reform, Higher Education, Housing, Inequality, Mass Transit, Political Ideology, Public Sector, Social Democracy, Social Policy, Social Security, Taxes, Urbanism, Welfare State on November 21, 2010 at 12:51 pm


One of the intellectual shortcomings of progressives, and friends of the public sector more broadly, is that we tend to approach public policy from an empirical perspective entirely bounded by questions of money and measurements. While this isn’t a bad thing in itself – certainly “reality-based” public policy is better than the kind of public policy we see coming from the Tea Partiers – it means that we ignore the aesthetic side of the public sector.

This is a mistake, as it opens up a vacuum that conservatives have exploited when they don’t actually have a case on empirical grounds – the evidence for the inherent superiority of the private sector might be weak, but it’s easy to get voters to emotionally identify with the image of endless lines at the DMV.

Previously, I discussed how the aesthetic experience of mass transit can have a powerful influence on how voters and commuters make their choices: whether they think about modern, comfortable, fast high-speed rail or crowded, slow, aging buses, whether they associate cars with speed and luxury or with sitting in traffic. Changing the aesthetic experience of mass transit, even with something as simple as allowing people to use their cellphones to pay their subway fare so that they don’t have to wait and swipe through the turnstile, a process that can be slow, frustrating, and a source of bottlenecks and lines, creates a different experience and association for users of mass transit. The more seamless, effortless, and convenient things feel, the more incentive there is to choose mass transit for one’s commute.

Beyond mass transit, paying attention to public sector aesthetics can be thought of similar to establishing universal flat rate social welfare benefits like Social Security or the NHS in that design can powerfully alter the political thinking of citizens and users of the public sector. Just as universal and flat systems inspire support from middle class groups who benefit from them, and create an entirely different political rhetoric than systems targeted at the poor, aesthetic improvements allow the public sector to win both the custom and the political support of people with the money to use private-sector alternatives, thereby building and expanding political coalitions and tax and user bases, but it also creates an entirely different system of rhetoric around public sector services.

The same process can be seen in other areas of public sector provision:


One of the forgotten aspects of U.S policy history is that public housing was not always the purview of the completely destitute. Indeed, throughout the 1940s, middle class and working class families used and enjoyed public housing in substantial numbers, due to the housing shortage brought on by the Great Depression and WWII, especially in tight housing markets like New York City.

In Public Housing That Worked, Nicholas Dagen Bloom notes that middle class families were willing to put up with shortcomings of low-cost housing (pipes set directly into concrete floors, closets without doors, etc.) in favor of other aesthetic advantages like plentiful light, electricity, central heating and running hot and cold water (which many older buildings lacked), as well as the practical advantages of cheap rent. Bloom notes that New York City public housing was staffed like private apartment buildings, with superintendants and maintenance staff who kept the buildings operating in decent condition.

For a while, public housing in New York City was very diverse on a class basis (although racially segregated) – until the combination of middle class families hitting the income ceilings for eligibility and the emergence of aesthetically alluring alternatives in the suburbs began to undercut a public housing system that was becoming increasingly reliant on a “tower and park” model, slowly transformed public housing into housing for the poor.

However, it’s possible to see how a public housing regime could have been more successful at preventing class segregation if they had attended more to the aesthetics of the public sector:

Cabrini Green - Chicago, IL

British council housing

Borneo Sporenburg Housing Project, Amsterdam

I want to be very clear that aesthetics are not a silver bullet to class-integrated, high-quality public housing. You have to get the policy right – mixed-income developments, sliding scale rents and cross-subsidization, high levels of staffing and maintenance, location near services and amenities, and so forth. However, getting the aesthetics right changes a lot. Firstly, the more that public housing resembles market housing, the less visual differentiation there is to base stigma upon; the British and Dutch examples above look like private housing (in the Dutch case, quite modern and stylish housing) whereas the tower block that completely predominates in the U.S is instantly visually identifiable as housing for poor people. Secondly, this creates a further incentive for working-class and middle-class buy-in when you can get housing that’s attractive, that provides amenities, and comes in well below market rates, this helps to create the practical basis for class integration and the elimination of stigma, as neighborhoods become more mixed.

The same argument could be extended to public architecture more generally – while not a panacea by any means, improving the aesthetics of public buildings both internally and externally makes interactions with government more pleasant for people who use them and subtly shifts the political playing field. It’s easier to condemn public education when you can show schools that look like prisons than when they look like Greek temples because of the associations the images create. Likewise, going into a post office with narrow ceilings, cramped lines, and harsh florescent lighting makes the allure of the UPS or FedEx office all the stronger.

The aesthetic question goes beyond mere architecture, however. Rather, it points to the importance of how interactions with government are experienced on a sensory level, and the kinds of psychological and emotional associations they create.

Social Policy:

The best example of how aesthetic considerations can shape even social policy is the Social Security card. On a purely empirical level, the presence or absence of a card or an individual Social Security number is rather immaterial. But as a tactile object, the Social Security card creates a concrete link between the individual and the program. As in the phrase “a card-carrying member,” possessing a card that sits in your wallet is a sign of identity and belonging – as does having a unique number that everyone memorizes. It’s not an accident that well-loved and politically-protected programs like Social Security and Medicare have these kinds of aesthetic links; the activists who created these programs put a huge amount of time and attention into thinking about public opinion, marketing, and propaganda as a way of strengthening the institutions they had worked their entire lives to construct.

For those of us who seek to expand and improve social policy, paying attention to these considerations is a relatively cost-free way of improving their political longevity. Having an ObamaCare card in one’s wallet would make a huge political difference in how people think about health care reform. As someone who wants to see Job Insurance and child care programs established, ensuring that individuals carry around a physical object that reminds them that they are part of a larger safety net is a very simple way to help make that happen.

Getting these wrong makes a huge difference as well. Think about the difference between a food stamp program where the benefit is handed out in checks versus a card.

The former creates an immediate visual stigma. Standing in line at the supermarket, the check has to be inspected, signed by the checkout clerk, run through a different machine; the process is slow and instantly visible to everyone else standing in line. The latter is basically indistinguishable from everyone else in the line paying with a debit or credit card, it’s fast and convenient, and it doesn’t create an opportunity for people to be dehumanized or alienated.

Thinking About “Seeing the State”:

What this gets to is the importance of how and in what ways the government is made visible in people’s lives, especially the potential for visibility to demystify how the state works. I’ve written before about the idea of  linking taxation to spending as a way to break down what I call the “Government/Program Blindspot” – by shifting the way that people think from the abstract idea that taxes flow into the government to the specific reality of Education, Health Care, Children, Environment as activities funded by the government. This is aesthetics – using the way that people think and visualize to make public choices more understandable. It’s similar to the idea recently put forward about providing taxpayer receipts so that people can see exactly what their taxes pay for.

Just like the 311 program or the establishment of computerized bus signs that show when the next bus is arriving, all of these things provide ways for people to understand and think about government, that build on forms and sensory experiences they are familiar with, in order to make the state  less of a black box.


And for progressives, anything that makes the government less of a black box is to our advantage. The greatest strength that conservative arguments have is their ability to exploit the “Government/Program Blindspot” to alienate people from the state mentally, to get them thinking of it as an outside force that imposes itself upon them, and that chooses between “us” and “them.” Not only does this create feelings of hostility and alienation, but it also shields people from the negative consequences of austerity. It allows them to to think that it’s not them who’s kicking unemployed people off of UI or stopping kids from getting health care, but rather the government that’s doing these things.

By contrast, progressives’ most under-used conceptual strength is the participatory identity of citizenship in a democracy. The government in the end is not an outside force, it is the people’s government, or in a larger sense the people doing things communally. What this does is to break down the alienation and make visible once more the social contract – we stop thinking about Social Security as a “government entitlement” and remember that it’s really an agreement that we make as a people to look out for one another.

That’s why aesthetics matter.






  1. You’re right, but I’d point out that those British houses probably weren’t built as public housing – a lot of (especially) London councils acquired large amounts of Victorian and Edwardian terraces in the postwar period as public housing.

    In the UK, the master narrative about public housing has been that the architects failed by being modernist, etc, etc, but there’s something of a reappraisal going on now, especially as the Parker-Morris space standard used in the postwar era is much more generous than pretty much any British private sector development. I live near Peter Tabori’s Highgate New Town estate, and people are now marketing flats in there as “architect-designed”.

    • Good point. From my perspective, it’s not the modernism of the building that was the major problem as much as the decision to build giant high-rises in parks.

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