Visual Pollution and the Preservation of Aesthetic Places

Aesthetics has become a widely-used concept nowadays, from your “Instagram aesthetic” to your personal fashion aesthetic. But America’s most alluring places have aesthetics of their own—beauty that is being threatened by visual pollution. Here’s a look at the meaning of aesthetics and the ways in which visual pollution can erode it.

What Does ‘Aesthetic’ Mean?

The dictionary definition of aesthetic is “relating to the enjoyment or study of beauty, or showing great beauty.” In its noun form, it refers to a visual tone, mood, or style. As a design principle, aesthetics “includes factors such as balance, color, movement, pattern, scale, shape and visual weight.” Though often associated with graphic design, it’s also something architects consider when designing buildings, structures, and areas with visual appeal.

Charlottesville, VA, courtesy Charlottesville CVB

From a psychological standpoint, too, aesthetics has meaning. The Aesthetic Self Effect argues that “our aesthetic engagements are a central component of our identity.” Our aesthetic interests help us define and understand ourselves.

This leads to the idea of aesthetic places. Just as our aesthetics define our sense of self, the aesthetic of a place defines its uniqueness. Its visual qualities—balance, color, texture, and more—create a special sense of place. Think of the sloped streets and Victorian architecture of San Francisco, or the bright colors and Creole architecture of New Orleans. These are beloved, aesthetic places with their own visual mood.

What Is Visual Pollution?

Visual pollution refers to things that obstruct or detract from natural and man-made landscapes. Billboards, utility wires, and litter are good examples. If you’ve seen ads plastered over public places, you’ll already be familiar with some of the negative effects like eye strain, distraction, and a general decrease in overall pleasantness. However, the problems go beyond that.

In the aesthetic places we know and love, visual pollution detracts from the character of the location. It can steal away the sense of place, and in so doing, rob it of its identity. Can you imagine Glacier National Park’s Going-to-the-Sun Road dotted with billboards? Or the historic squares of Savannah, Georgia peppered with high rises?

This is why scenic conservation is a vital consideration as America’s places expand and grow. We must foster new development that respects the special character of places: their distinctive geographical features, cultures, climate, and natural systems. Otherwise, with no checks on visual pollution, our aesthetic places will be eroded and lost.

Here at Scenic America, we’re working to keep America’s aesthetic places beautiful and distinct. We want to see responsible growth that doesn’t sacrifice identity along the way. Read about our principles of conservation, see what we’ve accomplished in 2021, or sign up for our newsletter to stay up-to-date on our work and how you can help.

Scenic America’s mission is to preserve and enhance the visual character and scenic beauty of America. Donate today to help us protect our beautiful places and the heart of our country’s character.