The Case for Colourful Cities

Our cities are being invaded by a monotone greyscale that demands an urgent rethink in order to re-inject vibrance worthy of our humanity.

Art by Zara Zadro.

The city is probably the single greatest expression of humanity in existence. It has been the beginning and end of civilisations, the shelter of scientists and artists. When aliens attack, we imagine their ships poised over our grandest capitals. But there has been a change. For nearly a century, the West has gradually succumbed to the greyscale, building cities of cookie-cutter concrete and painting our architectural heritage black.  

“The evening is spread out against the sky like a patient etherised upon a table,” TS Eliot bemoaned in his inert persona of Prufrock. 

His simile seems less tired now. Just replace ‘etherised’ with ‘sanitised.’ Bushfires, pandemic, war, and climate catastrophe. These are enough to make anyone look at a city with gloom. But to add the tranquiliser of our own urban failure, our paralysis of design, creativity, vibrancy and diversity; this can only make it worse.   

The case for colourful cities begins with aesthetics. The modernist aspirations behind the greyscale were certainly admirable. After a century of ornamentation, it promised to reinvigorate cities, to make them clean, planned, ideal, and new. Yet few could object that when done ad nauseam, like anything else, it feels less clean and more empty; less planned and more systematised. One monochrome house is interesting; a row of them is a wall.   

This is not to say that the greyscale has no place, but it must be one colour among many. We naturally find our sense of beauty in nature. Since living among trees doesn’t support our lifestyle, the only solution is to mimic the natural world in our cities. The push by many councils towards increasing canopy coverage is one factor, but just as nature is incomplete without flowers, so too is a city without colours.  

There is science behind this too. A 2018 study by QUT researcher Sofie Pringle identified colour as being closely associated with individuals’ perceived happiness in a city. Meanwhile, a  different study from Canada’s University of Waterloo identified that “spaces with a colourful, community-driven urban intervention were associated with higher levels of happiness, trust, stewardship and attraction to the sites.”  

This points to a particularly relevant concern for Australia’s cities; colour’s relationship with urban diversity and culture. There are few places where the phenomenon of greyscale has been more prevalent, or more destructive, than in the gentrification of Australia’s inner-cities. When the phenomenon began in the late 1990s, it promised the preservation of our architectural heritage. Frightened by the memory of uber-modernist architect Harry Seidler, we were all too happy to see the inner-city cleaner and safer. 

What we did not understand was that these words represented destruction, not rejuvenation. They represented displacement; of the poor, the working class, artists, minorities, and First Nations people. The greyscale became more than fashion; applying it marked its owner a member of this nouveau-gentry — and eventually, its omission marked one as being other. The colour of the inner-city had not simply been a cultural quirk. It represented the presence of a genuine urban village, and all the richness and vibrancy that comes with it. 

In her book, The Life and Death of Great American Cities (1961), urbanist Jane Jacobs underlines this tendency towards “supposedly cosy, inward-turned city neighbourhoods,” and emphasises that in cities, where many people do not know one another, this effort can be disastrous. Though it may be convenient to plan a city by parcelling it up into districts, one for the rich, poor, black, or white, this only ruins the city’s capacity to use its greatest asset; throwing its inhabitants together unpredictably. In Australia, our unique tragedy has been that our inner-cities once supported such spaces; intimate, warm and full of potential, now lost to the memory of films like Gillian Armstrong’s The Last Days of Chez Nous. This plan, descended from the modernists, has offered only the opportunity to commodify, decolour, and ultimately disintegrate our cities.  

There are a host of examples here in Sydney, culminating in the housing tragedy of The Block. Once a colourful and vibrant centre for First Nations People, it marked Redfern as perhaps the last case of genuine urban diversity in Sydney, where beau monde, bo-ho, and bogan mixed with students and the oldest First Nations settlement in Australia. Eventually destroyed in 2019, its replacement stands as a concrete monument. Now only the occasional unpleasantness of its former presence breaks the students’ commute. And down Eveleigh Street, where children once played soccer in front of the Aboriginal flag, the last Victorian terraces have been painted grey. 

Undeniably, this Great Greying marks a choice for us. To continue, to submit to this alienating force to push us apart and under. Or to agitate and build a city worthy of humanity’s splendorous diversity that we might compare to the colourful loveliness of a summer’s day.