The color of cities

Deutsche Welle
4 Min Read
The color of cities

A German researcher journeyed from Norway to Greece, visiting 22 cities to find out if there’s such a thing as a “color character” of a city – and if so, how does it affect us?Last year, Markus Pretnar embarked on a research trip from the North Cape to Athens to investigate the color characteristics of cities. Following the 26th meridian line of longitude and sticking to a radius of 200 kilometers, he visited cities including Helsinki, Riga, Minsk, Bucharest and Athens.

Pretnar began his journey in Norway and made his way to Greece via Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, Romania and Bulgaria. “I divided 22 cities on the 26th meridian line of longitude into 12 equal groups and took tons of pictures,” says the professor of interior design and color theory at the Mainz University of Applied Sciences.

He took 360-degree panoramic shots in places such as station forecourts, landmarks, pedestrian zones and high-rise areas and then collated the results into digital color maps, identifying the most common colors and their proportional distribution.


The most important aspect is that each city has a color identity of its own. But color type doesn’t necessarily reflect national or random borders, nor even linguistic ones. He also identified patterns, such as a predominance of bright colors in Helsinki and light colors in Athens. “In Scandinavian countries and the Baltic region there is a stereotypical color palette of red, green, blue and saffron,” he says, with a predominance of lighter colors further south.

His research also showed that German cities tend to have specific color characters. Redbrick is common in northern Germany, while Sauerland is home to a lot of black and white half-timbered buildings. Sandstone buildings predominate in Frankfurt, Mainz and Würzburg, while the older parts of towns in southern Germany are often very colorful.

These color schemes tend to have historical roots, but is also partly influenced by local authorities. “From the perspective of urban development, color plays a significant role,” said Bernd Düsterdiek, head of Urban Development at the German Federation of Towns and Municipalities in Bonn.

“When it comes to urban planning, local authorities take into consideration not only building structure but also appearance,” he explains. Urban planning legislation gives them a degree of influence over color. As well as issuing regulations on development plans, authorities can lay down rules on factors such as roof pitch, roof materials as and facades and color. “This way a lilac-colored building won’t suddenly pop up in the middle of a row of half-timbered houses in Sauerland,” says Düsterdiek.

Local authorities frequently issue aesthetic regulations for historic old towns and protected buildings. “Branches of well-known restaurant chains in historical locations often dispense with their normal logos and billboards,” he points out. Instead they abide by local regulations and use colors that fit better into their surroundings. Local authorities sometimes issue specific regulations for new buildings.

Researcher Markus Pretnar is keen to find ways of applying contemporary, intuitive color in interiors. “Cheerful people have a heightened sense of color,” he says. “Depressed people tend to recognize fewer colors.”

His research trip taught him how wide-ranging color can be, and he stresses that cities are multi-faceted. “There’s more to Mainz than the cathedral, and more to Frankfurt than the Römer,” he says.

And ultimately, the predominant color in any city is that of the streets – grey.

Oliver von Riegen/is/ks/jp (dpa)

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