City Beautiful: Paint the Town Red…or Blue, or Pink

Urban planners don’t generally think too much about cities and color beyond the loud Skittles-rainbow zoning maps showing how land uses harmonize or clash. But for many cities color is ingrained in tradition and community identity, just as much a part of the fabric as the street grid, built forms or open spaces.

A color identity can simply come from the building materials nature gives you to work with,  sometimes trends catch on by copycat neighbors that eventually become a painted pattern, in some cases governments preserve the past through color policy. This week’s City Beautiful highlights a few of those cities most known for splashes of color, where color changes the not just the appearance of a place, but also the experience of being there.


Gold | Jaisalmer: Located way out in India’s Thar Desert in Rajasthan, the “Golden City” of Jaisalmer gets its color from buildings made of yellow sandstone (especially glowy at sunset). For centuries the city was an important post on camel routes from India to Central Asia – havelis like the one below are elaborate sandstone mansions built by wealthy merchants back in the Jaisalmer’s trading heyday.

Photo credit: Flickr user Peter Garnhum

Purple | Pretoria: South Africa’s capital is known as the Jacaranda City owing to the purple blossoms blanketing Pretoria’s streets during the blooming season. Jacarandas were actually imported to South Africa from Brazil in the 1880’s, but now there’s a bit of a fight over their future as a fixture lining Pretoria’s streets since being classified as an “alien invasive species” by South Africa’s Parliament. Some environmentalists worry about the ecological impacts of invasives on natural resources, but others see them as a cultural resource that outweighs the environmental risks.

Photo credit: Flickr user Giovanni Paccaloni

Pink | Marrakesh: The Red City, the Rose City – Morocco’s Marrakesh is awash in various shades of pinky-salmon colors. The color originally came from the use of tabia on the exterior of buildings, a mix of reddish clay and lime. Building technologies started to modernize around the same time the city was under French colonial rule, and not wanting to lose the tradition an ordinance was enacted that mandated all new buildings in the old part of the city to be painted pink – a policy kept on by the Moroccan government.

Photo credit: Flickr user Pug!

Green | Chicago: I can assure you this isn’t Photoshopped since I’ve seen it myself – every March the city really does dye the Chicago River the color of radioactive waste in honor of St. Patrick’s Day.  As one history sensationally describes it: “This spectacular transformation ranks right up there with the parting of the sea by Moses and the Pyramids of Egypt” (I wouldn’t go quite that far).  Supposedly the 40 pounds of dye city plumbers dump in the water isn’t harmful to the ecosystem since it’s vegetable-based – though I’m curious about exactly what vegetable would produce such a color…

Photo credit: Flickr user thomassylthe

Yellow | Izamal: Little Izamal on Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula isn’t just the Yellow City but also a Pueblo Magico – an official “Magical Town” according to the Mexican Secretary of Tourism. Once a Mayan pilgrammage site, the Spanish destroyed it and built churches and a giant monastery on top of former temples. Nearly everything in the colonial/ancient Mayan city is painted an egg yolk yellow, though it’s unclear exactly why aside from wanting to match the color of the big monastery.

Photo credit: Flickr user Marco Ziglioli

Blue | Jodhpur: While not terribly far from the Golden City, India’s Blue City clashes with the bleak desert surroundings rather than blends in with it like Jaisalmer’s sandstone. One story behind the blue is that upper-caste Brahmins once painted their homes blue to set them apart from everyone else, but the plan didn’t quite work out once everyone started doing it. Locals claim that the blue helps keep homes cooler and repels mosquitos, no word on the effectiveness of blue for pest management but the color is striking nonetheless.

Photo credit: Flickr user



  1. Pingback: 21st of december | ancient maya | ancient mayan civilization | is 2012 real?

  2. Charles Goldsmith

    Hi Amy,
    This is a beautiful and facinating piece! As for Izamal, Mexico, it is painted yellow in honor of the visit made there by the late Pope John Paul II in 1993. That shade of yellow is the official color of the papacy. See the following link:
    I look forward to more of your postings!
    Charles Goldsmith

    • amyloufaust

      Hi Charles,
      Thanks for your comment and for the tidbit about Izamal! Glad you’re enjoying our blog.

  3. Pingback: City Beautiful: Portly Cities | Encountering Urbanization

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