Why beauty matters
Even in normal times, making the case for beauty as a legitimate concern for public policy is a hard sell, and these are far from normal times. Policy makers are far more comfortable in the realm of the quantitative than the qualitative and beauty, especially in relation to the built environment, is often seen as too controversial, too difficult, too ephemeral. Yet while it remains hard to pin down, beautiful places are highly valued by people.
Despite the assumption that beauty is highly personal and subjective, it is a universal idea. We may not always agree on where it resides but none of us would dispute its existence entirely. It is elusive then, but it is far from illusory. The idea is present in all cultures and times. It inhabits art, music, and ideas; faces and landscapes too. And it is often found in the buildings and places that surround us.
While the fabric of our cities, towns and villages serves many functions – as homes and offices, roadways and factories, car parks and transit hubs, and as green spaces where we walk our dogs, play football, or jog – they are not simply packages of space, wrapped in brick, glass and tarmac. They can be things of beauty that simply make us smile – or conversely curse their ugliness. And we are more likely to value places that we find to be beautiful.
Thinking about beauty
If we are to capture the value of beauty, we need to be able to describe it. Over the centuries, beauty has meant different things at different times and the classical understanding of beauty, seeking to boil down its essence into formulae, is only one of two traditions that have dominated Western thinking. At the other extreme is the romantic understanding of beauty, based on personal experience and insight that is not open to explanation or proof.
These ideas remain influential and in many ways the tension between customary and natural beauty play themselves out in the tussle between the different waves of modernism and post-modernism, the idea of a timeless and universal recipe for beauty and one with is individuated and unknowable.
But most of us no longer possess a language of beauty: the idea is confined to the intensely personal, something for the eye of the beholder. Often it elides with a number of other ideas that overlap with, but are not, it: style, taste and fashion. If there is no common ground on which to hold a dialogue about beauty, how do place-makers harness it?
Talking about beauty
Research conducted in Sheffield in 2010 by CABE, found that, given time to reflect, most people are capable and confident in talking about their ideas of beauty. What is more, there was a high degree of commonality about what people find to be beautiful, and where they found it. Overwhelmingly, respondents said that they found beauty in art and music, in people and in fashion, but also in the natural environment, in buildings and places.
When asked to identify beautiful buildings in Sheffield, most people cited the two cathedrals, often not because of a stylistic preference, but for reasons related to an appreciation of longevity (history and continuity) and grandeur (craft and ambition). In fact, people were fairly consistent in the things they found to be beautiful in buildings and places. Nature and greenery, of course, but also scale and proportion; the quality of materials used and the standard of upkeep also matter, but so too light, peacefulness, and distinctiveness, both in the sense of difference and of rootedness in the character of an area – capturing the spirit of a place, either of who we are or who we want to be. People like places that feel like places.
Collectively, we value things that are beautiful for what they are, not simply what they can do. This intrinsic value is important to people and to regard beauty simply in instrumental terms is to steal something of its essence: it is not a tool, it is a quality and people are overwhelmingly content to justify their preferences, and even their spending, by appealing to beauty as a reason. It is something we are all disposed to value for its own sake and spending more for something beautiful makes perfect sense. Governments, however, tend to believe and behave differently.
Fortunately, there are also good instrumental reasons for promoting beauty in our cities, our towns and villages.
We know that people monetise the value they place on beauty every day in their consumption choices: whether in where to live, in what to wear or in what technology they use. Where a choice exists, and the means too, each of us will pay a little – or a lot – more for something we find more visually pleasing. We know instinctively that people can and do pay more to live in areas that are more beautiful – houses in Conservation Areas are valued more highly and, while beauty is only one consideration along with schools, transport links and services, it remains a significant factor in our spending decisions. This is borne out by studies that show that places seen as more beautiful command higher house prices and commercial rents. For retailers, a good-quality public environment can improve trading by attracting more people into an area.
Attractive public spaces, streets as much as parks and gardens, are important factors in both physical and mental health. Research in a number of cities has found that ‘more attractive streets and pathways’ and ‘more attractive public parks and greenspaces’ were most often cited as changes that would encourage people to undertake healthy lifestyle activities such as walking, vying with safety as the top priority (City Health Check, RIBA 2013).
David Halpern’s Mental Health and the Built Environment: More Than Bricks and Mortar? (1995) remains the classic text linking the quality of the built environment and mental health. In the book, Halpern demonstrates a clear connection between the quality of the immediate environment, over and above other factors, and people’s mental health.
Alongside the health gains from being in attractive environments, there are also gains to be made from engagement in the local community. The participants in the Sheffield research believed that beauty was important in fostering civic pride, in signalling and generating respect for places and, by extension, the people that live there.
Putting beauty at the heart of place-making
Distinctive, attractive buildings and spaces are key to creating the places that people will want to make their homes: for themselves, their families and their businesses. It’s not the only factor, of course, and I do not claim that beauty should take precedence over all other considerations. However, just because beauty is not always the most important thing, does not mean it should be considered a luxury.
People often disagree about what is beautiful, but that is not a fact unique to beauty; subjectivity is found in other areas of public policy and it is dealt with. The critical question is whether it is possible to have a civic debate about these differences in ways that are a productive negotiation rather than a clash of tastes. That means that communities need to be supported to enter negotiations in the constructive way, to define their own expectations of beauty and to identify the character of their place that they want to see enhanced.
It is worth noting that beauty already exists in legislation, in the designation of Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, created by The National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949. Beauty already enjoys legal protection and is formally valued, but only in the places where most people do not live. As we begin to rethink how we add value to our towns and cities, we need also to construct new ways to capture to value of beauty closer to home.
Adrian Harvey is a novelist and writer
This article first appeared in Localis’s essay collection ‘Neo-localism: rediscovering the nation’