John Ruskin thought a great deal about the idea of beauty. He believed everyone needed beauty around them and he wanted to widen access to beautiful things and places so that everyone’s life could be richer and more fulfilling. It is odd that the value of beauty, in our everyday surroundings and the things we use, is not talked about more. It seems we have lost the confidence to do so.
That looks set to change. There are encouraging signs that the need for beauty is again rising up the agenda. A report last year put together by the think tank Respublica put forward the notion of a ‘community right to beauty’ to give local people the ability to create and enhance beautiful places. The Prince’s Foundation has produced a toolkit called ‘beauty in my backyard’ and online tool to help people ‘to shape new developments so that they are well designed and well received by communities’. And next week sees the launch of ‘The Fight for Beauty’ an important new book by Fiona Reynolds, former head of the National Trust. It describes how earlier campaigns to protect and create beauty has made immeasurable contribution to the quality of the environment, laments the narrow ‘economism’ that drives politicians and all of us as consumers, and sets out the path to a better future.
The great beauty of the natural world is hard to ignore here in the Wyre Forest. It has been a delight to watch the first flowers of spring emerge after the very wet but relatively warm winter. We’ve had drifts of snowdrops, swathes of bluebells, clumps of wild primroses, cowslips and daffodils, discreet displays of meadow violets, and now carpets of delicate wood anenomes, pungent wild garlic and the fragile green flowers of dogs mercury. As Ruskin wrote: ‘nature is painting for us, day after day, pictures of infinite beauty.’
While the beauty of nature is not so hard to find, how is it that we can’t seem to make so many of the places and homes we live in more beautiful than they are? While we may argue over the relative qualities of particular buildings, there does seem to be a shared understanding of what makes one area more beautiful than another. Key factors are a lack of litter, well built and cared for buildings, a sense of history and continuity, trees and greenery, and distinctive local character.
Why is it then that those with power and resources, our politicians and policy makers, aren’t talking more about beauty and how to enable more people to enjoy beautiful places? Ruskin understood the importance of beauty but he wasn’t that confident about our ability to create beauty in the modern world. I think that is too pessimistic.
The beauty of much our natural and built environment is no accident. As Fiona Reynolds argues, we owe much to visionary post-war legislation – in particular the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act and the 1949 National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act – for the legal and policy tools that have helped us safeguard beautiful places. We now need to rediscover that post-war vision to make more beautiful places.
We must challenge those who argue that we can’t afford to think of aesthetics in the current economic climate. It needn’t cost more to create beautiful places and, in the long run, they enrich our lives beyond measure.