England & Wales Housing and planning

Beautiful by design

Via Knowsley MBC

Beauty in our towns and cities? Wonders Janet Sillett. How can we be bothered about such luxury when faced with the wicked issues of economic growth, or rising homelessness, or a crisis in social care? With austerity and cuts? With the complexities of devolution?

Andrew Ross asks this in his recent LGiU members’ briefing on the ResPublica green paper A Community Right to Beauty. He concludes that we can’t afford not to take notice of these issues – around quality design and well-maintained developments. Of course, the word itself, beauty, may not help here – as it conjures up something subjective, poetic, or fine but inherently an add on to what is crucial. So let’s still call it beauty, as shorthand, but understand we are talking about quality design, good upkeep of our surroundings, and the distinctiveness of place – “capturing the spirit of a place” as the report highlights.

How to persuade policy makers (nationally and locally) that the right to beauty isn’t some kind of elitist hangup?

Let’s start with the evidence that investing in quality design is cost effective in the widest sense. There is a very large and growing body of evidence that health and wellbeing is deeply affected by the environment in which we live and work. Studies highlight the links between access to green space, for example, and physical and mental health; encouraging physical activity is beneficial to both. People living in areas with high quantities of green space have been found to have better health, as measured using both self-report data from surveys and records of morbidity and mortality rates (Maas et al., 2006, 2009; Mitchell and Popham, 2007, 2008). Social interaction and cohesion may also be improved where people can get together in a pleasant and safe environment – such as a community garden – perhaps most importantly for older people, with less mobility and more prone to being lonely.

The report points out too that being able to access beautiful places, spaces and buildings rises with income and housing tenure. And this is enforced by the evidence that involvement with neighbourhood planning is less likely in poorer areas. Improving the physical environment in these areas can, therefore, have the most benefit.

The ResPublica report recommends we turn all this into a ‘right’ in legislation which would involve amending the planning system and the Localism Act 2011 and introducing new financial incentives into the development process.

Do we need new legislation? Councils have, after all, always been keen to create and maintain parks and green spaces and to improve unsightly areas. But at a time of growing financial pressure, this commitment could be at risk. ResPublica suggests that communities need new powers to, for example, democratically challenge development on the grounds of beauty and to be able to take on ownership or management of derelict or ugly buildings and spaces. Other ideas include strengthening planning so that negotiating around beauty can be a material planning consideration and providing financial incentives, such as capital gains tax relief for developers to make visual improvements that communities want.

Andrew says that the almost exclusive focus on local planning authorities and neighbourhood planning groups in the green paper is somewhat problematic, given the shortage of planning resources, and that improving the beauty of new developments should be the shared responsibility of all built environment professions, across all sectors. To correct the inequitable spread of forums and citizen involvement, Andrew wants to see a bolder approach to tackle the fundamental barriers that exist to people in poorer areas initiating neighbourhood forums.

Though the LGiU briefing has some critique of the report, we believe that it is thought provoking and topical, and it makes a compelling case for rethinking how we perceive places, and the economic and social damage caused by poor development.

Local government was instrumental in improving the terrible living conditions that many people experienced in 19th century cities. In the 21st century we are again increasingly aware of the links between the environment and our health and wellbeing and that the physical environment can make worse or improve health and wellbeing outcomes. For that reason alone we need to commit resources to ensuring the design and maintenance of our urban spaces is the best it can be. But, of course, it is more than that – all of us want to live and to work in pleasant, interesting and dynamic places:

“In great cities, spaces as well as places are designed and built: walking, witnessing, being in public, are as much part of the design and purpose as is being inside to eat, sleep, make shoes or love or music. The word citizen has to do with cities, and the ideal city is organized around citizenship – around participation in public life.”

Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking

Janet Sillett is the LGiU’s briefings manager.