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Noel Farrer – Protectionism does not serve beauty

26 July 2016

Noel Farrer, Past President of the Landscape Institute and Creative Director of Farrer Huxley Associates, argues that approaching beauty through the lens of conservation cannot achieve its provision for all

I read with interest ResPublica’s report A Community Right to BeautyThe report highlights a simple truth. Beauty is good; it is uplifting; it contributes to wellbeing. This is not news: ask any curator of any gallery. If they can get the public to queue to see a series of beautiful pieces of any sort, they can quickly see the cache and the demand for beauty.

Beyond this, things get tricky. A curator may well show a series of pieces which to some are priceless in value, yet which others would not even cross the street to see, let alone pay for the privilege. The perception that something is beautiful is without doubt profoundly different to each and every one of us. It is dependent on our culture, and our environment when growing up, on our parents, on our peers …

ResPublica see beauty as equitable and I would agree. I have said to many audiences that the people of East Haringey, who live in one of Tottenham’s most deprived wards, have the ability – and frankly the right – to enjoy beauty as much as those in the west. The difference is that the folk of Highgate village have had the privilege of conservation area status, demanding their pavements be of Yorkstone whereas those in Tottenham must live with concrete. This is inequitable. I find it profoundly perverse that councils that propound fairness perpetuate this, blindly following the self-imposed rules of conservation that perpetuates inequity.

The report flirts with the notion of protection of what is beautiful, arguing that local people should be able to use the localism agenda, particularly neighbourhood planning, to protect beauty. As with conservation and conservation area planning however, the problematic question of what happens in an ugly place must be raised. The rich tend traditionally to have occupied the lovely bits; the poor are stuck up against the railway lines.

I agree an insistence on the quality of development and design in all areas is an excellent idea but not protectionism. This sounds so obvious but it is actually completely radical. Can you imagine developers, planners, or even Councillors insisting that the detailing and materiality be the same in Ponders End as in Hampstead? Yet not to do so is surely prejudiced when we know that the people of Ponders End have exactly the same senses and discernment as those anywhere else!

As a landscape architect I have always felt real unease at the basis of the grants issued by the Heritage Lottery Fund, which have effectively constituted a majority of our investment in parks nationally for the last 20 years. The basic premise for awarding grants is the preservation of heritage assets in the park. I have worked with communities in the most deprived areas whose 60s recreation grounds have little or no heritage to speak of. These places do not qualify yet they serve the most deprived communities.

While the parks we can name in our more affluent places – where we find glorious heritage assets – have been lavished with millions of pounds, Albany Park in Enfield and many others have not. I am not suggesting that people near beautiful parks do not need this investment: they do, but the pervasive idea of preserving the beautiful denies the needs of those living in places crying out to be improved. Those people living in uglier places, who are perfectly capable of enjoying beauty, are those most in need of investment, yet are also those most deprived of it!

The fact that landscape in particular is beautiful is simply true, and perhaps needs to be better recognised. Indeed, the complexity of what is beautiful to one and not necessarily to another, does not apply to landscape.

Landscape universally triggers wellbeing and happiness whether you are young or old, black or white, Christian or Muslim. This is because 99% of our genetic makeup is evolved from our relationship with nature. A time before cities, before cars, before buildings. We are programmed to respond to landscapes, views, water, caves, and woods. The sight of these triggers endorphins, relieves pain and quickens recovery.

The new landscapes of cities, where over 50% of the world’s population now lives, must adapt to reflect the natural world. Green spaces, green roofs, growing food, seeing seasonal change, hearing bird song and the wind through the trees may sound trivial, but they are speaking to us in a profound way. These green attributes are therefore perhaps the only things that are truly beautiful and beautiful to all, and we should be putting more emphasis on providing them for all, in all places, far more than we do.

I welcome ResPublica’s message. Beauty, yes – but understood for all: not in terms of conservation or protection by the few, for the few.