A question of beauty
What price beauty? how to put a practical value on an intangible quality that’s notoriously in the eye of the beholder is a question that has perplexed philosophers down the ages. the pressing current debate over where to build more houses has brought it to the fore again (Agromenes, November 29).
Unfortunately, development remains unpopular with those who will only see it, rather than live in it. Resistance would surely soften, however, if people believed that the new estates or ‘garden cities’ would be attractive. the stock objection to that, of course, is that beauty cannot be quantified —one person’s meat is another’s poison.
For the past four years, the consultancy Create Streets has been accumulating research on where people live, measuring such apparently subjective characteristics as the well-being generated by their homes and, yes, their beauty. the findings can surprise. although campaigners for disabled access decry front steps, a traditional feature of many town houses, it seems that they keep the able-bodied healthier and provide demarcation between the private space of the home and the public street.
Small front gardens are appreciated, not only for growing flowers, but as zones from which neighbours and acquaintances may be greeted; large ones don’t have this effect, apparently. and there are cultural differences: Britain is the land of the net curtain whereas the Dutch aren’t nearly as coy, but then they are a houseproud nation.
Many of Create Streets’ observations are common sense. Green space is important as long as it’s easily accessible—a park more than one or two streets away doesn’t get many visits. Variety at street level engages the eye, a factor often overlooked by Modernists, who prefer the aesthetic purity of unbroken façades.
as the Duchy of Cornwall has shown at Poundbury and Nansledan, buyers will pay a premium for careful design, access to shops and the sense of community that comes from walking instead of car use. What is surely exciting for the future of the debate is the new availability of data, which can be mined by statisticians. We may deplore how much Google and Facebook know about us, but the images that people post online and that others then ‘like’ are an indication of what pleases them.
analysts will be able to discover where people enjoy going and how long they linger there. Big Data doesn’t sound beautiful, but it may help define shared ideas of beauty, which should, in turn, make development better loved.