A question of beauty

Country Life Every Week - - Contents -

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.

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