ECOS 38 (2)
THE FIGHT FOR BEAUTY
Our path to a better future
Hardback RRP: £16.99
Review by Wendy Neville
What makes places worth fighting for and why beauty matters
I often agonise over my middle class baggage. Am I elitist in using “beauty” to capture the essence of places, buildings, landscapes and wildlife sites that I value? Maybe there is no better criterion than beauty, for the mix of vibes which can make a place or a thing seem special. Beauty and natural beauty are long held labels underpinning the countryside management sector’s priority activities. The nature conservation profession may feel it has more robust sets of criteria, but many of these are possibly contrived and lack accountability in the way they are applied. Whether we want to embrace the notion of beauty or not, there is no perfect formula to classify and justify the things that matter in our work relating to nature, design and planning.
This book comes from someone with impeccable credentials, and who perhaps typifies our perception of the liberal elite: Dame Fiona Reynolds. It harnesses experience from the lead roles she played at the CPRE and National Trust, where she was influential in much of the progressive countryside actions promoted and delivered by those bodies in the past 20 years.
While I am personally very content to see the CPRE and National Trust push for high standards in planning, design, landscape protection, and countryside management, I’m aware that this is a partial view. Ugly beauty, for instance, has its place, and much of nature is not beautiful even if we over-hype the bits that are. I spend much time visiting the bandit country of wastelands and urban fringe landscapes. They are mainly unkempt, often very arresting, and seemingly unloved. But they can harbour play spaces and wildlife havens. These twilight areas are some people’s only paradise of sorts, and with the recent attention on Edgelands we are starting to give them a voice.
The book conveys a more conventional outlook on beauty. It is disappointingly straight in its style, but it serves as a fine reference. It sets out the rationale for major strands of countryside management work, for example across National Parks, coastal landscapes and wildlife friendlier farmed landscapes. It shows the strategic thinking which backed up the efforts to manage these places positively and minimise the damaging forces. The historical roots of the topic are explored through the dynasty of the founders and promoters of natural beauty. Some of these people were inspired by the grandeur of wild places, others wanted to promote high quality design and careful planning, and some fought to save local pockets of urban amenity. Again, my elitism worry should fade.
I was expecting something more from the book, perhaps some deeper reflections and new insights from an author now out of the daily skirmish and tucked up in academia. But no matter, the book is rich and holistic in its treatment of the topics. It does a fine job of justifying beauty as a lead principle for caring for the things and places we (many of us) value. I could have done without the invasive snippets of climate alarmism.
There is of course a lurking worry. The book charts recent times which were a golden age for countryside protection and wildlife conservation, with public and charitable bodies reasonably well resourced for their tasks, and jostling with governments who were partially on side. A turbulent era is now ahead, with low resources and unpredictable politics. It has always been a struggle to fight for beauty, and ugly beauty, and there will be no let up.