In the Autumn issue of the RSA Journal, Ben Rogers writes about the importance of exceptional beauty in our lives, and of how good design should not, and need not, be a victim of austerity. While endorsing all this, I want to add a few words about how the beauty or ugliness that we see every day also affects us through its impact on community cohesion.
The recent Connected Communities report makes a strong case against a purely geographic conception of community. But that's not to say that the environment in which we live doesn't have an impact on our relationships with other people living nearby. Quite the opposite, in fact: I'd argue that it can underpin or undermine community ties and the extent to which people want to get involved locally.
I can think of two aspects of community life that are deeply affected by the beauty or ugliness that surrounds people. I'm sure there are more, so I'd be interested to hear your thoughts.
If communities have public spaces that are pleasant, even beautiful, local people are more likely to feel a sense of civic pride and ownership, and more likely to want to get involved to keep them that way. It's that desire to get involved that will power the Big Society. But it will only come about if the incentive is there in the first place.
The first involves ugliness. Local environments which encourage the use of public space – parks, pavements, shops, pubs etc – also encourage chance meetings between people. These chance meetings contribute to a lively community that people want to be part of – and at the least, they create the impression of such a community, which is a good starting point for the real thing. These public spaces don't need to be beautiful, but they need not to be ugly if they are to work well. By ugly, I mean not just poorly designed but poorly maintained – even beautiful things can become ugly if they are neglected and abused.
Ugliness in public spaces in itself puts people off using them. People have a choice about where to spend their free time, and unless they have an active reason for going somewhere, they'll vote with their eyes and their feet and choose the most pleasant option. If it's not local public space, it'll be somewhere private, or they won't vote at all and stay at home. And that does little to bolster community cohesion.
Ugliness also increases the fear of crime and, perhaps, real crime. Whether or not you buy the 'broken windows' theory (which argues that small markers of neglect or misuse will, if left untouched, suggest that nobody cares and therefore encourage more serious abuse), a run-down environment in which street lights don't work, vandalism and graffiti aren't fixed and litter isn't collected gives the impression of a lack of authority and control, which in turn raises at least the fear of crime. Which in turn makes people less willing to 'risk' using public space.
The second aspect involves beauty. Social cohesion is greatest when people get actively involved in the community, rather than simply using its amenities. I think a degree of beauty can have an impact here. Matthew Taylor has commented on the benefits of people getting involved locally by helping to maintain the park or volunteering in other ways. There has been some scepticism about this, yet some parks and gardens attract numerous volunteers. The National Trust, for example, could not manage its gardens without volunteers; it attracts them because its gardens are already beautiful, and people want to feel a sense of ownership in them and work to keep them that way.
I think communities are in the same situation. If they have public spaces that are pleasant, even beautiful, local people are more likely to feel a sense of civic pride and ownership, and more likely to want to get involved to keep them that way. It's that desire to get involved that will power the Big Society. But it will only come about if the incentive is there in the first place.
All this suggests that beauty and ugliness go to the heart of community ties and social capital: the former promotes it while the latter undermines it. I don't know how much weight to attach to this, but I just want to end by drawing your attention to a post I wrote a week or so ago about the apparent link between social cohesion and disposable income. Is it reasonable to suggest that local beauty might have a role to play in this; that public space in more affluent areas is generally better maintained and often better designed, and that people are more likely to use it and get involved in keeping it that way? If so, there's an argument for focussing attention and admittedly limited public resources on the maintenance and design of public space in less cohesive areas too.