Beauty ‘essential’ but should not be sole focus – Dunnett in advance of LI conference

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This article by Elizabeth Henry, Horticulture Week, offers a preview of the Landscape Institute’s annual conference in Sheffield
Whether the public has a right to beauty in times of austerity will be a key theme of the upcoming Landscape Institute conference, to be held at the University of Sheffield.

Does the public still have a right to beauty when budgets are being cut?

Landscape professionals need to “make the argument over and over again” that beauty is needed in the public realm even in a time of austerity, according to the University of Sheffield’s Dr Anna Jorgensen.

The head of research at the university’s landscape department will be one of 14 speakers at the annual conference and CPD event to be held on campus on 3-4 March.

She has been mulling over ideas of beauty and public realm for years but the topic has become increasingly important as the crisis in public funding grows. Local authorities often see beauty in the public realm as a nice-to-have where it’s easy to make savings; landscape architects need to challenge this perception, she said.

Landscape professionals need to “make the argument over and over again” to convince local authorities that having beautiful public spaces is in their best interests and that neglecting beauty in the public realm is “a false economy”.

Beauty is valuable on many levels, Jorgensen said. It can draw people to spend time in natural and civic open spaces, giving them access to the host of other mental, social and physical benefits those spaces offer. It also adds value to the time spent in the space, making people stop, take time out and recharge their batteries.

And while society’s diversity means there are many different understandings of what beauty entails, it is still essential for all sectors of society to have access to beauty, even – especially – in times of austerity.

“People who say we can’t afford beauty have the wrong idea of what beauty is. It’s not a luxury, it’s not about high culture, it’s not expert-determined – there’s no one idea of beauty. Beauty is something we all experience on a daily basis,” Jorgensen said.

While most speaker will be arguing on the side of the public’s right to beauty, Sheffield professor of planting design Dr Nigel Dunnett will counter the idea that landscape architecture should be first and foremost about the making of beautiful places.

While he says beauty is “essential” in landscape architecture, Dunnett believes focusing on beauty reinforces the stereotype that landscape is all about being decorative and ‘softening’ the built environment.

That diverts attention from the many other benefits landscape brings, he said.

“We face huge challenges in terms of climate change, increasing urbanisation, and increasing population densities. Landscape architecture holds the key to these challenges in terms of environmental design and planning, in shaping and making communities, and in terms of human health and well-being. These are the crucial issues that meet key national and international policy objectives.”

Other disciplines are also taking over the ground landscape architects used to occupy, according to Dunnett.

“Garden designers, planners, architects, urban designers, and civil engineers now all lay claim to elements that by rights should be the domain of landscape architecture. The profession should be strongly asserting itself as the natural leader in these sorts of fields.

“Focusing on beauty again diminishes this central role, and lessons the importance of landscape architecture in comparison to these other disciplines,” he said.

“I am not at all against beauty – I think it should be a fundamental outcome of what landscape designers do, and I am all for it – it is essential. But I do think it is a mistake to make it the primary or sole objective. That is potentially a route that will further re-enforce the rather under-the-radar and low-profile status of landscape architecture compared to other related professions at the moment.”

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