David Cameron is correct: the right to live somewhere beautiful matters

One of London's less attractive bits of brutalism. Image: Getty.

Last month, David Cameron has acted on a significant injustice. The country’s worst post-war tower blocks, built quickly in response to high demand for social housing in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, will be demolished and replaced with more attractive low rise homes.

Some tower blocks are praised for their brutalist, modern style – but in reality, most are hated by the general population and particularly by those who live there. In recent public opinion polls, the reluctance to live in a tower block has been almost consistently unanimous.

There’s nothing subjective about it; these buildings are just plain ugly. And ugly surroundings erode aspiration, health and community; they trap people in a cycle of ever decreasing social mobility, and they cultivate crime. They are poor houses to house the poor, which is simply an assault on social justice. 


We have lost a public understanding that “beauty” is for everyone. Despite the significant benefits that more beautiful places can deliver, access to them is now deeply determined by class. Our research revealed that only those who come from a high social and educational background, and with an annual household income of above £45,000, are able experience beauty in their local area. 

Deprivation has as a result become even more evident and entrenched than ever before – embodied in post-war eyesores that have become characteristically known as our local housing estates. This class divide is dangerous, and one that needs to end.

Beauty didn’t used to be a class issue, nor a luxury reserved only for the wealthy. For Plato, beauty was a universal ideal to be discerned and realised by everyone; not an abstract concept only accessible to the wise.

For Aristotle, beauty could be found by all people in all things – albeit in varying degrees – and was far more than what simply met the eye: It revealed an object’s or person’s purpose, role in society and place in the universe. It was something to be debated and identified communally, and was central to the realisation of a just society. 

Such an understanding wasn’t exclusive to the ancient Greeks. The 19th Century philosopher John Ruskin and his contemporaries believed that beauty is objective and so can be shared and held in common. The Romantics, a movement whose acolytes were drawn from every class, shared with Keats the view that “beauty is truth”.

This axiom inspired the revolutionary and conservative political upheavals that were to follow: the “rights of man” that underpinned the French Revolution, and the Burkean view that beauty and truth are in nature and therefore must be universally accessible.

The truth about beauty

But beauty was not in the eye of the beholder, as the Enlightenment philosophers would have you believe. It is this damaging mantra that has caused us to think so individualistically and instrumentally about beauty, and to reduce its access – physical and intellectual – as well as its benefits and indeed creation, to a mere few in society. 

Alongside Ruskin, Burke and the Greek philosophers, we must argue that beauty is far more than a façade processed by certain individuals’ minds: it is inherent to everything that exists and holds value far beyond that which can be measured by social and economic analysis. It must be both discerned by and made accessible to all.

Cameron’s pledge to transform some of the country’s most run-down housing estates into more attractive homes is therefore a small but welcome move. It recognises, as our own research revealed, that ugly places impact negatively on aspiration, crime levels, health and safety. It also acknowledges that the creation of more beautiful places is central to eradicating poverty and deprivation, and therefore as a matter of social justice, must be done in service to the least wealthy in society.


But how do we ensure that these eyesores become icons rather than idols? An idol – traditionally understood – is an abstract and material imposition, which is praised by the few and holds no value beyond itself. An icon, on the other hand, is a mediating force. It has a much closer connection to people and its surroundings. Religious icons, for example, are often beautiful objects or paintings that point to a higher purpose. Millions of Christians visit icons every year, not to worship the item itself, but to participate in a communal activity to praise that which it is ultimately pointing to – in this case, God.

There is a very real danger, particularly with pressures on government to supply more homes, that idols rather than icons will be sanctioned for development. In other words, that what is deemed beautiful and good in the minds of the few – rather than the many in a given community – will be rapidly rolled out. 

This would radically undermine the value that such developments could offer, and will likely increase opposition to proposed plans. If we are to learn from our ancient and modern philosophers, we must understand that the creation of beautiful places, and beautiful buildings, must be discerned locally rather than imposed from the outside and above. 

To truly eradicate poverty from our most deprived estates, communities need to be granted greater powers and incentives to discern beauty locally and improve their local areas. Granting access to beautiful places must also mean granting access to its negotiation and creation. Government need to let go and witness the creativity that such a move could bring. 

Caroline Julian is head of policy & strategy at the think tank Respublica.

This article originally appeared on our sister site, the Staggers.

 
 
 
 

Coming soon: CityMetric will relaunch as City Monitor, a new publication dedicated to the future of cities

Coming soon!

Later this month, CityMetric will be relaunching with an entirely new look and identity, as well as an expanded editorial mission. We’ll become City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications coming soon from New Statesman Media Group. We can’t wait to share the new website with you, but in the meantime, here’s what CityMetric readers should know about what to expect from this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is going to be a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission will be to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we’ll cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing, and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications this fall, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

City Monitor will go live later this month. In the meantime, please visit citymonitor.ai to sign up for our forthcoming email newsletter.


As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our forthcoming digs. You can already follow City Monitor on LinkedIn, and on Twitter, sign up or keep following our existing account, which will switch over to our new name shortly. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

In the meantime, stay tuned, and thank you from all of us for being a loyal CityMetric reader. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.