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Somewhere, somehow, over the last century we dropped beauty, mislaid it, and forgot that we needed to pick it up again. The great visionaries who created the National Trust, the Garden Cities movement and who took the first halting steps to what became the Town and Country Planning Act were not afraid of beauty. When Octavia Hill campaigned to save common land or to provide housing for the poor she sought to protect or provide “beauty… for the refreshment of our souls.” When Clough Williams-Ellis penned his ground-breaking polemic against 1920s ribbon development, England and the Octopus, he wished that “a happy awareness of beauty about us should… be the everyday condition of us all.”

This confidence, this surety of everyday beauty as a worthwhile aim, not as the only thing that matters but as something critically over-arching and aspirational was not without legislative consequences. In Parliament, the 1909 Planning Act was defined as being “to secure the home healthy, the house beautiful, the town pleasant, the city dignified and the suburb salubrious.”

But how do you measure beauty? How is beauty defined? Who’s defining it? Difficult questions that architects, philosophers and poets have debated for millennia. But they have always been difficult. What has changed is our reaction to the challenge. Even if we cannot fully and always agree about what we find beautiful, the process of debating and discussing it can lift our collective sights and help us strive for better things. The problem is that we are not even trying any more. The former head of the National Trust, Fiona Reynolds has written: “Today to talk of beauty in policy circles risks embarrassment: it is felt both to be too vague a word, lacking precision and focus and, paradoxically given its appeal by contrast with official jargon, elitist. Yet in losing the word ‘beauty’ we have lost something special from our ability to shape our present and our future.”

She is right. And we need to change this. The good news is that I think we can. First of all, the Government is now thinking about this. Earlier this year they set up the Building Better Building Beautiful Commission, which I am co-chairing alongside Sir Roger Scruton.

Second, it is increasingly being recognised how pernicious is the old lie ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder.’ Simple clichés are dangerous things. And this one has probably done more harm than most. In fact, polling, focus group, psychological and pricing data is consistent and compelling on the types of homes, places and towns that most people want to live in and find attractive most of the time. The precise nuances and relative weightings vary from time to time and place to place. There may even be generational patterns. However, the types of place, even adjusting for wealth and health, which we aesthetically prefer, in which most of us feel happier and whose creation we are more likely to support, are remarkably consistent in most research. The social enterprise that I founded and run, Create Streets, exists to carry out this research and to support its practical application by neighbourhoods and landowners, councils and developers.

So what do we like? For our book, Of Streets and Squares, we’ve recently been using a uniquely wide data set to research the types of streets and squares that people actually like and the ones they actively avoid. We polled over two thousand people with carefully controlled images. And we ‘dropped’ a visual preference algorithm developed at the Turing Institute and trained by 1.5 million responses to over 200,000 images, into just under 19,000 streets and squares in six British cities. Could we find patterns in the types of places people like by comparing the scores of the algorithm with the ‘big data’ on our cities? You bet we could.

Take London, one of the six cities we investigated. The types of place that came out top were very consistent. Old fashioned squares and beautiful walkable streets with a rich diversity of uses. They had some greenery but also a sense of enclosure (buildings about as wide as the street was tall). They had ‘gentle density’ half-way between the extremes of tower block and extended suburbia. They also had what we call the ‘narrow fronts, many doors’ model. No long blank walls but frequent front doors and windows. Similar patterns emerged in our visual preference surveys with Ipsos MORI.

Urban designers often tell us that buildings don’t matter, ‘it’s the space in between.’ And volume housebuilders tell us that people aspire to the drive-to cul-desacs they churn out. They’re both wrong. The least popular places and the lowest scoring images in our polling were defined by lakes of tarmac and sheer, grey, faceless buildings. Drive to cul-de-sac streets scored pretty badly too. People recoil from streets without colour, a sense of place, variety in pattern or a coherent complexity of windows and doors in a near symmetrical pattern.

When, six years ago, Create Streets started making this case we were largely ridiculed by the design and planning professions. That is now changing. Rationality is breaking out. If local councils want to boost the wellbeing of a Brexitperturbed populace the answer is staring them in the face. Ask what people find beautiful. You’ll get remarkable agreement from rich to poor, from north to south. And then support that though planning policy, not walls of glass or repetitive ugliness.

Nicholas Boys Smith is the Director of Create Streets and co-chair of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission. This article first appeared in our Centre Write magazine On the home front. Views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.