What is Natural Beauty?

Online symposium / December 1st, 1 – 5pm

who gets to define natural beauty? and how do values & aesthetics affect the way we relate to and care for the land around us?

2021 marks 50 years since the designation of the Wye Valley as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), and 70 years since the birth of England’s Lake District and Peak District National Parks. This event will ask:

What was the perception of ‘natural beauty’ 50/70 years ago? What is the perception now? And how do our actions frame what will be ‘natural beauty’ 50/70 years in the future? As changes are made – and changes to landscape and to human behaviours must be made in this time of climate and biodiversity crises – what do we want to gain, what do we not want to lose, and who chooses?

Tickets: £15, with discounts available.

What is Natural Beauty will bring together strands from debates about the practicalities and economics of landscape management, within the context of what is considered beautiful and draws people into Protected Landscapes. Is it time to shake up our thinking about what is beautiful?

The event is being hosted by the UK’s Centre for National Parks and Protected Areas, and is being run by the PLACE Collective with the Wye Valley AONB Partnership and the Lake District National Park Authority.

Wye Valley AONB LOGO
Lake District National Park 70th Logo
The River Wye photographed from Symonds Yat. The image shows a green summer landscape, with the river between woodlands and fields.

The symposium will bring together experts in different disciplines and professions and will incorporate artistic presentations and reflections. It will not aim to answer the question – rather it offers a frame for what we hope will be exciting, inspiring and provocative conversations. There will be short films, presentations, new insights and lively break out sessions, all of which will be reflected on in a post-event report and artwork from the Artist-in-Residence.

Areas for discussion

The symposium is designed to be conversational and organic – but it will be loosely held within the following four themes.

In the Eye of the Beholder

What is beautiful? We’ll be considering perspectives spanning farming, tourism and environmental policy targets, a range of cultural histories & expectations, and other-than-human communities; and asking how ‘beauty’ can be nurtured and accessed.

Renewable Beauty

What’s the narrative going forwards? How might we adapt perceptions of beauty when the landscape changes to support renewable energy, for instance? How do we include sustainability and regeneration in our systems of landscape care?

Artistic Framing

We can’t hold an event like this without reflecting on ideas of cultural heritage and aesthetic beauty that are framed in art and literature. Both the Wye Valley and the Lake District National Park are historically connected with the picturesque – an aesthetic ideal of beauty introduced by Gilpin in the late 18th Century – and with Romantic art and literature, closely connected with Wordsworth and his contemporaries. The Symposium will consider these and will discuss contemporary presentations of beauty, from a diversity of perspectives.

Natural Value

How do you put a price on natural beauty, or on ‘nature’? There’s plenty to talk about here, from philosophical perspectives and recent government reviews, to the concept of putting financial value on ‘Public Goods’ including leisure, wellbeing and biodiversity. Mitigating against the impact of climate change, and the introduction of carbon offsetting and carbon credits, are also part of the mix going forward.

Image linking to the Programme for What Is Natural Beauty Symposium
Click on the image to open the programme

The uk landscapes review

In January 2018, the UK government published the 25 Year Plan for the Environment. This set out an approach to “conserve and protect the natural beauty of our landscapes by reviewing National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs) for the 21st century”. Following this, a Landscapes Review was launched, inviting wide consultation and evidence. This was published in September, 2019. You can access the full text (168 pages) and a shorter summary on the government website here.

The UK government has stated that it will give a response to the Landscapes Review in December 2021 – this target may be reached, or may be slightly delayed. This symposium is running parallel to this process. It has not been set up as a response to either the Landscapes Review or the government’s own response. We recognise, however, that this symposium may help to inform – or reflect – participants’ thoughts on the government’s response.

Other relevant reviews and processes that provide context to this event include the Dasgupta Review, the design of the new ELM (Environmental Land Management) schemes, the introduction of a Nature Recovery Network and UK targets for widespread tree planting.

Location: The symposium will be streamed online, with captioning enabled.

Tickets: £15 with concessions available.

Wind turbines from a small fell in eastern Cumbria, with heavy clouds and hills in the background.

Legacy : So we hold an event, but then what?

The event will be recorded and made accessible via YouTube (which includes captioning for ease of access).

The event will include break-out sessions with collective input; the shared views will be collated by a team coordinated by PLACE and the Centre for National Parks and Protected Areas, and will be made available in a post-event report.

It is also an ambition of ours that this material will be combined with a researcher’s analysis of presentations and conversations from the day, and will be put towards a formal paper.

An Artist-in-Residence will be observing and working during the event, and will produce a new artwork.

The identification of landscapes of outstanding “natural beauty” requires careful thought about why some landscapes are valued more than others. In the 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries, when landscape was still viewed largely as a static scene or picture, “natural beauty” was synonymous with scenery. It reflected the value attached to the aesthetic and scenic aspects of landscape and their spiritual and emotional effects on people. Times have now changed and so have cultural interpretations of landscape. The aesthetic and perceptual values attached to landscape, though still important, are only one of the reasons why landscape is valued today. Today judgements about “natural beauty” are really the same as judgements about landscape value, which in turn requires consideration of the different reasons why society may attach value to particular places.

From a Statement of Natural Beauty /  Countryside Council for Wales May 2006

A group of people stood in a woodland listening to some poetry. It is a warm and sunny day and the mature trees are in full leaf

‘We will conserve and enhance the beauty of our natural environment, and make sure it can be enjoyed, used by and cared for by everyone’  
(From the 25 Year Environment Plan, HM Government, 2018).

Come forth into the light of things,
Let Nature be your teacher.

from ‘The Tables Turned’ by William Wordsworth

A small group of people - artists, scientists, conservationists - on a site visit to Bolton Fell Moss in north-east Cumbria. The group are standing on an elevated parcle of land that is surrounded by heather.