What is Natural Beauty?

Online symposium
December 1st, 2021,1 – 5pm

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

What needs to change?

The year 2021 marked 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 National Park. This event asked:

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?

What is Natural Beauty brought 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? Watch the symposium recording to revisit the symposium presentations and discussions.

The event was 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
Kate Gilman Brundrett’s illustration evolved during the symposium

The symposium brought together experts in different disciplines and professions and incorporated artistic presentations and reflections. It did not aim to answer the question – rather it offered a frame for exciting, inspiring and provocative conversations. There were 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 was designed to be conversational and organic – loosely held within the following four themes.

In the Eye of the Beholder

What is beautiful? We consider 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

Ideas of cultural heritage and aesthetic beauty 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. During the symposium there were many discussions about completely rethinking economic systems.

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 gave a response to the Landscapes Review in January 2022. The conversations stimulated by this symposium may help to inform participants’ thoughts on the government’s response, and subsequent contribution to the consultation. Please do take a look and add your comments as part of this consultation process.

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 was streamed online, with captioning enabled. The full event is available to view on YouTube here.

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 was recorded and made accessible via YouTube (which includes captioning for ease of access). Access the full recording here.

Key points from the break-out sessions 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.

Artist-in-Residence Kate Gilman Brundrett worked during the event to capture key points, and the nuances of discussions in her artwork; images will be shared soon.

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.