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Natural Capital View: Biodiversity and the Battle over Beauty

In my favourite play, Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia, the modern lady of a country house bemoans how in 1809 the gardener Noakes, following the ‘close to nature’ fashion of Capability Brown, had swept away the intricate, formal Georgian box hedges and rose walks in favour of parkland dotted with sheep and spreading trees. ‘Culpability Noakes’ she calls him.

Since I first saw Arcadia, I’ve been fascinated by how tastes and fashions – which can mutate and spread through society as quickly as a pandemic – drive us to shape and reshape the natural world. 

I’ve been reminded of it by several high profile advocates for nature calling for a ‘messy is beautiful’ approach in the media, and criticising the social pressure on farmers and gardeners to maintain a tidy sterility.

Several of my friends picked up on the campaign by Plantlife to celebrate a ‘No Mow May’, letting the lawn grow longer for a few weeks to enable flowers and invertebrates to flourish (pictured). Their defiant disregard to what the neighbours might think required almost as much energy as getting out the mower.

Back in 1809, the science of ‘taste’ was deeply developed: philosophers and religious leaders thought and wrote carefully about how people could learn different perceptions of beauty, and how those perceptions would shape their behaviour at a deep emotional level.

The serious Victorians taught us that this interest in taste and beauty was frivolous: the Georgian and Regency treatises ‘On beauty’ or ‘On taste’ were products of an elite blind to the deep social injustices and poverty on the doorstep of their society. Or was it?

It seems to me that we have allowed ourselves to slip into believing in a strong polarisation between sterile neatness on the one hand, and messy biodiversity on the other. Because we don’t think ‘taste’ is a serious topic, we simply accept these positions as two objective truths, rather than undertaking any serious analysis of how we could engage the deep emotional drivers of taste – which translates into social pressure – to shape the world we want.

It seems to me that the ‘messy is biodiverse’ message reinforces a hair-shirt environmentalism that ‘if it isn’t ugly, it isn’t good for you’. It also stops at a superficial understanding of biodiversity. Few people would consider flowers and trees messy or ugly: a rich, beautiful garden can be immensely biodiverse; a well-maintained hedge a far better biodiversity corridor than a straggly, gappy one. Yes, deadwood piles and marshy areas are great for wildlife, but they don’t have to be visible. Yes, a riot of dock, nettle and willowherb might be considerably more biodiverse than next door’s neat rectangle of artificial grass surrounded by concrete paving, but it is hardly a mature ecosystem: those plants are indicators of recent disturbance and nitrogen pollution.

I’d like to see more people take a strong middle ground, at least in farms and gardens where ecosystems must be created rather than conserved. I’d like to see more excitement about designing gardens and landscapes which are intentionally both beautiful and biodiverse: flower-rich, water-rich and tree-rich. In these cultivated landscapes, we need more positive appreciation about how nature can coexist alongside, not in spite of, humans – nesting on our buildings, feeding on our mixes of exotic and native flowers, colonising our elegantly maintained ponds and trees.

Natural capital is about economics, and economics is (amongst other things) about how people choose to spend their money. Perhaps if as a society we invested more in skilful gardening, we might find ourselves shaping an economy that unleashes the potential of the land to deliver our food, resources, net-zero carbon, and increasing biodiversity. Which gardener, farmer or forester would you make a household name, with the nickname not ‘Capability’ or ‘Culpability’, but ‘Creativity’?


Natural Capital: Galbraith’s expert advisers guide our clients in realising value in all land uses – by assessing and measuring natural assets, furthering opportunities in biodiversity net gain, and ensuring stakeholders are rewarded fully for their investment in and contribution to delivering ecosystem services and net-zero outcomes.