General view of the terrace from the north-east
Station Row, Wath Road, Elsecar, Barnsley. © Historic England Archive. DP175872.
Station Row, Wath Road, Elsecar, Barnsley. © Historic England Archive. DP175872.

Quality and Beauty in the Historic Environment

Part of the Heritage Counts series. 4.5 minute read.

Heritage shapes the actual and perceived quality of our surroundings, resulting in positive outcomes and contributing to the wellbeing of members of the public.

In this article, we explore how historic buildings and other heritage assets (such as monuments) can create better places to live, work and spend time in.

Heritage can create thriving places

Thriving places

The What Works Centre for Wellbeing and Happy City (Abdallah et al, 2019) state that ‘places and spaces matter for a community’s likelihood to thrive.’ Places provide the conditions or ingredients for communities to succeed and prosper:

“a thriving place provides the conditions for everyone to find good work, feel supported, live healthily, and have their needs met fairly, both now and in the future.” (1)

An emphasis on place underpins the Government’s Levelling Up agenda, in which heritage is recognised as a tool to tackle spatial inequalities by contributing to social capital and pride in place. This aligns with the priorities of the heritage sector. One of Historic England’s three pillars, thriving places, aims to ensure heritage is protected and celebrated, securing the long-term future of places that support individual and community wellbeing.

Historic buildings, monuments and spaces are an important component of high quality, liveable places:

  • Historic places and buildings serve as local assets that accommodate a range of functions and activities (Pennington et al, 2019). Access to these resources can influence a community’s capacity to ‘thrive’, according to the National Lottery Community Fund’s model of thriving communities (Abdallah et al, 2019)
  • Opportunities to connect with heritage are a vital source of local identity and belonging and integral to the wellbeing of communities. ‘Access to affordable and inclusive cultural and leisure activities, services and amenities which celebrate the diverse histories of people in the community’ is thus one of nine domains included in The Co-Op Community Wellbeing Index. The index was informed by research (participatory workshops) undertaken by the Young Foundation with 387 people in 15 communities across the UK (Hill-Dixon et al)
  • Many of the attributes of good urban design can be offered by historic places. This includes ‘fascinating’ elements of design, landmarks that aid wayfinding, distinctiveness (sense of place) and architectural quality (beauty), to name a few (Roe and McCay, 2021; Carmona, 2019). Carmona’s (2019) ladder of place qualities (2), pictured below, shows those that urban designers should require, aspire to and avoid
Place qualities to

greenness, mix of uses, low levels of traffic, bikeability, compact and coherent pattern of development, public transport connectivity.

visual permeability, sense of place, pedestrian scale, facade contunity, natural surveillance, street level activity, good street lighting, denser street network, low traffic speeds, low neighbourhood noise, attractive and comfortable public spaces, social public /  private threshold features, integration of built heritage, integration of natural features and ecosystem, percevied architectural quality (beauty).

architectural styles, higher vs. lower densities, extreme densities, high rise living, street length and connectivity, cul-de-sacs, vehicle / pedestrian separation, shared spaces, proximity of retail to residential uses. 

car dependent and extensive suburbanisation, relentlessly hard urban spaces, too much local permeability, rear parking courts and segregated areas, poor maintenance and/ dilapidation, overcrowding, presence of too many fast food stores, or roads with higher traffic loads and speeds, wider carriage-way widths, or which are elevated. 

Heritage shapes public perceptions of quality and beauty

Historic architecture, buildings and spaces shape the way places look and feel. This provides a sense of beauty, distinctiveness and quality:  

  • The discipline of environmental aesthetics has long shown that people prefer historical places to modern architecture (Nasar, 1998). Recent studies using mobile Virtual Reality technology support this. Mouratidis and Hassan (2020) presented 360-degree videos of eight places to participants through a mobile-based VR platform and assessed their perceptions and emotional responses. Comparing the mean average scores for the traditional and contemporary spaces revealed that contemporary architecture is generally perceived less positively than traditional architecture
  • Historic buildings are perceived as high quality and aesthetically pleasing. In a survey of 1,713 UK adults (YouGov, 2018), over two-thirds (68%) agreed with the statement ‘historic buildings were generally built to a high standard’, compared to 26% who agreed that ‘new buildings are generally built to a high standard’. A study commissioned by CABE exploring public attitudes towards beauty found that older buildings were seen as being more beautiful than newer ones, associated with longevity and grandeur (Ipsos Mori, 2010)
  • Investment in heritage can have a positive impact on attitudes towards place. A study of the impact of the Townscape Heritage Initiative compared changes in townscape quality in 16 places with changes in public perceptions. In the top 4 cases where the townscape quality improved most over the entire research period, there was some evidence of an association between townscape improvement and improvement in the perception of the appearance and maintenance of place (Reeve and Shipley, 2014)

Why beauty matters

Beautiful places influence how we feel and behave, with implications for health and wellbeing:

  • Beauty can play a role in connecting people to place. Bonaiuto et al (1999) identified the presence of aesthetically pleasing buildings was a positive predictor of attachment. Wang’s (2021) research with residents of Edinburgh found evidence of an aesthetic appreciation for the historic environment, with interviewees talking about the ‘picturesque’ quality of places they felt attached to
  • Spending time in beautiful places can evoke positive emotions such as happiness (Sereshine et al, 2019). The Beyond Location framework highlights the importance of beauty for place value, stating that “Living in an environment they aesthetically like contributes to many people’s enjoyment of life” (Smith et al, 2017)

Attractive environments encourage physical activities. A YouGov survey undertaken on behalf of RIBA (2013) found that improving safety and attractiveness was one of the most common changes people reported would encourage them to walk more.

Heritage can influence people’s sense of safety

The quality of the built environment also plays an important part in shaping people’s sense of safety (Austin et al, 2002). Research has shown how observed disorder in the physical environment increases perceptions of social disorder (Hinkle and Yang, 2014), contributing to lower perceived safety and negative emotions (Mouratidis, 2021).

Maintaining historic buildings can play an important role. Run down or derelict buildings in town centres and high streets contribute negatively on feelings of safety, whereas well maintained public spaces convey feelings of safety and belonging (Cattell et al, 2008; Hall et al, 2022). A survey of 679 people in 5 areas that had received heritage regeneration funding showed improvements in perceptions of safety following the project's completion. The proportion that indicated positive feelings of safety increased from 81% to 91% during the day and from 85% to 94% after dark (AMION, 2010).

Historic places can support and enable physical activity and social ties due to their layout and design (Rosso et al, 2011; BBBC, 2020; Bauman and Bull, 2008). This has implications for people’s sense of safety as well as physical health and social wellbeing:

  • The walkability of the historic urban environment brings people onto the streets and increases activities in public space, which in turn improves perceptions of safety (Arup, 2016)
  • A study by Venerandi et al (2016) exploring the relationship between urban form and wellbeing concluded that a good place to live has green space, historic properties and a dense, grid shaped street network. Although direction of causality was not established, the authors suggest that a dense urban form enhances social interactions, which can foster a sense of belonging and improve perceptions of safety


  1. Centre for Thriving Places, 'Thriving Places Index'. Available at: (Accessed: 15.08.23) 
  2. Carmona’s (2019) ladder of place qualities was developed as a tool for built environment decision makers, drawing on academic literature.


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