Last edited 22 Sep 2020

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Institute of Historic Building Conservation Institute / association Website

Characterising Neighbourhoods: exploring local assets of community significance

Characterising Neighbourhoods.jpg
Characterising Neighbourhoods: exploring local assets of community significance, Richard Guise and James Webb, Routledge, 2018, 304 pages, fully illustrated, paperback.

This book deserves to be widely read. Its authors no doubt hoped to come up with a title that would attract the planners, councillors, neighbourhood planning activists, building conservationists, urbanists and students who would benefit from it. Unfortunately, Characterising Neighbourhoods: exploring local assets of community significance is not that title. ‘Characterising’ is a rather clunky term, and it is not clear how ‘exploring local assets of community significance’ relates to it.

What the book does very well is to explain how to assess the character of a place, and how to use that understanding in the planning process. Its strongest feature is the beautiful, annotated drawings by Richard Guise. These communicate brilliantly, and make one regret the thousands of words that other authors write about urban design and conservation without illuminating anything much.

Understanding local character is at the heart of planning, urban design and conservation. If local authorities tell planning applicants one thing about how to develop, it is usually to be responsive to the character of the area. Too often the developer chooses one matter that is in some way locally distinctive – some flint or banded brickwork, perhaps – and uses that to tick the ‘character’ box.

The result is often something that looks ridiculous, all other aspects of the local character having been ignored. In such cases a tokenistic nod to character has been used as an excuse not to think about the complexity of the local context, and to put as little thought as possible into the development’s design.

Because ‘character’ is a simple word, too many people in the built environment professions assume that it must also represent a simple thing. On the contrary, character is shorthand for every aspect of a place considered in its context.

Guise and Webb get to grips with that complexity magnificently. They explain the concept of character and how to use it in neighbourhood planning, urban design and planning decision-making. And they end the book by considering how character can be used in the process of designing development.

A consistent theme is the authors’ belief that many people lack the language to discuss matters of design and spatial planning. They hope that the book’s text, annotated diagrams and captioned illustrations will help to remedy this, and their faith in the book’s effectiveness is surely justified.

They also claim that the map-based notation method that they present ‘provides a common language of characterisation that is available to all’. For those of us who have never used such a notation method, and who wonder if those developed by pioneers such as Gordon Cullen were not just too complicated, we will have to take their word for it. But, whether or not such a notation method is widely usable, the way they discuss their approach to it is, like the rest of this valuable book, highly enlightening.

This article originally appeared as ‘Locally distinctive’ in IHBC's Context 157 (Page 62), published in November 2018. It was written by Rob Cowan, editor of Context.

--Institute of Historic Building Conservation

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