Last edited 18 Oct 2020

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Institute of Historic Building Conservation Institute / association Website

Characterising and capturing the diversity of place

The importance of protecting and responding positively to the established character of an area has long been recognised. In the UK this stems from a real sense of loss in the face of rapid urbanisation and suburbanisation from the end of the 19th century onwards and particularly in the post-war period of the 1950s and early 60s.

The development of the planning structure around the protection of areas which are considered ‘special’ started in the post-war austerity of the 1950s when the brave new beginning in Britain included the wholesale redevelopment of many of the historic city centres of England and Wales. Amid the now well-rehearsed cries that post-war planners were inflicting more damage on the medieval cities of England than the Luftwaffe ever had, such bodies as the Civic Trust were founded in the late 1950s. They campaigned to make better places for people to live and, along with others, decried the loss of historic areas unceremoniously cleared to make way for modern civic centres and new town shopping precincts such as Hemel Hempstead and Stevenage, both in Hertfordshire. This was essentially a human response to the removal of diversity from our townscape; away with the jumble of the medieval and later, and in with the clean lines and repeated rhythms of the Festival of Britain style.

The Civic Amenities Act 1967 enabled the designation of conservation areas. This, Lord Sandford told parliament in 1973, was a method of protecting the ‘familiar and cherished local scene’. It was a relatively straightforward concept and obvious candidates such as Winchester, York and Salisbury and historic towns such as Stamford were early designations. However, the concept’s apparent simplicity is deceptive, and it is only recently that the familiar and cherished local scene has begun to be assessed objectively using characterisation to quantify these attributes, to provide structure for designation and management and, ultimately, to find answers to the question ‘so what?’.

Although the value of characterisation as an evidence base has only recently been recognised, its emergence as a key tool for the development of planning policies has been rapid, led nationally by English Heritage. Increasingly, the character of areas which are not necessarily designated as special have been recorded and analysed using it. But there is still the dilemma of how we respond to the findings and what this means for future policy drafting.

The idea of capturing not only the diversity but the patterns in our townscapes and landscapes is a natural human response. This is becoming ever more crucial in the outcomes of minor and major infrastructure projects relating to wind and solar farms for example. Such large-scale infrastructure projects are being tested against the setting of scheduled monuments, listed buildings, conservation areas, greenbelt, areas of outstanding natural beauty and areas of sensitive landscape character (as defined by local policies). In each case, determining whether a proposal is acceptable or harmful requires an objective assessment of the character of the heritage asset as well as an understanding of the scope of its protection. A sensible and robust analysis of its significance by experienced practitioners is essential for the planning system to maintain its integrity.

‘Character’ is often associated with the ‘good’ or ‘positive’ qualities of a place. However, while some places may have a positive character – for example if residents or visitors perceive it as a pleasant, stimulating, or relaxing place to be – there are other places which have a negative character. In these places, the atmosphere might be alienating or threatening, it might feel run-down or devoid of any sense of focus or place. The character of a place can also be said to be neutral, for example if it is monotonous, lacks stimulation, or has little to distinguish it from other areas.

Undertaking the process of characterisation requires a range of skills. In part it is a collaborative activity involving perceptive observation of people and their interaction with the built and natural environment. A characterisation study can be undertaken over a short period of time with a relatively small number of people, preferably a mix of local people and professional facilitators. This ensures the diverse mix of views and values needed to achieve a balance between local knowledge and insight on the one hand and, on the other, a degree of detachment which allows the project to be seen in its wider context (usually the job of a facilitator).

Characterisation will always require the exercise of judgement and evaluation; it is more than the pure description of a place. We are looking for what is significant that defines the place, what is typical in the pattern of built forms and layout and what may be unique and which stands out.

It is the job of planners, urban designers and other ‘placemakers’ firstly, to work with communities to identify the character of neighbourhoods, to identify what is valued and what is of value (there may be a difference here), and to pinpoint the negative and neutral aspects of the character. Secondly, the task is to develop strategies whereby the positive character can be conserved and enhanced, where the negative can be sensitively and appropriately replaced, and to propose interventions in the neutral areas where improved landscape, diversity or legibility, for example, may be appropriate.

This all sounds very laudable in principle, but in practice enhancement can be very difficult to achieve. The default is for strategies to promote development that is in keeping with the character of a place, thus missing opportunities for diversity. In some ways, the outpouring of local opinion in favour of the ‘traditional’ has helped focus views back on how to use context to design and effect change in development. However, all too often the result is a watered-down version of the original principles of the Poundbury model (in terms of plan-making rather than architectural styles) and a general cherry-picking of local details. This might consist of a panel of flint, some stone facades (although the stone and its finish often do not reflect local tradition), or various modern interpretations of traditional roofing materials (such as thatch) and, the ultimate charade, the false plastic chimney, moulded to mimic brick or stone.

Successful interventions in areas of distinct character are typically underpinned by committed clients and strong character-led analysis which is often highly visual and makes use of acknowledged techniques such as notation to produce townscape analysis.

It is also important to maintain a high level of attention to detail which is often taken through by a single architect or team of professionals retained throughout the development process. Cost is, of course, a significant issue and vernacular materials can be very expensive to procure and utilise in development. While this should not be a barrier to change it should be carefully considered by the instigators of change. In other words: are the available funds sufficient to do the job right and to the specification required to achieve the quality of development expected in the area of sensitive character identified?

What the current system of planning controls consistently finds a challenge is how to achieve development which responds to the character of an area but is not poor pastiche. We need to discourage development that takes the lowest denominator such as materials usage or a building type and slavishly repeats this with no concept or understanding of how this element should be applied and why it works in its original setting. The question is how?

The quality of communication between communities in our neighbourhoods, local politicians and professionals such as planners and urban designers needs substantial improvement. Professionals, it appears to residents, seem to communicate both graphically and verbally in what seems unfathomable jargon, whereas professionals are often dismayed that ‘lay’ people seem unwilling or unable to discuss matters regarding their surroundings beyond generalities and clichés.

A comprehensive map-based understanding of a place, such as the exemplary work undertaken in Bristol under the ‘Know Your Place’ banner, combined with a notation method developed with community, schools and professionals provides a common language of characterisation which is accessible to all, is transferable between neighbourhoods and is precise and robust for use in plan-making.

In addition to the ‘so what?’ question we might also ask why characterisation is important and whether it encourages diversity in our townscape and landscape interventions. The answer is likely to include a consideration of how well one uses an evidence base to understand a place and respond positively to that understanding. But importantly characterisation allows us to understand the underlying drivers that can explain why an area has developed in a particular way. It is not and should not be used to encourage the repetition of what is there at the moment. On the contrary, it should be used to encourage good modern design and use of materials armed with the understanding characterisation provides about what it is that makes a place distinctive, familiar, cherished and, above all, valued by a community.


This article originally appeared in IHBC’s Yearbook 2015, published by The Institute of Historic Building Conservation. It was written by James Webb, a director of Forum Heritage Services, a consultancy which specialises in characterisation work across the UK. This article includes abridged material from the book ‘Characterising Neighbourhoods’ by Richard Guise and James Webb.

--Institute of Historic Building Conservation

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