Last edited 16 Oct 2017

Planning for sustainable historic places

In the heritage sector, sustainable development should be discussed not only in terms of efficient building performance, but also in the wider context of place and planning.


The Lloyd Baker Estate in Islington.jpg

[Image: The Lloyd Baker estate in Islington, London: a historic area showing the best of urban design qualities. Dave Chetwyn.]

Those who plan for historic places need to assess the sustainability values of the area (social, economic, environmental) in addition to understanding heritage values.

Such analysis needs to address uses, live / work patterns, movement, and other factors, such as:

  • Pedestrian permeability and connectivity. Historic layouts tend to be more permeable and convenient for pedestrians. Clearly, some new towns deal with pedestrian and vehicular movement in a very different way. But traditional historic street layouts were a result of meeting pedestrian need.


  • Mixed use. Historic areas have developed incrementally over time and usually have a finer grain of mixed use, reducing the need for car-based journeys. Sometimes there are residential uses located above commercial uses. There is a greater tendency to single use where places have been comprehensively redeveloped.


  • Concentrations of facilities. Historic city, town and village centres have concentrations of community and other facilities and also often better accessibility by public transport.


  • Choice and diversity. Research has shown that historic areas support more independent businesses. Minority or low-profit goods are usually to be found in older more peripheral areas, where rentals are lower, rather than in newer shopping areas.


  • Building patterns. Historic centres often include high density, party-wall construction, with active street frontages. Such urban patterns represent an efficient use of land.

Urban design analysis often shows that historic areas have superior characteristics in terms of layouts, mixed use, concentrations of facilities, permeability and other characteristics. Good planning can build on these qualities.

It is also important to recognise the different ways in which historic buildings and areas support sustainable and inclusive economic growth, and fulfill community needs. This is often through the natural process of growth and decline, and resulting changing property values.

Most city and town centres have transitional areas, where traditional industries or commerce have declined, leading to suppressed property values. In such areas, historic buildings are often the means to providing flexible and affordable accommodation, essential to supporting enterprise, creative businesses, knowledge-based business, social enterprises, specialist goods suppliers and minority goods. So heritage can help to deliver not just more sustainable, but also more inclusive growth.

New development in historic areas can make places more sustainable or, if poorly conceived and designed, less. Groups involved in preparing neighbourhood plans often address heritage issues, either through specific heritage policies or through land use, growth, urban design and other policies that impact on how historic buildings are used, and on how historic areas adapt to meet the needs of current and future generations.

In relation to planning policies, the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) defines sustainable development as having social, economic and environmental dimensions. So heritage is considered by neighbourhood planning bodies as an integral part of the wider social, economic, and environmental planning of the area.

The basic conditions that neighbourhood plans must meet include achieving sustainable development. Achieving sustainable development could address various issues:

  • Planning for growth. Accommodating housing growth near existing centres helps to ensure that historic settlements and their community facilities remain viable. Unfortunately, the default position of some is that new housing development is automatically a threat or a necessary evil. But housing growth is often part of the solution for historic town centres.


  • Integration. Ensuring that new development integrates with established centres is essential, in particular through consideration of pedestrian connectivity and permeability. Ease of movement is not just about pedestrian convenience; it can fundamentally affect the viability of shopping areas.


  • Patterns of growth. Policies should ensure that new uses and growth are allowed in sustainable locations. This could include sites within existing settlements, in urban extensions to established centres, or in areas well served by public transport. This can be achieved by various means, such as site allocations, definition of growth envelopes, identification of areas of development restraint, and designation of local green space.


  • Land use. Use policies are a means to supporting diversification, allowing existing centres to adapt to modern needs. For example, policies could support food, drink, recreational and cultural uses in retail areas, or commercial uses in agricultural buildings. Policies can also encourage and enable employment development and community facilities, as part of a balanced mix of uses.


  • Urban design. Good design is a crucial element of delivering sustainable development. This includes consideration of movement, natural surveillance, a well-functioning public realm, and infrastructure that supports sport and physical activity.


  • Heritage-led regeneration. Enabling heritage-led regeneration and economic development can be a key component of planning policies, especially in transitional historic areas where large-scale changes of use are occurring. This includes older commercial and industrial areas, where decline has occurred, but also where low land values and rentals can be a magnet to small-scale enterprise, knowledge-based business and creative industries.

At a more strategic level, the serious discrepancies in economic performance between different parts of the country represents a serious threat to sustainable growth. Land and house-price inflation are severe problems in some parts of the country, especially London and the south east.

At the same time, there are many parts of the country where the development sector has yet to recover from the economic problems of almost a decade ago. In other areas, there is an imbalance between costs of housing and the strength of the local economy, fuelled by a range of factors such as second-home ownership and commuters (in Cornwall and rural Norfolk, for example). In many rural areas, high house prices exclude many working in the rural economy.

Less than a decade ago, the housing pathfinders were based on a broad-brush view that there was an over-supply of housing in those areas and a need for managed decline. This led to the destruction of many houses, without proper consideration of alternative strategies involving retention and creation of demand. It is now difficult to reconcile this with the current emphasis on the national housing crisis. It is interesting to note that heritage bodies like SAVE rigorously campaigned against the pathfinders at the time.

The aftermath of this policy is still to be seen in areas such as Liverpool and Stoke-on-Trent. In fact, the issue for such housing is one of under-demand and economic viability. The challenge is in how to incentivise employment-creating development in these areas, so as to create demand for residential properties, making their refurbishment more viable. The problem is one of geographical economic imbalance.

Managed decline is a negative and unsustainable concept. It is planning for failure. Just a few decades ago the waterfront and city centre in Liverpool were the subjects of a debate about managed decline. Thankfully those arguing for managed decline lost and the Albert Dock was listed. Today Liverpool is a vibrant city centre and the waterfront was recently voted in an RTPI poll as the greatest place in England.

The challenge for the heritage sector is in reconciling heritage conservation with the need to create fit-for-purpose, sustainable and inclusive places. For professional heritage practitioners involved in managing or supporting change, a complex range of factors is involved, including land use, transport, movement, permeability, townscape, economic development, town centre viability and numerous other factors.

So building performance is part of a much bigger picture for heritage and sustainability, with social, economic and environmental dimensions. Indeed, it is not sustainable practice to improve the performance of a building, if it then accommodates a new use in an unsustainable location.

There is an apparent mismatch between the sometimes narrow ‘buildings’ focus on sustainability and the way it is being addressed by those who live, work and own property in historic buildings and areas. This is especially the case for those who are now involved in planning for the future development of their areas through neighbourhood plans or community-led development, the latter sometimes including taking on heritage assets.

While not diminishing the importance of retrofitting, there is a problem if this is the sole focus, excluding consideration of what makes places sustainable. The challenge for national heritage bodies is on how best to support people and groups actively involved in conservation in different localities. To achieve this, a comprehensive and all-encompassing perspective is required. To focus on building performance in isolation rather misses the point


This article originally appeared in IHBC's Context 150, published in July 2017. It was written by Dave Chetwyn, managing director of Urban Vision Enterprise and of D2H. A former chair of the IHBC, he chairs the institute’s communications and outreach committee.

--Institute of Historic Building Conservation

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