Characterisation, community engagement and place-making

Characterisation in action with Newtown Civic Society (clipboard and conservation officer in background)

Characterisation in action with Newtown Civic Society (clipboard and conservation officer in background)

This is the revised text of a presentation given to an RTPI Urban Design and Conservation regional seminar hosted by Cardiff University’s School of Planning and Geography Innovation and Engagement unit on 25 March 2014. It  followed a talk by Judith Alfrey, Head of Conservation and Policy at Cadw, the historic environment service of the Welsh Government.

Presentation slides: Character, place-making and community engagement_final [pdf: 2.14mb]

Judith Alfrey’s work in promoting characterisation as a methodology in the context of Welsh towns was the inspiration for the Civic Trust to explore the relevance of this approach to community groups.  Her vision of a way of studying character which focuses on the entirety of settlements, rather than on specially designated areas within them, has been imaginative and innovative and refreshing.

Later on, this paper engages with some broad issues of planning and heritage policy, but it’s worth bearing in mind from the start that we have approached characterisation as as way of supporting and developing local amenity groups. These by their nature have a concern for ‘sense of place’ and for the associated cliché, ‘local distinctiveness’. We have sought to help them investigate the built environment of their communities in a structured way that responds to their own fascination with streets and buildings, and that facilitates a dialogue with, and is useful to, local authorities.

What follows initially is a series of reflections on the Trust’s engagement with characterisation, linked to some questions that focus on what the place of characterisation might be in the great game of making better places; and, within that, where the opportunities lie for community groups to be part of the process.

Our engagement centres on a Heritage Lottery grant .This enabled us to work with community groups within our network to develop an approach to characterisation that would involve trial studies of character areas in three communities, and have key outputs including a toolkit and a conference that would share lessons from the project. Anna Lermon was appointed as project officer and it’s her work and experience that underpins the materials we have developed.

Underlying the bid was the wish to explore both the relevance of characterisation to the role of amenity groups and the supposition that this is work that can benefit local authorities and their own engagement in managing change.

The project ran from March 2012 until summer 2013, when we published the manual and toolkit. It was centred on local project teams in Abergavenny, Newtown and Rhiwbina. The latter offered an opportunity to look at a slice of suburban Cardiff rather than a Welsh market town.

Beulah Road, Rhiwbina

Beulah Road, Rhiwbina

Consistent with the notion of urban characterisation, which aims to understand the built character of whole settlements and communities, our three community-based projects were not just concerned with historic contexts but with the ordinary and everyday fabric. Rhiwbina is known for its garden suburb, but the local project team has deliberately begun by studying ordinary neighbourhoods.

The approach in the toolkit was very much a function of the way the people who came together to form the local teams responded to the broader approach in the studies undertaken by Cadw. The focus in the manual was a response to their interest in character and place, and the way in which analysis of these themes can be structured, facilitated by Anna.

It deals successively with:

  • žStreets and spaces
  • žBuildings
  • žToolkit
  • žGlossary

The manual is called Exploring your town.  ‘Characterisation’ is not a term that easily communicates to the uninitiated. Its content and structure grew out of the initial work in Abergavenny and Newtown, following which a draft version was offered to the Rhiwbina team. In structure it offers ways of exploring and asking questions about, first, streets and spaces, and secondly, buildings. This is followed by a ‘toolkit’ which suggests practical ways of getting projects off the ground, and getting individuals and groups to articulate observations in the street.

What we have is very much a grassroots product. We hope that this gives it some special merit, but we recognise that it has to be set alongside a variety of approaches to characterisation, particularly in the world outside Wales. Perhaps the closest thing to it is the Oxford Character Assessment toolkit, which was developed by the city council, in association with English Heritage and the Oxford Preservation Trust.

Exploring your town  is not intended to be a static product. We know it needs to be improved and developed in the light of experience. Recent work in Porthcawl has reminded us that every community group is different and will bring a different set of needs, experiences and perspectives to the party. Lessons have been learned that have as much a community development aspect as a focus on methodology. Nonetheless the Porthcawl Civic Trust, supported by ourselves, has produced a creditable character assessment of two character areas within the core of the town which will be the basis for a wider study that takes in the whole of the modern seaside town. This work informs and supports Bridgend Council’s Townscape Heritage Initiative programme in the town.

Facilitating community-based characterisation needs sensitive community development skills. The pace of study will respect the study group’s timetable, not anything imagined by a local authority. Dependent on the interests and aptitudes within the group, there may be a tension between a fascination with historical detail and the need to understand the present-day character of a built environment that may be under pressure and needs strategic management in the light of economic and social change.

We think that projects which are supported by local authority partners may need to achieve ‘quick wins’ to demonstrate their capacity to produce useful data that can support project bids or inform development management. To reflect this insight, we are looking at approaches to mapping in the field that can produce a rapid analysis of the character of a street or area. This is something that a local authority might find immediately useful, and which also prompts questions that can be explored, say, through historic mapping,  aerial imagery, or documentary research.

Bryn Street, Newtown

Bryn Street, Newtown

The voluntary sector gains from characterisation activity seem to me to be clear and non-controversial.

Firstly, the groups we are working with enjoy what they are doing, and clearly value it both for what they themselves have learned and for the way it provides a basis to share their enjoyment, understanding and concerns with the community. This is a valid approach to capacity building for amenity groups. It responds to a way of seeing that responds to their sense of place. Moreover, while we begin from the desirability of studying the whole of a community, it seems to be us that this is a methodology that’s valid at a variety of scales – site, street, neighbourhood, suburb, town…etc. It helps to promote and share an understanding and enjoyment of place; it also provides the basis for the sort of planning casework that amenity groups see as bread and butter. An analytical approach of this kind, and familiarity with the language of characterisation and heritage, planning and urban design vocabulary it borrows, should make dialogue with planning authorities much more productive.

The outputs so far, explorations of individual character areas in each of the project towns, are pieces of sensitive analysis, infused by special commitment and by a deep knowledge base. These will develop to become full-blown character studies of each community.

But how far is all of this genuinely relevant to local authorities? How far is there public, utilitarian value in encouraging grass roots characterisation studies – beyond the premise that such work should enable better dialogue between planners and amenity interests over how to manage change?

Our projects have benefited from local authority encouragement and support, but in different respects. Powys has been fully engaged, supportive with resources and participation in training and surveys, and regards the work in Newtown as relevant to its own processes and projects, whether it be shaping policy, informing decision-making , accessing funding, or involving the community.

Cardiff has been supportive and encouraging but is not clear as to how formal use can be made of outputs. In Abergavenny, there has been ambivalence – help with mapping but uncertainty as to how far the output of a whole-town survey is useful, and uncertainty as to whether there will be a conflict with its long-awaited conservation area assessment.

The local authority response has been mixed, therefore, and seems to reflect a wider uncertainty and ambivalence in Wales about the role of and need for characterisation. This contrasts with England, where there is extensive experience in urban characterisation in a variety of town and city contexts, and where a range of methodologies have been employed.

Our perspective stems from an interest in ‘place’. That means looking in the round at the fabric of the places where we live, work and play, and at the way towns and cities can be managed to improve their quality of life, through planning, conservation and good design. It means recognising that places are what they are because they are also communities. They are the product of people’s needs, beliefs and aspirations; they reflect who we are in the past and in the present day. They hold meanings which contribute to our sense of personal and social identity. These meanings, and therefore what different people value and see significant in the urban fabric, its buildings and spaces, are socially constructed. These meanings are not simple, and may be contested. We therefore ascribe particular importance to recognising the way people relate to the built environment and supporting them to articulate their sense of place, whether it is positive, or negative.



Jonathan Meades has described places as ‘the greatest show on earth’ and we agree with him. A holistic approach to place brings with it the fact that the ordinary has interest, that the mundane can be a thing of joy. Any place, any street, has potential for fascination, for interpretation, and for management to sustain or improve the quality of life. It’s not just a matter of identifying and looking after ‘heritage assets’. Meades’ rambunctious attitude to place isn’t so far from Ian Nairn’s insight that the relationship between people and place is a crucial determinant of character and his insistence that what places mean to local people deserves respect and needs to be counted when assessing the public benefit from change. Again, for Nairn, it is  places that count, not the little bits of them to which we have ascribed special designations. He saw the conservation area, potentially, as a heritage ghetto, and this was one of the reasons he was wary of the Civic Trust.

It’s this sort of agenda that local amenity interests generally reflect, wittingly or unwittingly. And surely, it’s this perspective that characterisation recognises and promotes, though perhaps in a less brusquely assertive manner that the rhetoric of a Nairn or a Meades. But how well does the way we aim to manage Welsh towns and cities reflect the idea of place? If the Farrell review thinks that ‘place’ needs to be campaigned for as the focus of planning communities, and regards this as something that needs to be asserted in an English context where place theory and urban characterisation are hardly novelties, then how distant are we in Wales from sharing such insights?

There is concern that while Cadw has recognised the potential of character studies, and delivered exemplar reports that have had real relevance in supporting local regeneration initiatives, this is not something that has won broader acceptance. Nor has the recognition of ‘character’ as significant to decision-makers in Planning Policy Wales been translated into an appreciation of characterisation as a methodology to inform sustainable planning and place-making.

Judith has shown how, in specific contexts, characterisation work can both yield significant understandings about settlement form, and the broad and fine detail of what makes a place distinctive, and at the same time suggest approaches to new development in brown field contexts in a way that respects the history of places and protects this distinctiveness. Cadw has been making the case that characterisation has special value as an evidence base for regeneration, development management, and strategic planning. This seemed to have a wider resonance when it shared a minister with housing and regeneration, but I am less convinced these links are appreciated today. Cadw is concerned that there may be a tension between this proposition and processes of community engagement that seem to yield subjective assessments of value and significance, but given the social construction of any such assessment, I am not inclined to consider this a big issue. I do think that engagement with the community, whether the approach is top down, or begins with the grassroots, gives extra validation to the way a characterisation study might be used. In any case there is room for a variety of approaches, and the role to be played by community-led projects (as opposed to the necessity to engage with communities, I would argue) will inevitably vary according to context and the enthusiasm of local people and amenity groups.

Plas Derwen, Abergavenny

Plas Derwen, Abergavenny

The bigger issue is that the Welsh planners seems to me to be falling behind in a recognition of ‘place’ and ‘character’ as themes that can articulate sustainable approaches to planning. This is despite the fact that Planning Policy Wales (PPW) contains numerous references to the significance of character – as far as  conservation areas and listed buildings are concerned, obviously, but more broadly in contexts such as sustainable development, advertisement control, settlement expansion and infill, town centres, development plans and development management. This all makes a case that characterisation as a process of evidence-gathering that supports planning and decision-making should be taken seriously, and is not relevant simply in conservation areas and other circumstances where there is a requirement to identify ‘heritage assets’.

With the opportunity to frame new legislation that builds on references to character in PPW, and remembering also that character has been name-checked as something essential in the making of ‘vibrant and viable places’ (the regeneration framework launched just over a year ago by the Welsh government), it’s not clear that the draftees of either the Heritage or Planning bills have done anything to give characterisation a broader role in place-making.

Judith’s work, within Cadw, promotes characterisation as a tool that operates at the level of the historic settlement. But in the Heritage Bill consultation, respondents were asked to consider the value of characterisation as a ‘vital tool’ in the review and management of conservation areas (Q16, P20). This is to offer nothing new. English Heritage offers excellent tools to support conservation area character assessments and these are rightly widely used. Q20 in the consultation asked how far character studies might support the identification and management of historic assets and areas of local significance. That’s a broader question, but is some distance from a greater proposition, that character studies can provide an evidence base for sustainable planning – for example, in relation to the design of urban extensions, place-making in area regeneration initiatives, or the management of movement within a town or city. Let alone providing a baseline for developers to acknowledge in their design approaches to proposals.

Moreover, the responses to these questions were interesting. While there were responses that thoughtfully recognised the possibilities both of characterisation and the possibilities of embracing community interests in a discussion of value,amongst those who wrote back there was scepticism even about the role of characterisation in assessing and managing conservation areas. There was also natural anxiety about resource implications and confusion about terminology. The more general Q20 attracted diverse responses. Was characterisation generally relevant? What about the resource implications? Wasn’t the terminology confusing? This all suggests a lack of familiarity with the way characterisation has been evolving as a valuable tool for planners, designers and conservation professionals beyond Offa’s Dyke.

Now the planning bill. Despite the way ‘character’ is referred to time and time again in Planning Policy Wales, and in a way that to me suggests the need for formal processes to collect and analyse information about ‘character’ in order to support plan-making, design processes, and decision-making, there is not a single use of the word ‘character’ in the consultation document, Positive planning, that was put out for consultation on 4 December.  We can’t find a reference to ‘neighbourhood’ either. Yet it seems to us that if there is value in the sort of place plans that are mooted ‘produced by the community’ (aka town and community councils working with LPAs), and designed to ensure development reflects local distinctiveness (para 6.48), character, neighbourhood and characterisation should surely have been recognised as having a role in this agenda. Equally they might strengthen the evidence collection process that should underlie the wider process of development planning. The emphasis in this ‘reform’ seems to be much more enablement and the speed of throughput than it is on the quality and sustainability of output.

The Square, Porthcawl

The Square, Porthcawl

All this signally contrasts with England, where there is greater experience in characterisation and where characterisation is often practised in a much broader way than the approach to characterisation in historic contexts promoted by English Heritage — valid as these methodologies remain in specific contexts.

Oxford Council is quite clear, for example, about the utility of the city’s toolkit: it’s a landscape and built environment manual that supports developers, planners and the community in the process of managing change. Outputs can inform area action plans and other planning documents, applications for planning permission (via design and access statements), and comments on applications. It can be used by developers, designers, architects, council staff, amenity groups and the general public. It can work at different scales.

And while the Oxford toolkit undeniably has a heritage focus, there are innovative approaches on offer which embed historic character into a broader matrix of place analysis. Studies such as that of Brighton and Hove (2009) exemplify this, aiming to contribute via their evidence-base to policy-making through the Local Development Framework that will encourage the design of new development to respect neighbourhood character.

In a similar way, Portsmouth’s 2011 study aims to understand the unique character of city neighbourhoods in order to use this sense of place to guide future development in a context of pressure on developable land and topographical and ecological constraint.

We could multiply examples…  but let’s just highlight the fact that these approaches have in common the idea of evidence-gathering in support of the intentions of Planning Policy Statement 1: delivering sustainable development on Sustainable Development, and (in the case of the studies cited) the former PPS 12 on Local Development Frameworks, and its successor on local spatial planning. Neighbourhood planning is seen as underpinned by character assessment, as is the relationship of individual neighbourhoods to the wider whole of a town or city under pressure for change or growth. These approaches would translate well to bigger Welsh conurbations.

In conclusion, then, there is a clear role for character studies in contributing to capacity building within voluntary sector amenity interests, and for such studies to enhance dialogue between community groups and the local planning authority.

I also think there is proven potential for partnership between local amenity interests in producing community-based character studies of Welsh places.

Moreover,  Cadw’s work in undertaking exemplar character studies of Welsh towns where the historic environment is under stress has been innovative and inspiring, not least to ourselves and to civic societies who have encountered Judith Alfrey and her work.

But there is the potential, I would argue, the need, to go further, and to look at the broader possibilities for characterisation in urban place-making and sustainable development. This is a theme which needs further discussion in relation to the evolution of a distinctive and home-grown planning system in Wales.

Matthew Griffiths

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