In 2011, well into retirement, I heard that the Abergavenny Civic Society was being revitalised by community-minded volunteers like Sue and Tony Konieczny and Alan Michie, and I felt that I might help. It was apparent that we newcomers did not know the town as well as we should if we were to restart commenting on planning matters. Soon we were talking to Cadw’s Judith Alfrey and Matthew Griffiths of the Civic Trust for Wales about ‘urban characterisation’, a newcomer for my lexicon of planning jargon, as was ‘green infrastructure’ at about the same time. Matthew’s idea was that community groups could benefit from conducting research and surveys similar to those of Cadw (though not necessarily with comparable expertise) – and he had Heritage Lottery Fund money to try it.
Fifty years earlier I was supporting a successful campaign to save the spire of a redundant church by Benjamin Ferrey in my home town. This must have been my earliest awareness of the importance of ‘townscape’, a term about to be popularised by Gordon Cullen. Ten years later I was one of a new wave of town planners in the old Monmouthshire who were reacting against plans for destructive relief roads and housing clearance in towns like Abergavenny, Monmouth and Blaenavon. My career later veered to strategic plans, countryside and tourism projects and the sustainability agenda. Now I had a chance to rekindle my interest in architectural heritage and the morphology of towns, their streets and spaces.
This is not the place to describe the values and techniques of characterisation; there is much elsewhere on this web site dealing with the topic. Suffice it to say that we jumped at the chance for Abergavenny to be a pilot exercise whereby keen, but not necessarily very knowledgeable, volunteers did the work rather than Cadw experts. The Trust’s project officer, Anna Lermon, did have expertise and we had a couple of retired planners and an architect on the team. Without their input I think there would have been a need for some intensive training in what to look for and how to describe and explain it. Having said that, other volunteers with backgrounds in environmental science, medicine and teaching have learned quickly.
We started by assembling old maps of the town and summarising what the published histories told us about its development. A dummy run street survey in 2012 taught us much that helped the development of the Civic Trust’s Exploring Your Town manual and toolkit – we put a lot of emphasis on keeping it as simple as possible – and we held a public meeting which confirmed residents’ interest in what we were telling them. We then started in earnest, hoping to cover much of the town during the one-year life of the HLF project.
Three years later we have surveyed only a third of the town. The experiences we would pass on to others can be summarised:
- It’s fun, and it exercises your eyes and critical powers as well as your legs;
- A useful and intimate knowledge of the town at this time is recorded;
- It uncovers things that are not in the usual local histories – in our case old roadways and the site of a prisoner-of-war camp;
- It exposes the need for more research. Who laid out this land for housing a hundred years before much of it was developed? Who designed this attractive post war social housing? Did the small builders of a century ago build to let or to sell?
- The street surveys are the easy bit; it is the preparation and the writing up that takes the time, especially if each member of the team is encouraged to participate; clear large-scale maps are essential;
- Defining ‘character areas’, each with some distinctive set of qualities that separates them, can be difficult. Unless you adopt a very fine-grained approach, many inner urban areas can only be described as ‘of mixed character’. Don’t worry about it; the survey results are much more important;
- We have yet to tackle the complexities of our town centre, though consultation is awaited on a conservation area appraisal commissioned by the County Council
- In a Society with only about fifteen regularly active members, it is easy to be diverted by other local issues, especially at a time when collaboration with the Council and others is becoming the main mechanism for progress with the town’s regeneration;
- We look forward to taking our results to local residents and learning from them. We delayed this stage by spending many months putting together an unsuccessful Heritage Lottery Fund proposal that would have paid for a part-time project officer to do this. Now we must be more modest in our ambitions;
- We have yet to find a simple effective way of displaying our impressions of their area to residents. We hope to do so, but are very conscious that many people, including some of our surveyors, find maps difficult to read. Maybe we can devise 3D plans that are easier to understand;
- The active and enthusiastic support of the County Council’s planning and heritage conservation officers would be helpful. Ours have been passively supportive but are hard-pressed and ever-changing; we will need to build a closer bond if some of our work is to be reflected in planning guidance.
We would recommend any Civic Society or similar body to embark on such a character study if a few members will initiate it. The work can provide a focus for attracting new members, for making people more conscious and critical of their surroundings, and for reinforcing the capacity of the Society to deal with the pressures for change in their town. We will be happy to talk to any other group thinking of starting the task – and to learn from those that have, as we did last year with Newtown Civic Society.
Finally, I have just been reading about ‘Street Wisdom’, a rather mystical technique whereby wandering the streets can provide you with the answer to your problems. Codswallop perhaps, but it did remind me that exploring towns can clear your mind of everything else and that I have always found it more rewarding than rambling in the countryside.
Guest article by Dick Cole