A view of a square of buildings which combines modern and historic buildings
Timekeeper's Square, Salford. © Historic England Archive. Image reference DP275530.
Timekeeper's Square, Salford. © Historic England Archive. Image reference DP275530.

Historic Character and Good Design

How inherited character is a positive force in building distinctive, better designed, places.

Time, change and character

The character of the places where we live, work and travel is inherently historic, expressed through such things as patterns and periods of building styles and materials, street and road layouts, other forms of land use and use of space – all, in combination, reflecting an area’s change and development through time.

The historic character of a place is far more than its spatial patterning of material elements. It is also a cultural expression, of human responses through time to that area and its changing contexts and opportunities.

The varying historic pace of change is also significant in understanding places’ present character, with periods of relative stability or incremental change interspersed with phases of rapid alteration and expansion.

Change is essential to maintain a healthy society and thriving economy, but it also requires informed management to maintain or enhance the character of places if we are to fulfil the social and economic benefits that flow from their cultural distinctiveness. In engaging with this, historic environment specialists become, in effect, biographers of the present, applying their knowledge as advisors on the sustainable management of change.

It’s a key task of the planning process to assess the likely effects of proposed changes, including potential impacts on the historic character of places. The recognition that, within reason, all aspects of the historic environment matter – designated and undesignated – is firmly established in Government policy documents, such as the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). An understanding of the range of values people attach to places is, therefore, key to evaluating historic character for the planning process.

What does characterisation bring to our understanding of places?

Understanding and being sensitive to the historic character of a place provides a necessary complement to approaches that treat the historic environment as a collection of discrete ‘heritage assets’, the most significant of which may be designated. Historic character transcends consideration of such individual assets when addressing the patterning and spatial relationships resulting from people’s activity across the whole of a place.

Far from any suggestion that features and areas, beyond heritage assets, lack heritage significance, characterisation brings the historic grain and context of the whole place to inform the management of its change.

The character of place is as much about people’s perceptions of areas as it is about buildings or sites.

Understanding and being sensitive to the historic character of any place is key to ensuring that change is managed sympathetically, sometimes innovatively, to reflect and enhance the distinctive qualities of places that visitors and residents alike can acknowledge and, on occasion, cherish. It may be noted, too, that the ‘historic’ in historic character is not simply ‘the old’. Character accommodates recent and modern development within its overall time depth and shows how it contributes to the character dynamic in a place. If we draw in character effectively when considering new development, we have more scope to manage and contextualise the effects of change when it comes to protecting, enhancing, or (re)building places, and reinvigorating their communities.

Recognising the importance of character

The importance of historic character has long been recognised in spatial planning and it continues to be an important guiding factor: indeed, all spatial character assessments involve a historic cultural dimension whose understanding will enhance the future-character outcomes. Consequently, character-based research (in its widest sense) can be used to assess all areas and spaces, terrestrial and marine. It may be applied to brownfield renewal or urban expansion developments as well as de novo settlement in greenfield locations. It is undertaken at a range of levels and scales of resolution from national down to individual settlement assessments.

Previously, characterisation approaches have been used in a wide range of strategic research contexts  and it is a key component in planning advice:

the National Planning Policy Framework, for example, explicitly references the importance of character (importantly, not just confined to designated assets) in a number of areas including:

  • Achieving sustainable development
  • Ensuring the vitality of town centres
  • Considering development proposals
  • Achieving well-designed places
  • Conserving and enhancing the historic environment

Similarly, the importance of understanding and factoring in the significance of character-based assessments (‘cultural’, ‘local’, ‘historic’) is a recurring theme in the Planning White Paper, Planning for the Future. Wherever character is noted as a consideration, it has a historic dimension .

The principal aspects of historic characterisation

The key aim of characterisation in a heritage context is to provide an assessment of the historic character of a place or area, however obvious or not that character may be to many of the area's present users.

The results of such assessments can be applied to a wide range of purposes, including strategic planning, development management, Conservation Area designation, appraisal and management, and research.

It is a spatially-, and temporally-, based assessment, primarily of an area’s present character and the change it reflects through time. Although it can work at a fine grain of resolution it remains focussed on areas, taking a generalised view of their character , and does not extend to detailed analyses of individual historic assets (at the level of an historic building or single monument).

The ‘high-level’ aim of the various characterisation programmes is to provide an enhanced understanding across the entirety of places and areas to enable better contextualised management of their historic environment.

The intention is always that the assessment is ‘neutral’ , treating all areas equally without ascription of values at this stage. That enables its application as an evidence base by a wide constituency of interest whose evaluations of that character will inevitably vary, from non-specialist local interest groups and individuals, heritage agencies, planning authorities, through to developers or others working in the commercial sector. Similarly, it gives the evidence base greater longevity, less affected by shifting values through time. It also aims to provide reliable baseline data that can inform the prioritisation of research to underpin rapid, informed, responses in places that are undergoing, or will soon undergo, significant change.

Consequently, we have sought to ensure that our character-based research anticipates where impacts might be most pressing, enabling us to engage positively with change and develop appropriate partnership working, mitigation and enhancement strategies, as well as providing sound advice to Government, Local Planning Authorities, and other organisations. An example is the characterisation of North Sea port heritage which was used to assess the Kasbah area of Grimsby.

The historic environment is, and always has been, dynamic. As its subject matter is comprehensive across whole areas, characterisation’s principal aim cannot be preservation: it is about presenting the evidence to advise and guide the management of necessary change.

Our work, as part of the urban characterisation programme, for example, is directed to fill major gaps in the knowledge required to understand and identify the various emphases in the fabric and character of our towns and cities. The key principles of characterisation guide our approach to the examination of how historic activities and change are evident within today’s landscape. Prominent amongst those principles is that all aspects of the landscape, no matter how modern, contribute to historic character, not just ‘special’ areas: the focus is on characterising the present, not reconstructing past historic character, and within that, the emphasis is on recording the time depth apparent in the present.

Historic characterisation: methods

The ‘core method’ is, essentially, a desk-based assessment of places and landscapes undertaken using all relevant documentation including modern and historic mapping sources, aerial photographs, Google Earth/Street view, and other related research such as environmental or biodiversity characterisation studies.

The assessment is largely map-based using digital sources, focussing on the definition, grouping and classification of parcels of land which display similar character traits, with the assessor using their knowledge and expertise to bring meaning and understanding to the classification. Past land use, where identifiable, can also be factored in and the data is supported by a comprehensive database that records more detail on the character of a place and the history of its development.

The products of this research extend well beyond the presentation of a simple map or plan and should be viewed as a ‘map-based resource’ which combines a variety of investigative strands and allows for the production of tailored mapping: rich supporting documentation explains the meaning behind the mapped representations.

What is the purpose and role of characterisation today?

At its heart, historic characterisation has always aimed to help raise people’s awareness to the fact that their familiar surroundings have been shaped by the thoughts and actions of previous people in that place. Historic characterisation is inherently about people – past and present. 

With some adaptation, it can provide those interested with an interpretative platform for further, more detailed, engagement, for example with StoryMaps.

For illustrations of this see:

Historic characterisation: outcomes and impacts

These sorts of approaches should certainly be used in conjunction with Historic England’s Good Practice Advice, such as The Settings of Heritage Assets.

There is a great deal of data that underscores the important part that ‘heritage’ plays in people’s appreciation of the places they live in, work in, or visit. An assessment of places that had received funding through the National Lottery Heritage Fund illustrated this clearly in a survey which suggested that 81% of residents reported that heritage is important to ‘me personally’.

Likewise, results from the Taking Part survey indicate that ‘cities and towns with historic character’ are the most frequented heritage sites 

In addition, historic parks and green spaces, as well as other historic and social infrastructure, deliver multiple health benefits for local communities and support long-term mental and physical health.

The outputs of historic characterisation can serve different audiences, from local communities, schools, through to those charged with delivering the demands of housing and infrastructure provision. The data can be scaled and interpreted at different levels to suit those audiences’ needs but, fundamentally, characterisation can demonstrate clearly, backed with evidence, how historic character helps define local distinctiveness and can assist the development of healthy and vibrant future places through improved, community-centred, planning decision-making.

The applied outcomes from characterisation, of all types, can be summarised as in the following diagram:

Developing characterisation data, then using it, brings with it a number of challenges: the results of characterisation research should be deployed at the most appropriate scale to address the questions and issued raised by the work.

Many characterisation projects have adapted their methods to address particularly pressing issues but it may well be that new assessments are required if the contexts shift, or if the characterisation data itself is no longer current, or needs revision. Additional queries seek clarification on how characterisation data fits together alongside other heritage considerations?

It is clear that characterisation provides an evidence-base and benchmark for assessing the setting of heritage assets, and, in turn, for examining the potential effects of change. It can also highlight opportunities for enhancement and offer engagement with the historic environment. By widening the conversation to include a broad range of constituencies of interest, it should be possible to address and disentangle many of the issues raised.

The emerging context and application of characterisation data

The emerging context and application of characterisation data

The Planning for the Future White Paper presents a very strong case as to why character matters. In the White Paper, the continued importance of the historic environment in helping to shape the future of development in England is recognised, observing that:

There is insufficient incentive within the [planning] process to bring forward proposals that are beautiful and which will enhance the environment, health, and character of local areas.

Make it easier for those who want to build beautifully through the introduction of a fast-track for beauty through changes to national policy and legislation, to automatically permit proposals for high-quality developments where they reflect local character and preferences.

To deliver our vision, it is important for the planning system to set clear expectations for the form of development which we expect to see in different locations. It should do so in ways which reflect local character and community preferences, and the types of buildings and places that have stood the test of time….history provides many examples of how we can do this well – including Georgian terraces and Victorian mansion blocks – and we should learn from what has worked in the past.

The Planning White Paper recognises the importance of the historic environment in continuing to shape the future of development in England. By extension, the assessment of historic character is an essential component in the process of helping to frame and guide good design in producing high quality homes and places. Historic characterisation's understanding is, therefore, a key element in delivering the Planning White Paper’s aspirations, principally:

Proposal 12: To support the transition to a planning system which is more visual and rooted in local preferences and character, we will set up a body to support the delivery of provably locally-popular design codes, and propose that each authority should have a chief officer for design and place-making.

Proposal 14: We intend to introduce a fast-track for beauty through changes to national policy and legislation, to incentivise and accelerate high quality development which reflects local character and preferences.

Similarly, the National Design Guide, revised in 2021 sets out the ten characteristics of ‘beautiful, enduring and successful places’.

This includes, but is not limited to:

  • the relationship between the natural environment and built development;
  • the typical patterns of built form that contribute positively to local character;
  • the street pattern, their proportions and landscape features;
  • the proportions of buildings framing spaces and streets;
  • the local vernacular, other architecture and architectural features that contribute to local character.

The Guide gives good emphasis to the value of heritage, local history and culture:

When determining how a site may be developed, it is important to understand the history of how the place has evolved. The local sense of place and identity are shaped by local history, culture and heritage, and how these have influenced the built environment and wider landscape.

The National Model Design Code, published in July 2021, further underscores the role that the character of places and assets fulfils in delivering sustainable development. Character, here, is regarded as ‘baseline’ data and an important component in the production of design codes. That itself reflects the importance of historic character, inherent within present character, in developing a ‘design vision’ for proposed change.

Put simply, if we are to develop housing, places and spaces that will enhance our lived experience, as well as making a contribution to solving the climate emergency, we should do so in a way that builds on and, where necessary, enhances the existing local character, and with a people- and community-centric focus too.

Hand-in-hand with this is an approach that recognises that, firstly, not all historic character is viewed positively and, secondly, that change can be radical and innovative, forming part of the historic evolution of a place for future generations to appreciate and reflect upon. Emerging methods of landscape and historic landscape sensitivity assessment should provide useful tools for managing such change through the planning process, in tandem with gathering and understanding public and professional views on particular proposals as they come forward.

The Historic England response to the report of the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission report, 'Living with Beauty. Promoting health, well-being and sustainable growth' observed that:

It is vitally important that the development of places is built on a foundation of understanding what is already there. It is only by understanding a place that you are able to shape it in ways that respects and enhances local character and distinctiveness.

The importance of historic character in framing and guiding new development is reflected in the suite of new planning advice, including the National Model Design Code. Characterisation provides a method for assessing, and asserting, the importance of the historic environment: character-based research should be seen as complementary to other detailed advice and guidance on planning. It may also form an important component in a suite of advice provided to community-based development initiatives, or any other constituency of interest.

This, then, is the locus and rationale for historic characterisation. Its research, as well as its dissemination, is an important component in communicating and amplifying the significant roles and values of the historic environment.

Characterisation will play an increasingly important role in helping to guide and deliver housing and infrastructure as demanded by emerging planning and design guidance.

Acknowledgements

The authors would like to thank Owain Lloyd James, David Radford, Jonathan Last, and Sarah Newsome for reading and commenting on an earlier draft of the text.

About the authors

David McOmish

Senior Policy Adviser, Historic England National Strategy Team

David's work within the National Strategy Team focusses on place-based research. He was, formerly, a Development Analyst in the Strategic Research & Partnerships team but spent much of his career as a Senior Archaeological Investigator in Historic England’s Archaeological Survey and Investigation team. David retains an overview of Historic England’s programme of urban characterisation.

Dave Hooley

Until his recent retirement, Dave Hooley was a Senior Archaeological Investigator in Historic England’s Archaeological Survey and Investigation Team. After a background in archaeological research and designation, he worked for many years with colleagues and partner organisations developing and applying approaches to characterising the historic dimension of England’s landscape and seascape.

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