On ‘Local Distinctiveness’

In my previous post I reflected on the complex issue of ‘local distinctiveness’. Back in 2006 I attended a seminar run by the English Historic Towns Forum entitled ‘Designing for Housing Growth: Sustaining Historic Towns’, and was quite alarmed by the drift of the conversation in some of the ‘break-out sessions’. The following is based on a letter I wrote to the EHTF subsequently, cautioning against over-simplification of the issue:

I am very sceptical of any quest to make new development ‘locally distinctive’, particularly if this proceeds from a meditation on the qualities of the nearby historic town. Such a quest tends to lead, at best, to a well-done reproduction of some idealised aspects of the town – a sort of architectural theme-park or stage-set – but it is probably much more likely to produce an unconvincing, scaled-up pastiche of it. I doubt very much whether you can name an example of a truly memorable piece of townscape that had, as its starting point, the question: ‘What are the essential qualities of the piece of town next to which we are building?’

One of the local authority planners in our workshop group was explaining excitedly how they’d got their regional ‘Design Guide’ in place and were keen to produce equivalent documents for individual settlements, but I’m not sure this will reveal anything of further use in the design of a new extension or settlement. Speaking about my own region (south/mid- Norfolk), if you take the genuinely unique, landmark buildings out of each of the half-dozen large market towns, they would look more similar than different: steeply pitched (formerly thatched) roofs, flat-fronted high-street merchants’ houses (or their Victorian replacements) cheek-by-jowl on narrow ‘burgage’ plots…brick and render, chimneys, porches, dormers, etc. Move south (Suffolk, Essex, Kent) and you get more and more weatherboarding mixed into the palette, and certainly there are larger-scale regional variations across the country, particularly in the availability of distinctive brick-clay or stone. Experts would no doubt argue that a Design Code should address deeper issues than construction materials or architectural details – grain and density, massing, geometry, orientation – but why should even the grain and density of the nearby mediaeval/Georgian market centre be a valid starting point for a twenty-first century residential suburb or new mixed-use ‘village’, except in the broadest and most abstract terms (such as a density-gradient from centre to periphery, or a mix of uses)?

For the design of large new parts of any town (not just a ‘historic’ one), should we really ask: ‘In what ways is this new thing like that old thing?’ Perhaps better questions would be: How can we make this town better? What can we add to this town that is of sufficient quality to stand the test of time and give pleasure to future generations of residents and visitors, in the same way that the ‘old’ town has? What are the best, most relevant historical precedents for this new development (rather than the most nearby)?

The difficulty is that looking at the existing settlement to gain clues for the design of the new extension seems like such a natural and reasonable thing to do, in attempting to address the commonly repeated lament, ‘This estate could be anywhere’. But I would suggest that this apparently simple statement is actually short-hand for a number of different concerns:

1) ‘This estate is badly designed’. It has no integrated landscaping, the houses are cheaply built, it has no distinguishing features, it’s internally monotonous and confusing…I’m afraid there is only one solution to this. House-builders should spend more on design – employing properly experienced urban designers, architects and landscape consultants – and perhaps even on construction. Under the current regime only local development control can make this happen…and if it doesn’t have the resources to do so, it won’t.

2) ‘This estate is just like the one in the next town, and the one after that’. This is hardly surprising, if their developers are referring to the same ‘Design Guide’. And what if we got to the point where this consistency was desirable? Much of what we consider to be good residential design – the Georgian townhouse and gated square, the garden suburb with its boulevard planting – is actually quite widespread, not ‘locally distinctive’.

3) ‘This estate is just a load of standard house types plonked down on the site’. Actually, I don’t think there’s anything wrong per se with generic house-types; it’s what they add up to that’s important. There’s only so many ways of arranging two reception rooms and three or four bedrooms in a two-storey house before coming up with something contrived. Again, the historical example of the Georgian house-builders or ‘Homes for Heroes’ council housing serves us well.

4) ‘This estate doesn’t seem to acknowledge the existence of our beautiful town in any way’. That’s where the master plan comes in – views, connections, routes, moments of townscape drama – and, again, the need for sensitive and talented urban designers. And establishing these connections and routes may need more radical surgery in the adjacent existing urban fabric than we are used to contemplating.

In summary, I think the idea of ‘local distinctiveness’ is more complex than we are used to thinking, and we should beware of slipping into design-guide laziness which seems to offer an easy ‘tick in the box’: beware the developer who says ‘You like this historic town? Great; let’s build some more…’

More ‘On Fitting-In’ here.

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2 Responses to On ‘Local Distinctiveness’

  1. Lynsey says:

    I’m a trainee planner and on my final year of my MSc, my dissertation is on local distinctive/design SPDs as a tool for planners (or there abouts) and specifically focusses on housing design. Its a fascinating subject and you raise very interesting issues. Although my personal opinion doesn’t count in my dissertation, I agree that local distinctiveness should not be about a pastiche development but about taking elements of design that work & using that to guide an individual development. However with LG constraints over funding I don’t hold out much hope in Grant Shapps getting his wish on improved design of housing given we (and other authorities) are currently going through redundancies…maybe its a nice dream for the future?

  2. Matt Wood says:

    Thanks for your comments Lynsey. The problem of under-resourcing and resulting lack of skills in areas such as design are long standing, and I agree there’s not much prospect of that changing in the current economic climate. Good luck in finishing your MSc…and in finding work afterwards!

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