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The value of local character

Links to the 'character' component of the seven Cs (Urban Design Protocol).

What is local character?

Local character is the distinctive identity of a particular place that results from the interaction of many factors - built form, landscape, history, people and their activities.

Key findings

Urban design that respects and supports local character can:

  • attract highly-skilled workers and high-tech businesses
  • help in the promotion and branding of cities and regions
  • potentially add a premium to the value of housing
  • reinforce a sense of identity among residents, and encourage them to help actively manage their neighbourhood
  • offer people meaningful choices between very distinctive places, whose differences they value
  • encourage the conservation and responsible use of non-renewable resources.

Local character - Queenstown has a unique character that combines a stunning landscape of mountains and lakes, a vibrant town centre, leisure pursuits and a healthy tourist-based economy.Overview of the research

There is widespread agreement that good urban design responds to and maintains local character. There is strong evidence that the presence of local character encourages community life and reactivates people's sense of identity with their particular neighbourhood.

These findings counter the claims of other commentators that neighbourhood character is less important in an age of rapid mobility and communication.

The presence of distinct localities within a city also helps to satisfy growing demands for greater choice and for diversity over standardisation. Some people are prepared to pay more to live in an area whose distinctive character they like.

Tourists and investors are also attracted by distinctiveness. Cities and entire regions can gain a valuable 'competitive edge' by virtue of their unique character.

Heritage buildings play an important role in creating character. It has been suggested that improving an area's historical fabric may in fact help stimulate economic revitalisation. Conserving heritage buildings is seen as a way of making responsible use of non-renewable resources - although the potential costs associated with maintenance, operational efficiency and meeting conservation controls are also acknowledged.

"Positive images of places . . . encourage locals to feel good about their home towns and the quality of life that can be had there."

New Zealand urban sociologist David Thorns, 2002

 

The continued relevance of neighbourhoods and neighbourhood character was shown in two independent British studies (by Gharai, 1998, and CABE, 2002) which found that people place more importance on the quality and appearance of their neighbourhood than they do on their own homes.

A British survey of "600 households on a large suburban housing estate with little or no distinctive design quality" found that these houses were harder to sell than those on "more distinctively designed developments".

University of Bristol, cited in CABE, 2002

 

According to David Thorns, "at the local level the preservation of difference has become valued, sometimes as a commodity to sell, through the rediscovery of heritage sites and conservation and the recreation of the past".

A US authority on development principles for downtown areas in small cities, Kent Robertson, concludes that older buildings manifest the heritage of the city and differentiate it from competing suburban developments. He says their retention has economic value.

Robertson, 2001