All and Nothing
Russell Degnan

An Answer to the question 'What is Neighbourhood Character?'

A fortnight ago, Aaron Hewett made an admirable attempt to usefully define neighbourhood character. Admirable because, as he shows, the official definitions of neighbourhood character are not useful; they define character both vaguely - as an expression of how the community views their neighbourhood - and precisely - through physical descriptions that don't adequately express the community's view. More importantly, the character must be open to change, and shouldn't be precisely replicated, potentially making the whole exercise an interesting but pointless waste of time.

Outside the strictures of the planning profession, neighbourhood character means so much more. Arguably, once the largely unarguable, and mostly necessary aspects of planning legislation are taken into account - such as not building on a flood plain, the need for adequate sewerage and water, and so on and so forth - neighbourhood character is everything. What, for instance, is the point of a set-back, a height restriction, heritage, trees, and for that matter, over-looking, if not a character consideration? And what, except outright damage to their property, do neighbours have any interest in, except the impact a development has on their neighbourhood's character?

By defining character more broadly, we come to the heart of character disputes, simultaneously delving deeper into why protecting neighbourhood character, especially a preferred character is problematic even when it can be defined. Roughly, there are five categories into which definitions of character fall:

Physical Character, the definition preferred by planning practioners, dealing, as it does, with things they have some control over: the relationship of physical objects to each other in the neighbourhood.

Heritage, is something that, theoretically, character is not. Heritage is something of historical value. Character is closer to an architectural style. Yet style is often representative of the use and historical circumstances that the neighbourhood has maintained. They cannot be separated as easily as experts might like.

Use as character should be an obvious concept; consider a city of the early 20th century: the meat-packing district, the docks, the garment district, and many others, each preserving within them the residential support for their local industries. Yet, use restrictions are only contained in a zoning system that is inadequate for protecting character, and excessively restrictive of the changes modern cities have undergone. Meanwhile, the uses that preserved the character of many neighbourhoods have moved on, even as the new residents of those areas seek to 'preserve' the now somewhat mythical character of the old housing stock.

Identity is a character trait often missing in Melbourne. Council amalgamations have not helped, emphasising an idea that suburbs are no more than arbitrary lines on a map. Yet people strongly identify with where they live, by name, and by its associated area. Carried within that identity is a sense of the character. Though, as Aaron has already noted, there is no guarantee that it is a character worth preserving.

And finally, people themselves make up the character of a neighbourhood. Yet, preservation of character, defined in this sense, can only be either discriminatory, or ridiculous. How, for example, should we have defined the preferred character of an inner city slum in the 1940s? Would it have included the post-war immigrants, the students, the gentrifiers, or even the outer-suburban through-traffic?

The mistakes being made with respect to neighbourhood character are two-fold. The first is to assume that it can be defined. None of the properties above are easily written about, and most are so subjective as to be specific to the individual. Andrew Tate's article on character and heritage demonstrates this nicely. He complains bitterly of the way developers and the planning system work against objectors, but what really, does he mean when he says people want the "history, integrity and ambience of their neighbourhood preserved"? The scent of destruction wafts across from those words. Yet, there is little evidence of destruction from even those very large developments where battle lines were drawn and vast armies assembled. Individuals adapt, and neighbourhood character carries on, with generally less angst than the process itself.

The second mistake was for the government to accept the proposition that neighbourhood character was worth preserving. Good urban design is worth working towards. Creating and maintaining neighbourhood identity and character is as well. But the former is not a character consideration, and is only sidelined by focusing on aspects of the physical character. The latter, meanwhile, is being left to rot, while the individuals with a vested interest in it, fight with developers over land-use; rather than placing their efforts into improving the community. More importantly, existing residents are being priviliged, at the expense of non-residents who would otherwise be able to live there. Neighbourhood character is not without costs.

Sadly, for its defenders, radical change to neighbourhood character is possible with barely minimal changes to the urban environment. It is possible to prtoect the history, integrity and ambience of a streetscape, and European cities are good examples of this; but they are also examples of the sort of stagnation that level of protection can cause in a city street; and also, more pertinently, how strong the controls need to be to achieve it.

We don't have those controls in Melbourne. Nor would people find them acceptable if we did. Instead we are muddling through, hoping to define something that cannot be defined, so that we can change it in ways that we could do anyway, if we were not so obsessed with protecting our grey definitions from imaginary threats.

Sterner Matters 31st December, 2006 03:32:37   [#] 


All and Nothing
I agree.

Sometimes I think people think they're living in a museum, not a city. The city has a right to change and will change regardless of the protestations of local residents. That is not to say that developers will always "win" or should "win", it is to say that there are multiple threats to cities - including stagnation - that will affect character more than a decreased setback to the upper balcony on the eastern side of a three storey building.

Your right, people affect the character of an area even more profoundly than we acknowledge, and any attempt to lock out future residents or types of residents is very much discriminatory.

The grey concept of neighbourhood character is frustrating good planning because of its vagueness, subjectivity, its focus on built form above all else, and its inherent conservatism.
Aaron  31st December, 2006 04:05:19  

All and Nothing
I find myself extremely ambivalent on this issue - mainly, I think, because I can't seem to formulate a clear subject position for thinking about and voicing these issues. On the one hand, I find myself arcing up - as Aaron has expressed so well - at the notion of cities as some kind static museum environment, as though they aren't lived environments that must be perpetually transformed by our use. On the other hand, I feel quite uncomfortable voicing this in terms like "the city has a right to change" - who is the actor, the subject. here?

I suppose my worry is how we talk about such things, without falling into a dichotomy between a form of traditionalism conceptualised as static, and a form of dynamism that might - at least tactily - suggest that we can't have an active and conscious politics around these issues.

I don't have any answers - and this isn't intended as a critique of anything written or cited above. I suppose I tilt in the dynamism direction, but want some better concepts for grasping what this might mean, if we intend it to be more than a euphemism for anything goes development...
N. Pepperell  2nd January, 2007 07:50:18  

All and Nothing
I wouldn't like to say I have the answers either. I have a lot of sympathy for preserving character, and particularly for enhancing a character by focusing on what makes a place unique. I have less sympathy for a broad definition that seeks to claim property rights that are not theirs to claim, and may be discriminating against potential residents - by wealth, age, family type, race etc. etc.

My point, not that well expressed, is that I think it is worthwhile unpacking what people who cite neighbourhood character actually mean by it, before best trying to use it as a concept. And before deciding whether it is worth preserving/enhancing/protecting/destroying/changing.
Russ  5th January, 2007 18:07:09  

All and Nothing
Yes, I agree with you on the issue of people using this concept, effectively, vastly to expand the domain of property rights - some very ugly things can slip in under the euphemism of "neighbourhood character", which is probably what causes me to have a level of reflex reaction against the term, although I share your preference for strengthening the uniqueness of places...

On the one hand, the opportunistic seizure of the term as "cover" for claims that could not be made more overtly, will make attempts at specifying the term very difficult. On the other hand, it could be extremely useful to have a more dynamic notion of the character of a place - is there a way, perhaps, to differentiate the notion of "charater" from the notion of "preservation"?
N. Pepperell  6th January, 2007 08:44:18