All and Nothing
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.
31st December, 2006 03:32:37
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What is neighbourhood character?
According to the Understanding Neighbourhood Character practice note (December 2001) [PDF 60k] -
"All areas have a character in the same way that all people have a personality. In some areas the character may be more obvious, more unusual, or more attractive, but no area can be described as having no character."
The assumption by those who wrote this practice note is that all people have a personality. I have met plenty of people who clearly don't have a personality (or a clue) and I have been to a few neighbourhoods that so lack personality or character that I can feel my own personality being sucked right out of me. Thankfully, in areas so devoid of personality, it is possible to develop something with a personality, so long as it contributes to the preferred neighbourhood character, rather than simply respects the existing so-called neighbourhood character of the area. Furthermore, in accordance with the same practice note:
"Respecting character does not mean preventing change. The neighbourhood character standard is not intended to result in the replication of existing building stock or stop change. Neighbourhood character is one of many objectives that must be met. Some areas will see significant changes as a result of new social and economic conditions, changing housing preferences and explicit housing policies. In these areas, it is important that respecting character is not taken too literally, as a new character will emerge in response to these new social and economic conditions." [emphasis added]
There have been a number of occasions when VCAT has overruled a decision by a Council on the basis of respecting the preferred neighbourhood character of a place compared with the existing neighbourhood character and that a strict literal interpretation of the neighbourhood character objectives when assessing development has been inappropriate (e.g. Desire Australia PL v Boroondara CC VCAT 2210 25/10/05 [RTF]).
Assessing neighbourhood character is difficult because it is rather subjective. What one person feels about a place will be different from another's, as is their understanding of the concept of 'neighbourhood character'. Often neighbourhood character is understood very conservatively by Councils and residents and very liberally by developers and architects.
Neighbourhood character is an often abused concept that tries to make conservatism look respectable. It has been used to argue against the building of mosques, against the building of student apartments and against anything that doesn't fit within a very defined and narrow view of the world. Neighbourhoods should be allowed to change over time and the concept of 'neighbourhood character' should not be hijacked by prejudice and a fear of modern architecture.
What do others think?
17th December, 2006 12:34:30
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Monday Melbourne: CXLVI, December 2006
Sunset over Birrarung Marr. Taken December 2006
6th December, 2006 01:24:05
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