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City of Winchester Trust
Seminar Understanding Local Distinctiveness 12th September 2018

Judith Martin and I attended this seminar at Kellogg College, Oxford, on 12th September 2018. It was run by Louise Thomas, director of the Historic Towns and Villages Forum. Slides from the presentations can be viewed at www.htvf.org in the Past Events section. There were four speakers:

Ivor Samuels was by some way the most interesting speaker, although it felt as though his experience might not be absolutely up-to-date. He is an architect and town planner in the Urban Morphology Research Group of the School of Geography at Birmingham University. He pointed out the scale of variety in traditional towns from districts (most diverse) down through streets, plots, form, to materials which vary least within a traditional town. By contrast, in a modern town, districts are quite similar whereas the scale of variety increases with the most diversity being in materials used. He cited Jacobs and Appleyard (Towards an urban design manifesto, 1980) who perceived several problems for modern urban design: poor living environments; giantism and loss of control; large-scale privatisation and the loss of public life; centrifugal fragmentation; destruction of valued places; placelessness; injustice; rootless professionalism. He cited two points from a 2005 study: “The urge to be original at all costs is now a guiding force and compulsion of architecture … The future of built environment had become a matter of brilliant all encompassing vision rather than patient cultivation.” He contrasted two extreme approaches to local distinctiveness: “F***k the context” (!) versus “Reinvent an imagined past”. At the meeting Ivor also made the following quote ‘if you’re designing a building you know will be unpopular, call it brave; if it’s ugly, call it a landmark; if it’s really monstrous, call it an icon”.

Mr Samuels quoted from studies of what users actually want: “External appearance is rated very low on the list of home buyers’ priorities just above the appearance of adjoining housing and landscaping which was bottom.” “A separate study … suggested that the individual appearance is less significant than the overall appearance of the area.” “Individuality was desirable, within limits – a home should look similar but not the same as others in the vicinity.” “The key to acceptability appears to be not the style but rather the degree of richness of the architecture … a modern architecture that is not minimalist and is rich in detail would be acceptable.” “The positive reaction to porches and doorways reinforces this hypothesis about richness of detail … the conflict is not between modern and traditional but between different versions of these two styles.”

Louise Thomas’s title was Identifying Local Character – Informing New Development in a Rural Context, mostly referring to a character assessment study of an area of Oxfordshire for a neighbourhood plan within a draft local plan. This was interesting but not hugely relevant to Winchester.

Andrew Raven, of Savills, cited a newspaper report of a Homebuyers Alliance survey (2015): “New-build homes are being shunned by millions of Britons who dismiss them as too small, ‘characterless’ and poor quality … research found many homeowners would refuse to buy a newer property. A survey found that only 21 per cent would prefer to buy a newly-built home.” He gave several examples of delivery of character: yes, Poundbury, but also other places, focusing particularly on boundary treatment. He looked particularly – and approvingly – at the Prince of Wales’s development in Newquay, with its local materials and road names in Cornish. He also briefly considered control mechanisms. But as he (or it might have been Ivor Samuels) said, pretty well anything will sell, so what people actually want isn't an overriding factor in development.

Richard Guise, architect and planner, talked about methods of describing the character of neighbourhoods with references to his book Characterising Neighbourhoods: Exploring Local Assets of Community Significance (which might be a useful addition to the Trust’s library).

Then Louise Thomas spent some time describing and comparing different assessment manuals, after which the afternoon was spent on practical character assessments, walking around four nearby areas of Oxford and using the different manuals.

John Stanning