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08/01/2019

Character-based development can resolve an age-old planning struggle

Urban characterisation can help to resolve the planning struggles, explains Nairita Chakraborty.

There’s an unprecedented number of densification programmes across big cities alongside new planned urban extensions to existing smaller towns. In London, larger ‘opportunity areas’ are introducing new urban characters near the established neighbourhoods, often at what seems (to residents) too fast a pace.

In delivering such schemes, how do we resolve that age-old planning struggle and balance the needs of developers and local communities?

Historic England has been promoting character-based approaches to development for some time. Urban characterisation studies are a useful way of understanding an area’s context and providing design guidelines on development opportunities.

The NPPF and the London Plan require developments to respect local character and context, defined by area-based assessments. This design-led approach makes local context a key part of the process. The challenge is to ensure that the policies deliver viable schemes.

A design-led approach prompts a much-required ‘bottom-up’ method, making local character and context an essential part of the plan process.

Haringey in London has seen huge development pressure; Tottenham is identified as part of the mayor’s housing zone. Undertaking a borough characterisation study as part of the local plan helped us to identify areas of intensification, location of tall buildings, and where urban regeneration and townscape improvements could be targeted.

"How do we resolve that age-old planning struggle and balance the needs of developers and local communities?”

The analysis was used for greater insights into the kinds of interventions that were appropriate for the physical characteristics of the place and its social and cultural issues, informing the site allocation plan.

But there was no way for the study to consider the commercial viability of the identified sites which questioned the deliverability of the corresponding design and density guidelines. This was a continual battle with the developers bringing forward the identified sites, almost all with much higher densities and heights than anticipated. It also didn’t consider economic context or the timeline of deliverability.

One way to overcome this would be to undertake an economic viability review at the site allocation stage. But such studies require specialised urban design skills, which are scarce.

Most planning policy comes down to viability, and the need to build for realistic commercial gains becomes a priority to the detriment of the character of a locality. Urban characterisation studies should help towards finding the middle ground.

Nairita Chakraborty MRTPI is an associate, heritage, at Iceni Projects and sits on Historic England’s advisory committee

Image credit | iStock

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