How do you determine what the unique quality of your neighbourhood is? What qualities make up the characteristic essence of your local hood? Look no further, Oxford City Council (UK) has produced a toolkit for your easy convenience. Here’s what to look for;
Informal/ formal space – An informal space is one that has evolved in an organic manner with no planned layout, incorporating a wide range of features that may not have a strong connection with each other and can be used in a variety of ways.
Gaps between buildings – The gaps between buildings are important in terms of providing opportunities for creating glimpsed views out of the space and interrupting the continuity of the built elements. Gaps between buildings can be accesses to rear spaces, alleyways leading to other spaces. Are gaps uniform, creating rhythm, as a result of planned development or varied due to more ‘organic’ development.
Means of enclosure – Enclosure can be defined as anything that encloses a space, i.e. giving definition to a place and can include buildings, walls/railings/
fences, planting, etc. It is also possible to have various forms of enclosure within the same place adding to an area’s more diverse character.
Historic subdivision pattern – Building plots refers to the land the structures sit within. How buildings are positioned on their plots is important. Are they built up to the frontage of the plot or set back? Do they fill the entire width, etc.? Is there a variety of plot widths along the street? Do buildings along the street fill the plot in a uniform way e.g. a continuous built frontage, a more spacious layout or a combination of layouts? Is this the result of a particular process of development or use?
Wide/open spaces – Wide and open spaces e.g. a wide road or green
Spaces. The space may be broken up into sections but the overall character is
of a wide airy space, divided into parking bays/ has an avenue of trees, clearly
defined built edges and wide pavements etc.
Narrow enclosed spaces – Narrow and enclosed spaces are usually formed by a confined space between the building lines, often accompanied by tall buildings (3+ storeys). A continuous building line emphasises the enclosure. Height/shadow plays an important role. An enclosed space is not just created by a narrow gap between two building lines, the space can be more substantial but due to a continuous building line and uniform scale of property, there is
a clearly defined sense of enclosure to the space. An enclosed space may be an intentional part of an historic design, such as a college quadrangle, or the result of pressure for development of available land
Winding/ straight spaces – What is the layout of the space? Is it straight with clear views from one end to the other or are there pronounced bends in the layout creating a series of unfolding views and linked spaces? Does this suggest the imposition of a planned street grid or the influence of earlier features of the landscape on subsequent development?
Relationship of the space to buildings and structures – What is the relationship between the space and the built elements? Do buildings form a major component of the space, creating a clear sense of enclosure or definition or acting as a focal feature? Are buildings a secondary feature to the space or features within the space? Is the relationship between built elements and space composite i.e. the college buildings, church and square with clearly defined edge to the space? What are the dominant features?
Uses and activities – The way the buildings are used can impact upon the character and appearance of a place. Buildings with active frontages such as shops, cafes and evening uses including pubs and theatres can create a vibrant and bustling street scene. Commercial streets can be busy during the day but quiet at night. Academic areas maybe quieter out of term or the emphasis of use may alter and they may become tourist attractions during certain times of the year. Residential areas have changeable characters depending on time of day, time of year, location etc. Is it a main traffic c route or a pedestrian zone?
Paving materials – Road and pavement surfaces may form a significant proportion of the space and can have a strong impact upon the character of an area depending on the type and condition of surface. A pot-holed and patched tarmac road suggests lack of care and can be negative whereas a cobbled street may be seen as a more positive element with a historic character.
Road and pavement surfaces form a major component of a space, physically linking one side of the space to the other. Materials have changed over the centuries but points to consider include: predominant surfacing material – tarmac, cobbles, flagstones etc. Type of kerb – stone, concrete, granite, iron etc.
Street furniture and signage – Street furniture can enhance or detract from the character, quality and appearance of an area. In assessing the contribution of street furniture, consider the following: Is the furniture an historic feature of the place? Does the space appear cluttered due to over provision of street furniture and signage? Is it of an appropriate design/colour? Is it located in such a position that it impacts upon the usability of the space?
Impact of traffic and vehicles – Do traffic and associated traffic management measures impact on the character, significance and enjoyment of the space?
Is it a main traffic c route? Do delivery vans impact upon the usability and enjoyment of the space?
Usability and accessibility of the space
How easy is the space to use? Is it a shared use space – does this impact on the way and ease with which the space is used? Are there obstacles along the pavements that hinder use; e.g. cycles locked to railings, advertising boards etc.? Does the road surface preclude access to certain users e.g. wheelchairs, prams, cycles etc. How does this impact upon the character of a place? Does car parking have an impact? Is there a traffic management scheme that impacts upon the appearance of the space? e.g. road humps, markings, cycle & bus lanes etc.? If it is a pedestrian only route, with vehicles having limited access, is there an absence of movement after the end of the working day that changes its character?
Contribution of building to the space – What is the contribution the buildings make to the space? Collective contribution or group value due to uniformity of design. Individual contribution due to diversity of design and materials. Any historic importance connected to a specific building/group of buildings that increase contribution and significance through associative value? Any distinctive construction methods e.g. a brick bond or polychromatic brickwork or use of a distinctive material?
Size/scale – Is there a uniform of scale and size to the buildings in the street or does it vary? Is there any conflict between buildings in terms of scale and size?
Age – What is the general age of the buildings? Do they appear historic or modern or a combination of ages? How does this influence the character and appearance of the street?
Materials – When analysing a space, individual buildings do not require a detailed description, it is their collective character and contribution to the area that is being considered. Where a specific building stands out either for individual design or use of materials (good or bad), this can be mentioned.
Is there a predominant building material? Is there a wide ranging palette of materials creating a diverse streetscape? Do the materials complement each other? Is there uniformity in the range of materials?
Windows – Windows are often described as ‘the eyes’ of a building and make a significant contribution to a building’s design and character. Do they appear to be original/traditional windows? Timber framed, UPVC, metal framed, stone mullions? Uniform or varied styles? Traditional shop window or modern replacement? When considering the contribution of windows, the upper storeys should be looked at too. The main window types are: Timber framed sash – frames that slide up and down. Casements – Hinged windows that open outwards. Fixed.
Doors – Doors also add or detract from a building and a streetscape as a whole. Original doors may have been replaced with inappropriate styles or ‘mock’ designs. The degree of contribution can depend on the use and design of the building, its age, location, whether the building is part of a group and the relationship between building and road. If a building fronts directly onto the street, the door will be more noticeable. If buildings being considered are a group of mainly unaltered terraced properties, an incorrect door will be highly prominent. A door in a building set back from the street has a reduced impact on the street scene but does not reduce the importance and contribution of the door to the building. Is it a commercial property? Traditional timber shop front with retained door, or altered shop front in a traditional building.
Use – past and present – Is the building occupied or vacant? Is there a predominant use e.g. commercial, retail, academic, residential, or a mix of uses? Do the uses contribute positively to the character of the area? Are previous uses of the buildings identifiable?
Modifications – Some alterations are not immediately apparent e.g. the re-fronting of a timber framed property but others are more obvious and can impact upon the individual building as well as the street scene as a whole:
Replacement windows are often easy to identify as they can be of a different style, size and material to those in neighbouring properties. A rendered and painted façade in a row of stone or brick houses. The alteration to a door opening e.g. a front door being brought flush to the façade of a building instead of its original recessed position.
Condition – What condition are the properties in? Well maintained buildings usually make a more positive contribution than rundown and inappropriately maintained properties.
Historic/ prominent views – The area may benefit from or is the subject of views of interest and distinction. A view may be well known from a famous painting or written description, or it may be popular with residents as part of a public space.
Form – long or short/ unfolding/ glimpsed/ channelled or wide open – Is the view short? Does this give an intimate feel to the space? It may be possible to see from one end of a long space to the other. Unfolding views are the result of the layout of the space creating a series of linked short views that emerge as you progress through the space. Glimpsed views give a hint of something which gradually reveals itself with progression through the space. Channelled views are created by drawing your eye to a specific point within or beyond the space. These may be formed by the location of the enclosing architecture that gives the optical illusion of the space between narrowing with distance. Or a specific architectural feature such as an archway may channel the view. A wide road or an open green space allows light to play a greater role in the character of the space.
Glimpsed views – These are often seen through one or more gaps in the building line or through other openings.
Focal points – This is a feature that draws attention to itself by virtue of its scale, design or prominence. Focal points often dominate a view but are not necessarily the end of the space, with views continuing into the background.
Streetscape – The streetscape is made up of the visual elements of a street that combine to form the streets character. The view will take into account how
the buildings work together, the architectural design, feature, materials, street furniture, trees, use, etc. How do these features contribute and do any individual features or combinations of features form the basis of the wider character of the space.
Roofscape – The landscape of roofs can have a significant impact on the character of a street. Are the roofs visible from street level, if so, how do they contribute to the character of the space and the view through the space?
Do the roofs have a variety of interest in materials and shapes, or do uniform roof slopes and materials contribute to the cohesion of groups of building within the view. Have chimneys been removed or alterations made?
Urban/ rural settings – Having considered the view, what is its character? Does it contain typical rural features such as tall trees, hedgerows, green open space and loosely spaced buildings on winding road lines with spacious gardens, or is it more urban, dominated by tall buildings, hard surfaces and a high level of activity?
Views out of or in to the space – Views out of and into the space create a context by linking one area to another, highlighting the interrelationships between spaces. This may be between adjoining streets or may feature distinctive elements of the city skyline or that of the surrounding countryside.
Activity – The way a space is used and how busy it is can significantly influence the character of an area. Busy areas may seem vibrant while a lack of activity may be seen as peaceful. Conversely a place may be too busy or the activity within it at odds with its built character. Quiet areas may also be seen a inhospitable, particularly at night.
Traffic – Cars and vehicles, moving or parked, can have a significant influence on the character of an area. The type of vehicle, volume of traffic or speed can also have an influence.
Dark/ shaded – The amount of light or presence of shade can make a stark difference to the character of a space. This may vary through the day or be influenced by the weather. Dark or shaded characteristics can arise from:
• Narrow width of space
• Height and density of buildings, or continuous building line
• Where light can enter a space, a series of shadows/silhouettes may form on road and building surfaces adding an extra dimension of character. Light and airy characteristics can arise due to:
• Wider spaces
• Lower buildings
• More spacious development pattern/gaps between buildings
Day or night – Time of day can have an impact on the character and appearance of a place both in terms of lighting and vitality. The changing position of the sun during the day. Lights from buildings at night can add to the atmosphere and lighting of an external space. Seasonal variations in lighting conditions.
Smells – Smells that are part of an area’s character may make a positive or negative contribution to its quality and interest. They often reflect the uses of an area and can be highly emotive. Are there attractive smells in the area such as fragrant planting and trees, general ‘freshness’ of the air, or cooking smells (very dependent on personal inclination), or are the smells unattractive, such as engine fumes or blocked drains? Do these change at different times of the day or year?
Noises – Noise, or its absence, can have an impact on the character of an area. A busy road may create a lot of traffic noise that detracts from an otherwise attractive location, whilst in a tranquil residential area the sounds of bird song or children playing can make a positive contribution to the impression of an attractive living space. What noises do you hear in the area and how do they affect your impression of the place? Do they change throughout the day or are they likely to change between different seasons?
Leafy and green – Is there a prevalent green and leafy quality to the space? Is the space an open green space where a variety of planting produces the overriding character? Key trees or groups of trees may make a significant contribution to the varied character of a place. The time of year may have an influence, with the character changing as trees come into leaf, changing colour in the autumn and falling in the winter. Vegetation may offer screening during the summer months but in winter views through the canopies of trees may be opened up as leaves fall.
Hard urban landscape – There may be areas where trees and other greenery makes little or no contribution to the overall character but this is not necessarily a detracting factor and is reflective of the type of streetscape/space being analysed.
Public/ private greenery – A green character is not only formed by trees planted within a public space. Trees within private spaces such a residential gardens, college grounds, church grounds etc can add to the public character of a place. Trees in private spaces may overhang into public spaces or be planted in openly visible private spaces contributing to the wider character of the area.
Water as a key feature – Does a river run through the area being assessed?
Does it form part of the setting to the space, impacting upon its character – if so, how?
Topography – How level is the land? Is it flat, a hill, or does it include a combination of levels? Does it follow a slope and if so what direction does it face? Do street lines or other paths run up or along a slope? Is there a step down from the street level into adjoining spaces?
As can be seen from the above list, there is much to be gleaned from one’s local neighbourhood. One needs to take a holistic approach and be sensitive to forms, smells, roofscapes, buildings, age, patina, light, shadow, views, textures, colours and details. Designs for new buildings or infill buildings within historical landscape settings need to be driven by a keen understanding as to what is around. It requires in depth analysis to come up with a design that achieves a comfortable fit. The new infill building need not mimic the historic style of the parent buildings but simply needs to interpret those forms, respect the historical context and follow the general guidelines above.
Paul Rappoport – Heritage 21 – 16 October 2015