Careers Advice: Understanding the value of heritage in defining the identity of place

Written by: Dr Laura Alvarez
Published on: 14 Oct 2019


Like any other landscape, cityscapes are in constant change through a complex multi-agency process which Matthew Carmona recently called the Place-shaping Continuum (2014). Transforming themselves, cities merge layers and layers of historic and contemporary data to form the environment we know. An environment we understand as a whole: with its colours, its shapes, the temperature changes, a subtle breeze, the smells, its sounds, its people. 

Contrary to the assumption of many, the value of heritage in a cityscape does not always lie on the significance of particular assets, but on the relationship they form with the rest of the components in their setting, and in their contribution to defining the identity of that place. Yet too often, planning decisions are threatened by interpretations that focus solely on particular buildings and their connotation as a relic of the past.

Now, imagine a social analysis designed to understand a team at work: Who is the leader? Who follows? Is there a vertical structure or is it horizontal, with equal contributions? What skills and qualities can each member offer to the team? Where does each member stand regarding his or her own personal values, experiences and goals? How is all that defining the team as a whole? If all members know the same and behave in the same way, they could potentially deliver a large amount of work. If they are all different, the group might not produce volumes but they might deliver a more complex product. Now think about a city in those terms.

The perceptive planner will look at heritage by understanding the context in its integrity, focusing on the critical synergies between the parts rather than in the parts themselves. It is from those strong contrasts that successful examples of daring architecture challenge the norm around the globe in highly significant historic contexts. From the Louvre Pyramid to Prague Dancing House; from the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto to the Birmingham Bull Ring; all show how places with robust historic identity can still accommodate the most vigorous contemporary statements.

However, there is a balance to be struck. A city can only take so many landmarks. Like an eccentric Edwardian interior, abundance of uniqueness results in that very uniqueness becoming the norm. That is the danger of unrestricted planning approaches that happily accommodate multiple stylistic designs that attempt to stand out from the rest. When the tension between the various parts becomes a constant, or when too many components fight for status, the environment is perceived as a homogenous mix with little hierarchical distinction. 

Conversely, not all environments are rich and complex. Small towns and villages, for example, can truly suffer from the ‘Too much-Too little’ syndrome. It is not rare to see proposals that attempt to make a statement above their mark, violently competing with more humble but honest, valuable historic samples of great local significance. Other times, a lack of confidence results in bland, soulless architectural styles achieved with modern construction systems, which detract from the ingenuity of more traditional methods abundant in the area.

When it comes to heritage planning, the right balance lies in understanding the essence of the place as a whole, rather than its individual buildings. Planners are only ‘loaned’ to the city for a few years, for a generation perhaps. It is their professional duty to help complex, historic places achieve maturity with dignity. Successful planning in context understands the role of heritage in constructing a picture of the present that accepts and respects the past, not the other way around.

Dr Laura Alvarez is senior principal urban design and conservation officer at Nottingham City Council