Character is dynamic and evolving, not static.

Auckland’s recent marathon 11-hour planning meeting saw a continuing confusion between ‘heritage’ and ‘character’. If planners can’t articulate the difference, its no wonder residents are bewildered.

Most cities have a distinctive built identity. Like the rings on a tree trunk, the waves of settlement and urban development are etched into the landscape. This identity is a combination of the locally distinctive patterns of development, of landscape and of use over time. Combining these elements gives us a sense of character. 

Character is perhaps the most common feature of urban design policy, used everywhere in the world that has a legislative planning system. It is also one of the most confused, subjective and overused tools. 

Too often, character is inaccurately described as heritage (which comes with all-important legislation). Town planners and urban designers adore superfluous policy descriptions which confuse and complicate. For instance, we have Historic Heritage and Special Character Areas. Unsurprisingly, the implementation of character areas becomes a way of preserving a nostalgic view of a building or place. The proponents of this approach can be highly selective in what they see as character that is worth enhancing. For instance, they are prone to ignore the proliferation of car parking, gated concrete driveways, double garages, new plastic windows, air conditioning units and swimming pools that these days typically characterise many Special Character Areas. 

In 2005, the Ministry for the Environment produced the Urban Design Protocol. It places Character as one of seven desirable qualities that make up successful places. It seeks to give a definition to the qualities of urban design that reflect character and can enhance the distinctiveness of a place. Crucially it recognises that; ‘…Character is dynamic and evolving, not static. It ensures new buildings and spaces are unique, are appropriate to their location and compliment their historic identity...’

Dynamic and evolving, not static. So, removing a building of low quality will generally enhance the quality of an area. Designing a new, high-quality contemporary home can also enhance the character of the area, as well as the lives of its inhabitants, now and in the future. But building a poor replica of, say, a character villa is little more than a stage set. To the casual eye it ‘fits in’ but it is unlikely to provide the design details or richness of the traditional building. Character lies in individual charm, variety and often a mix of different eras (including sensitive restorations). It is the quality of overall design that ensures an area remains special.

Instead of endlessly debating the zoning issues, we should be discussing what we actually want to build. This takes vision and a commitment to design skills, city-building nous and urban knowledge. It requires design leadership from councils and ultimately government. The cities we build reflect the rules we make for them. If you make dumb rules that are easy to administer but stifle progress, then your city remains a poor relic. The great cities we love to visit, the ones that are rich in heritage but contemporary in outlook, have a pedigree of great design leadership and a high quality architectural mix of heritage, character and modernity which reflects that. Afterall, what is now considered old and special was once considered new and challenging.