Character

A GENEALOGY OF THE concept of ‘local character’, as it applies to places, would be like making a family tree for a usurping new monarch: energetic, but short. ‘Local character’ is everywhere in the language of talking about places and planning, though it’s only surprisingly recently that the terms have had meaning. The NSW Department of Planning describes the concept this way:

Character is what makes a neighbourhood distinctive and is the identity of the place. It encompasses the way a place looks and feels. It is created by a combination of land, people, built environment, history, culture and tradition, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, and it looks at how they interact to create an area’s distinctive character.

The NSW Government is committed to ensuring strategic planning recognises and enhances the local character of an area, and that communities share what they value about their area to inform planning and decision making.

It’s really a concept from the late 1970s, and the ecological turn to preserving environments. Modernists in planning—the dominant strain from the early 20th century into the 1980s—would have seen the definition above as tautological, because of course, the way a place looks and feels is the way it looks and feels; but it’s the quality of people’s lives, and the ability of places to economically/physically support those lives, that mattered. In the pre-war, it was aesthetic and hygienic, in the inter-war, suburban and expansive, and in the post-war, an optimistic efficiency exercise in managing growth, and all the problems-you-want-to-have of a society with little unemployment, many babies, and lots of money. That places should be valued in planning wouldn’t have entered into the question, because planning was about making places better: if a place was valued as it was, then it wouldn’t need planning; and in any case, it was up to the experts to decide.

Of course some ideologies and ways of thinking have been fixated on ‘local character’ for a very much longer time, but they thought of places and cities less as locations to cherish as they were, than to fixate on, in irredentism. Where there is a Serb, there is Greater Serbia, as the slogan went, and the nationalists of the 19th and 20thC genuinely believed in using political (and military) power to enforce the local characters, deciding, for instance, whether they would be Roman or Cyrillic.

It is notable that the NSW law with which we make decisions about places, the NSW Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979 makes no mention of place-character, only ‘character’ as it relates to specific buildings, leaving the drafters of Local Environmental Plans (LEPs) to use the concept of ‘local character’ in Humpty-Dumpty style, no more and no less than what they want it to mean. In practice it isn’t preserved, so much as brought into being by ideology, by the preservation of specific things that people value, quite literally value in the cases of real property, and by forbidding alternative futures. This blog entry has been in part inspired by the relentless real estate ads in the letterbox of my [rented] house, listing the [colossal] sale prices of the locally-characterful local housing stock.

‘Local character’ is now the infinitely malleable definition to suit any possible argument about place, no matter how cynically self-serving. We’ve come to the understanding that conserving things that work and are communally valued about places is important—and it is—but we’ve also allowed, through elision of language, people to slip in their own pleading for self-interest and fuck-you-got-mine. Who likes ‘local character’ the best, but the local characters?

In Newtown, NSW, where my office is, there is a mural in the tradition of ‘Keep [location] Weird’, an individualist aesthetic pioneered by Austin, Texas, but now reproduced identically by bourgeois enclaves around the world, which has what I think is the mascot of discussions about local character. It is an anthropomorphic drum, forever beating its own head.

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