Neighbourhood Character in Planning

Developments that require planning permits require consideration of, and response to neighbourhood character provisions that are enshrined in each of Victoria’s planning schemes. Sometimes, planning controls on a particular site ask us to respond to existing neighbourhood character, and sometimes, they ask us to contribute to a ‘wish list’ of preferred neighbourhood characteristics to help new neighbourhood character emerge in an area. Planning Practice Note 43, issued by the state’s Department of Planning, reminds us that neighbourhood character isn’t quantitative as such: saying a neighbourhood has ‘little or no character’, and other areas as having ‘lots of character’… confuse neighbourhood character with attractiveness.” Furthermore, neighbourhood character is not just confined to referencing one or two things that are viewed in the streetscape. Just because we may propose to set back our proposal from the street the same distance that next door does, we may miss many other key neighbourhood cues that would have the better-integrated design with the street. Perhaps even more complex, different councils treat the valuation of neighbourhood character differently. For example, at least one Victorian council is quite particular about where duplex developments are situated, even if roof forms and the amount of bulk may be similar to that of neighbouring developments. They would describe this is being out of neighbourhood character. On the other hand, other councils are quite comfortable with duplex developments in a street with no others, as long as other characteristics of the neighbourhood are observed. Neighbourhood character might be considered from a bird’s eye view: when proposing a multi-dwelling development, sometimes the way they could be laid out on the site could be functionally good for the site, but may not be similar to other multi-dwelling developments in the area. For example, an area with many multi-dwelling developments may all have large rear setbacks that allow for a band of green throughout the area. To disregard this characteristic may not result in a favourable response from council, or neighbours.

As can be seen, neighbourhood character can be said to be almost an esoteric science or craft. Experience with each council, and obtaining feedback from councils for every proposed development in regard to this design consideration, tell us at PSCA that the best results are gained from exploring the street and council’s written and unwritten policy when it comes to neighbourhood character. This way, the best results are achieved for clients, and the built environment.