Defining ‘urban character’ and its influence on the physical outcomes of cities

Cox, John (2022) Defining ‘urban character’ and its influence on the physical outcomes of cities. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

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This thesis examines how urban character and the components which formulate the overall concept are characterised and perceived by architectural designers, planners, policy advisers and makers. In doing this the study categorises the components of urban character into the tangible and intangible. The tangible components are, for example, architectural styles, building materials, scale and urban design form and pattern. Intangible components are those orientated towards the socio-cultural and economic, and the interactions between people and place. Furthermore, the thesis analyses the ways in which interplay between these tangible and intangible components can result in architectural outcomes which give a uniqueness to cities, such as the ways in which feel and ambience, or spirit of place, are physicalised in built environments. The thesis also examines the factors impacting on urban character. These factors include globalised attitudes and approaches to place and architectural production by multinational corporations and how these impact urban character, including how these affect the interplay between the tangible and intangible components of the concept. In line with the literature, it uses the term urban character interchangeably with urban identity, place identity and urban and place distinctiveness, as well as the sense and spirit of place and its Roman equivalent genius loci.

Within the literature there is a great deal of debate concerning urban character and the threats posed to this from contemporary approaches to architectural production, in particular the forces of globalisation. The literature is rich in exploring the complexities in defining urban character, with the constant, rapid, evolution of cities making the tethering of such definitions ever more difficult. The effects of globalisation on cities, and the ways in which this affects place identity, is also closely debated, with much written about the influence of multinational corporations and their dominance over built environments. The literature is often polarised (El-Husseiny 2004) between viewing globalisation as either the natural evolution of society bringing progress and diversity, or as a driver for an unpalatable homogenisation of architecture and urban design.

Further research is therefore needed to identify how an approach to understanding urban character which reduces the dichotomy between its tangible and intangible components, can influence built environment processes and outcomes. Crucially this understanding needs to capture the interplay between these components. This allows for a more inclusive definition of urban character, reflective of wider society’s urban needs and aspirations, and less dominated and driven by the demands of multinational corporations and the fulfilment of neoliberal agendas.

A qualitative methodology was adopted using the city of Glasgow, Scotland, as the overarching case study. Within Glasgow, the research focused on study areas or sub-case studies - one in the city centre, the other in a former shipbuilding district now repurposed as a media and entertainment hub. Semi-structured desk and walking interviews with built environment professionals - architects, planners, policy advisers and makers - were undertaken.

The findings indicate that the case study’s tangible urban character is inherent in features that go beyond buildings and architecture. The evidence of the research is that the case study’s physical urban character derives more from the broader contextual components of urban design - such as scale and street layout. The research also suggests that the intangible and more socially orientated components of urban character are particularly important to Glasgow. The city’s identity is argued as ‘non-physical’ to an extent, and particularly reliant on the interplay and relationships between people and place. These ideas point to a hierarchy in the importance of the components of urban character, and that it is derived as much from how the built environment facilitates the interactions of people, as it does from architectural styles per se. Furthermore, the study highlights the influence of the interplay between the concept’s tangible and intangible components to the unique identity of a city’s built environment. A particularly elusive aspect of urban character is that of the identifying and physicalising of a place’s feel and ambience, or genius loci. Here, design frameworks are suggested as central to the architectural physicalising of the spirit of place. The research identified these frameworks as providing a set of design guidelines that encourage intangible components of urban character related to feel and ambience. This is via built environments which promote and facilitate the congregation and lingering of people, found by the research as essential to the genius loci of place.

In relation to the forces acting on urban character, the study found that globalisation, and the attitude of multinational corporations, impacts significantly on the urban character of built environments. The crucial role of the interplay between the components of urban character in relation to globalisation was analysed. The suggestion is that, in the face of such forces, there is a particular need for design and planning to be cognisant of all the tangible and intangible components of urban character found in the case study’s ‘DNA’. This is so as to defend and create built environments which express and contain the particular characteristics of place. Furthermore, the findings suggest that a holistic approach to the identification and role of urban character is essential in preventing a disconnect between people and place. This disconnect is seen as resulting from attempts to replicate the DNA of other cities, rather than understand and use that which is inherent. The study also highlights the often parasitical nature of globalised approaches to the built environment. These approaches ignore a place’s existing tangible and intangible attributes and cause what is described as an erosion of urban character and its components, as well as the undermining or destruction of the very elements which attract multinational corporations in the first place. Conversely however, the identification of the case study’s tangible urban character is based on the historical appropriation of international styles. The largely Victorian approach to the hybridisation and embedding of these styles led to what can be seen as a globalised approach to the built environment, and to the resultant architecture becoming a core component of the case study’s tangible urban character. The study therefore draws out the dichotomy in the globalised forces acting on the built environment, as these forces can act as both destructive, and creative, in the urban character and identity of cities.

This thesis contributes to knowledge by analysing if, how, and to what extent, the intangible components of urban character - such as the interaction between people and place and the particular feel and ambience of a place - are recognised and find a role in built environments. The examination considers how these intangible components are incorporated into the tangible built environment processes of design, planning and policy making. These processes are considered, in particular, within the context of globalised approaches to the built environment. Moreover, this thesis demonstrates that it is a holistic approach to the identification and role of urban character which leads cities to being able to retain and create built environments that are inclusive, reflective, and expressive of the diverse needs and aspirations of citizens. It shows that such built environments that express inclusivity contribute to and enrich the cultural, commercial, and social life of cities. The thesis therefore calls for better cognisance and use of the design and planning role that the interplay between tangible and intangible components of urban character offers, and for this to be particularly the case in relation to globalised approaches to built environments.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Qualification Level: Doctoral
Colleges/Schools: College of Social Sciences > School of Social and Political Sciences > Urban Studies
Supervisor's Name: Hastings, Professor Annette and Kamete, Dr. Amin
Date of Award: 2022
Depositing User: Theses Team
Unique ID: glathesis:2022-83232
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 27 Oct 2022 08:48
Last Modified: 27 Oct 2022 08:48

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