Retaining local distinctiveness: an elusive concept

26 January 2009 | blog, comment

Canterbury Cathedral
Local distinctiveness has been described as an elusive concept. Essentially, it encompasses the unique physical, social and economic characteristics of a place and the interaction of people with those characteristics. There is increasing concern that the homogenising effect of the property development industry, retail trends, the underfunding of local councils and a mature tourism industry is affecting the individuality of places. Consequently, towns and cities as well as villages and rural areas are perceived as increasingly similar and visiting them may no longer provide a unique experience .

The search for economic advantage has fostered an interest in local distinctiveness, both as a means of ensuring the prosperity of a place through focusing on what is different, and as a means of supporting and enhancing the qualities which make the place special for local people.


The term Local Distinctiveness was coined by Common Ground in 1983 . Significantly this was a period during which there was a widespread feeling that towns and cities were not changing for the better. This was reflected in the rise of the conservation movement, the growth of NIMBYism as well as the mainstreaming of postmodernism in architecture and its adoption by developers.

In the context of urban design, local distinctiveness chimed with the writings of key individuals such as John Betjeman, Ian Nairn, Gordon Cullen, Jane Jacobs and Christopher Alexander. Today it is synonymous with contextualism, conservation, the work of the Prince’s Foundation and even the New Economics Foundation (NEF) through its Clone Towns campaign and its findings about the economic benefits of local markets.

Definition of local distinctiveness

Local distinctiveness is closely linked to the environment, the economy and the social ambience of a place and has been defined as that which makes a place special, differentiating it from anywhere else. Local distinctiveness is the essence of what makes a place special to us. It is the sum of landscape, wildlife, archaeology, history, traditions, buildings and crafts – everything that makes somewhere truly unique.

a local distinctiveness tag cloud
Canterbury is a good example of a distinctive places but what exactly is the nature of the distinctiveness? Cathedrals exist as landmark features in many European towns. While they may be the reasons why towns are visited they may not be what make these towns distinctive. In Canterbury, the Cathedral is a landmark but it is also locally distinctive because of its links with:

  • the murder of Thomas à Becket (national historical event)
  • Chaucer’s tales of pilgrimages to Becket’s shrine recorded in The Canterbury Tales (early example of written cultural history)
  • the continuing use of the medieval pilgrims’ inns (early tourism infrastructure) by town centre businesses (conservation of the built environment)
  • the specially written play Murder in the Cathedral by T.S. Elliot (interpretation of national and local history)
  • Michael Powell’s extraordinary 1944 film A Canterbury Tale that re-invents Canterbury as a romantic city and a city of the imagination at the heart of English art and culture
  • the continuity of the close relationship between Canterbury and the State (eg the signing of the Channel Tunnel treaty in the Chapter House)

These factors combine with other distinctive elements of built heritage, such as St. Augustine’s Abbey (World Heritage Site), the medieval city and its walls, to create a package of local distinctiveness which cannot be found anywhere else. Rarity, authenticity and enduring value are, therefore, key features of local distinctiveness.

Non-cultural local distinctiveness

Special landscapes and natural areas, eg the Lake District and The Fens, are also locally distinctive and are the result of a complex history of intervention by man with nature, interpreted by writers and painters and animated by local customs.

Manufacturing processes can be locally distinctive too – eg artefacts such as furniture, glass and pottery. Locally harvested delicacies, such as Whitstable Oysters, and manufactured food products, such as Forfar Bridies, are also distinctive but may be insufficiently strong in their own right to constitute ‘local distinctiveness’.

It is a combination of factors which makes local distinctiveness — local culture, events, traditions and the built or natural ambience in which they occur.

The fragility of local distinctiveness

Local distinctiveness is easily lost – it is elusive and fragile. Examples of subtle changes which can affect local distinctiveness and ultimately destroy it include:

  • gradual erosion of the built fabric by minor changes and inappropriate development which cumulatively destroys the character of a place
  • destruction of the intimate feel of a place by modern infrastructure, eg road widening schemes, large scale new developments
  • the homogenising effect of conservation
  • changes in local economies, commercial rates, rental levels
  • globalisation of high streets driving out local shops
  • gentrification , lifestyle changes and fashion
  • environmental health regulations restricting the sale of local produce
  • cost-cutting measures leading to closure of facilities
  • lack of maintenance of important public spaces including vandalism and graffiti
  • loss of local pride
  • change in ownership of buildings especially pubs and shops
  • loss of a unique dialect or language
  • lack of an agreed vision for a place

Even if none of the above has occurred, congestion and disturbance can destroy local distinctiveness, merely because the place was not originally designed to accommodate large numbers of people. Planners and urban designers need to consider if these factors should be taken into account in writing local policies and in approaching strategic frameworks and masterplans.