4B) Distinctiveness

Many of our places are, quite frankly, ugly. New housing estates, out-of-town shops, road junctions and business parks are not designed to lift the soul or to enhance our quality of life. There is no reason why this should be. There are lots of places that we find attractive; the places we visit or go on holiday to. Good design need not cost more so there is no reason we can’t improve our quality of life by designing better places.

People tend to like old places, be they historic cities or winding village streets, with their human scale, variety, activity and distinctiveness. Some might conclude that this means that all new development should be designed to look like an old place, with traditional architecture. But this is not necessarily true. Modern buildings and contemporary architecture can create places that are loved. The trick is to distinguish between the urban form of a place and the way its buildings are designed.

Urban form

Urban form means creating human- scaled, walkable neighbourhoods based on streets that link to other streets and are fronted by buildings. These urban design principles apply to villages, suburbs, urban neighbourhoods and cities. As places become more urban, their densities rise, as does the height of their buildings, the mix of uses and activity on the streets. However, all places should be able to support local shops and facilities. These principles of urban design create the shape of neighbourhoods and the character of public spaces where we feel comfortable.

Background buildings

The design of the buildings adds another layer of richness. While many great places are made up of fairly plain buildings, these background buildings follow basic principles of scale and proportion, often using local materials and detailing. They can do this whether they are traditional or contemporary in design.

Star buildings

Then there are the special buildings. In the past they would have been churches and town halls but today might be an arts or leisure centre, a school or even a quite modest public building like a pavilion or a shelter. These are the buildings that we photograph as visitors, that appear on postcards and make a place feel different to everywhere else.

What You Can Do


Get involved in the planning of your area. Engage with the planning department and ask to be a consultee on local planning applications. Undertake a survey of your area, explore places that people feel positively about and those that they don’t like and ask why. Consider undertaking a Neighbourhood Plan using powers under the 2011 Localism Act. It may also be possible to apply for funding to resource the process and to engage external consultants. If the community is involved in commissioning a building, directly or in partnership with the council, suggest an architectural competition, perhaps specifying that it is only open to smaller architectural practices. Put the entries on display and ask people what they think but make a decision based on the practice that you think you will best be able to work with.

Developers and Designers

Use good architects and urban designers on larger sites. Write a brief that responds to the character of the local area but seek to create distinctive, sustainable buildings. If you need to use standard house types, adjust them to the local area and use a variety. On larger sites, produce design codes that fix the parameters of the scheme and use a range of architects or even different developers to create local distinctiveness.


Employ at least one urban design officer or buy in/share expertise with other councils and make sure that design advice is provided on all significant developments. Set up a Design Panel or use one of the existing regional design panels and make it a requirement that all larger schemes are put to the panel. Prepare a Local Design Code using the guidance in the National Model Design Code in consultation with local communities. For council-commissioned buildings, consider using architectural competitions.

Case study

4B) Kelham Island, Sheffield

Kelham Island, a manmade landmass in the River Don, is one of Sheffield’s oldest manufacturing sites. Following industrial decline in the latter half of the 20th-century, the area became neglected, before its recent revival as a vibrant cultural hub and popular new urban neighbourhood.

The historic remains of numerous red brick cutlery and steelworks give the area a distinct character, enhanced by a number of old and new murals and graffiti art.

Regeneration and evolution have occurred at a natural, steady pace on the island, with careful retention of heritage and a gradual reputational rise. Importantly, Sheffield Council has zoned a significant area for industrial and craft uses, retaining long-standing businesses and ensuring the historic manufacturing community of Kelham Island is not uprooted.

In 1982 the council opened Kelham Island Industrial Museum in a former power station. The museum was a catalyst for change in the area, and shortly afterwards Kelham was declared an industrial conservation area.

Kelham Island has long been at the forefront of Sheffield’s brewing industry, with multiple micro-breweries and real ale pubs beginning to draw a wider market, and becoming a destination for ‘The Sheffield Ale Trail’. The area now entices much of Sheffield’s night-time economy, with a host of food and drink outlets, and music and events venues such as Yellow Arch Studios. Peddler’s monthly street food night market attracts a large crowd, while The Cutlery Works food hall houses a more permanent choice of refreshments in a unique post-industrial setting.

A range of art galleries and creative studios, shops, cafes and an indoor skate park also draw daytime visitors, and the area is fast becoming a popular tourist attraction, as well as a dynamic place to live.

There are now nearly 5,000 people living in residential pockets throughout the neighbourhood, bringing old mill buildings back to life and redevelopment wastelands. New buildings respect the industrial street pattern and building scale. The largest new development is Little Kelham, which provides a range of contemporary energy, efficient housing, and offers a range of private and shared garden spaces.

Photography: © URBED, © Grosvenor, © Mikhail Riches,
© Academy of Urbanism