The online resource for the historic environment

4.06 Public attitudes

“People are interested in the historic environment. They want to learn about it…They want to be involved in decisions affecting it. They want to take part.
But many feel powerless and excluded…If the barriers to involvement can be overcome, the historic environment has the potential to strengthen the sense of community and provide a solid basis for neighbourhood renewal. This is the power of place.”
Historic Environment Steering Group (2000) Power of Place: The future of the historic environment

See also BS 7913: 2013: section 1 "Scope" and 4.3 "The assessment of significance" sub-para c), 1), 2), 3) and 5.4 "Strategic plan" sub-para a) and sub-para 1), 2), 3) and 5.6.2 "Consultation" and 5.6.7 "Management strategy" and 5.7 "The process of planning of major changes affecting historic buildings" and 6.1 "Asset management" and 6.11.2 "Social and economic values" and 8.0 "Heritage and project management".

A sense of place and belonging provides the foundations for a stable society and the historic environment is one of the main corner stones of how we see ourselves and understand our society and its historical background. It gives us an anchor for the future. The maintenance of record that our authentic historical environment offers is priceless in providing a narrative to gain understanding. Your job, as a conservation practitioner, is to protect that environment, and to assist your community, by their use of it, to gain an understanding of the influences affecting their past. But, in order to achieve that you must involve your community in the decision processes affecting their historic environment. A sense of place relates not only to individual buildings but also groups or ensembles of buildings and, in the wider context to the complex pattern of historical development and change associated with areas and townscapes.

The way in which such overall development takes place will be recognised and valued by the wider public. Not always for values that the public totally understand but those values and significance will provide an historic record offering clarification of the historical progression and developments that have impacted on a whole community. It is therefore of great importance to create a climate of knowledge that the general public may use in appreciating their village or town or indeed city. A community may have been established for a specific purpose such as social housing associated with an industrialists’ need to create a socially cohesive work force centred round an industrial process or service provision.

An example might be the purpose built village of New Lanark in Scotland, founded in 1786 as a new industrial settlement by David Dale, it became a famous model village providing workers with free education and medical care as well as social housing within a protected, if socially engineered, living and working environment. You may wish to visit New Lanark World Heritage to gain an understanding of the pioneering approach demonstrated by the development of New Lanark. The village was granted UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 2001.

Investigate other social/industrial new towns or villages that will provide examples of both industrial and social housing/development that provide you with exemplars of such historical but forward thinking social change.

You may wish to consider Port Sunlight, Bournville or Peabody Trust. You should look these up via the internet and compare them as examples with that of New Lanark. You should identify the ideology influencing how these areas developed and why they are such good examples of social thinking and the importance of understanding the reasoning and philosophy behind their creation.

“Public opinion is now overwhelmingly in favour of conserving and enhancing the familiar and cherished local scene…”
Department of Environment Circular 8/87 (1987)

Based on your understanding of local value, identify an historical asset or area in your locality that you perceive has importance for your local community. Identify why that asset or area has worth or value to your society.

You may want to consider why, in your opinion, the asset has established such value to its local community, in other words what is, and why is it, so significant. You should be sensitive to those issues that are used by the public to attach value and significance to an asset or area. You should be able to canvass their views in forming your own understanding of value and significance.

Based on your opinion of why the asset or area has perceived value, define how you have reached that conclusion. On what have you based your opinion and why have you based it. How important within that assessment process is the need to adopt a non-conjectural, non-subjective response and how might such conjectural opinion be avoided.

You may wish to consider the importance of public perception in the process of evaluation. A vital part of that process must, of necessity, involve canvassing public opinion; rather than reliance on your own, possibly, subjective views. You should be sensitive to community based or ‘stakeholder’ value. You may wish to consider how public ‘ownership’ of the asset or area might be empowered and how it should be informed and maintained.

Characterisation is another word for how we see, perceive and value things and places. This method may be used to help us to define what it is about a place that makes us value it for a complex of reasons - so the word “characterisation is a shorthand…[to help us define] what the place as a whole means to us.” (English Heritage Conservation magazine issue 47. 2004-5) Characterisation helps us to understand how, and why we value places: not only from within the esoteric world of conservation but also across the wider public forum whose value judgements may be different from the focused specialist. Some of the reasons why we value places may be outside the discipline of Conservation; they are, nonetheless, part of the complex of understanding that contributes to value and significance.

“Recognition of community, spiritual, economic and other values play a growing part in the practice of conservation…”
Clark, K. Informed Conservation

“Historic buildings are a proud and significant part of our, and every, nation’s heritage. They are an irreplaceable element of the collective memory of local communities…They contribute both to our sense of identity and to that regional distinctiveness which is so valuable and so vulnerable.”
Stevens, J, Sir. (past) Chairman English Heritage.

Public attitudes may be subject to misunderstanding of value and history. They may be unaware of why an asset or area is valued in they way that it is, simply because they do not have sufficient knowledge to structure an appropriate response. They may expect an asset to perform a function that it is not capable of sustaining. Your role is to empower public knowledge through understanding. See also the section entitled Promotion, Understanding and Interpretation later in this unit.

In the UK, Alton Towers is universally recognised as a theme park/leisure resort: From the 1890s the grounds of the country estate have been used as a leisure resort by workers from the Potteries. However, the country house itself is of architectural and historical interest. What is the relative value of these multiple roles and alternative perceptions to the average Briton.

The original site dates back as far as the 8th century, said to have been the site of a battle in AD 16 between King Ine and the Mercian King Ceolred; a fortress was built there in the 15th century: Its greatest period of development was in the early 19th century when the hall was subject to major works and the gardens were created by Thomas Allason (1790 – 1852) and Robert Abrahams (1774 – 1850). It was used for army officer training during the 1939 – 1945 war and has subsequently been converted to a theme park. The Earls of Shrewsbury (the Talbot family) originally owned the house and land. In 1860 the grounds were first opened to the general public. The theme park was created in the 1980s.

“The value and significance of the historic environment needs to be identified, understood and communicated – not an easy task in a world of multiple values, where experts do not necessarily have all the answers.”
English Heritage (2002) State of the Historic Environment Report

Useful publications:
ICOMOS. (1998). Sustaining the Cultural Heritage of Europe. Increasing public awareness and community benefit.