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Urban and Public Realm Heritage

England’s towns and cities contain a rich, varied and much-loved heritage of historic buildings. In addition they include shared spaces such as streets, squares, parks and seafronts. Today most of us live in urban areas and are acutely aware of the quality of our built environment. We realise that it is often subject to pressure for development and change, and can suffer bouts of decline and neglect.

Here you can find out about:

The scope of our projects

Research questions for ourselves and our partners


A boarded-up pub at Hythe Quay
A boarded-up pub in a conservation area: Hythe Quay, Colchester, in 2009.

Our projects

From the distant past, our towns and cities have been shaped by specific forces – such as trade, industry, transport, religion, military activity or entertainment –  and have developed their own unique characteristics. The experience of visiting a bustling market town, for example, is very different from that offered by a thriving port. And our refined cathedral cities present a sharp contrast to our seaside resorts. Similarly, leafy residential suburbs provide a foil for commercial and civic centres.

Market Place in Ely
A typical English marketing scene: the Market Place, Ely, photographed in 2012. DP154533

Historic England plays a crucial role in safeguarding the special character of these diverse places, for the benefit of residents and visitors, and for present and future generations.

Understanding is the first step towards appreciating and protecting our heritage, and so we have developed a programme of projects that will enable ourselves and others to identify and articulate the most important aspects of the urban built environment.

Some of our approaches are ‘broad brush’. We have developed methodologies – notably Characterisation and Historic Area Assessment –allowing people to analyse whole towns or specific localities and identify what is special about them.

On a different scale, several of our projects embrace all of England and are thematic in scope, giving us the tools to assess the rarity, variety and value of particular classes of heritage asset within a national context.

Other work, often carried out in support of Historic England planning and designation casework, focuses on individual historic assets. At a time of economic downturn and changing technology, even our most splendid libraries and town halls – buildings which reflect the civic pride of previous generations – can have uncertain futures.

St Austell library
St Austell Library (1959-60; County Architect’s Department under F. K. Hicklin), listed Grade II in XXXX. DP136725

At one end of the timelime of the historic fabric of our towns, we are carrying out projects to discover the heritage of early urban buildings from the Middle Ages that are sometimes hidden behind more recent facades.

At the more recent end of the timeline, one vital strand of our work seeks to ensure that the importance of post-war urban buildings is recognised through appropriate protection. A major outcome of this in 2015 is the publication of Elain Harwood’s award winning book, Space Hope and Brutalism: English Architecture 1945-1975.


Research questions and impact

Research -either carried out by us or in collaboration with partners in the sector- will have impact if it assesses the significance of urban environments most subject to change. It will help us to ensure that the National Heritage List for England has up-to-date information, that statutory protection is appropriate where warranted, and advice on design approaches and planning decisions based upon an understanding of the historic character and distinctive values of streetscapes, buildings and public spaces.

 Research questions that will help our mission include:

  • How can we better understand the scale and pace of change that affect the significance of historic town centres, individual buildings and open spaces?
  • How can we better understand the capacity for historic town centres to change while retaining their historic character?
  • How can we best define the character of urban areas to help others plan sustainable growth, greater densities and tall buildings?
  • How can we use historic local character and distinctiveness of urban areas to inspire and guide future land use, development and design?
  • How can we best respond to the change of ownership of major civic and public buildings in urban centres?
  • What particular urban building and townscape types are most poorly understood, least protected and most at risk from change? What is their capacity to adapt to new uses?
  • How much unrecognised medieval building form and fabric is hidden within later redevelopment of structures in historic towns?
  • How can we best encourage participation of urban communities in work to record, and plan for the future of their heritage?
  • What contribution do historic parks and open spaces make to urban environments?
  • Are there important questions that can be answered from backlogs of unpublished archaeological investigations?

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