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This practice note provides guidance for applicants, the community
and responsible authorities about:
    • understanding what is meant by neighbourhood character
    • preparing or assessing a proposed residential development so
      that it meets the neighbourhood character requirements of the
      residential development provisions in planning schemes.

What role does neighbourhood                           What is neighbourhood
character play in preparing                            character?
or assessing a proposed
residential development?                               Neighbourhood character is essentially the
                                                       combination of the public and private realms.
Designing and siting new dwellings to respect          Every property, public place or piece of
neighbourhood character is a fundamental               infrastructure makes a contribution, whether
objective of the residential development               great or small. It is the cumulative impact of all
provisions in planning schemes.                        these contributions that establishes
It is important that both the applicant and            neighbourhood character.
council have a common understanding about the          The key to understanding character is being
key features of neighbourhood character so that:       able to describe how the features of an area
•    a satisfactory neighbourhood and site             come together to give that area its own
     description, including the identification of      particular character. Breaking up character into
     the key features of the neighbourhood, is         discrete features and characteristics misses out
     provided                                          on the relationships between these features and
                                                       characteristics. Understanding how these
•    the design response derives from and
                                                       relationships physically appear on the ground is
     responds to the key features identified in the
                                                       usually the most important aspect in
     neighbourhood and site description
                                                       establishing the character of the area.
•    the residential development proposal
     respects the existing or preferred
     neighbourhood character and satisfies all the
     neighbourhood character requirements of
     the residential development provisions in
     planning schemes.

                                                      DECEMBER 2001

                   GENERAL                              PRACTICE NOTE                                   4

                      Do all areas have
                                                                                     The role of the neighbourhood
                      neighbourhood character?
                                                                                     and site description
                      It is common for some areas to be described as having
                      ‘little or no character’, and other areas as having ‘lots of   A planning application for a dwelling in a residential

                      character’. These sorts of descriptions confuse                zone must be accompanied by a neighbourhood and site
                      neighbourhood character with attractiveness. All areas         description. The purpose of the neighbourhood and site
                      have a character in the same way that all people have a        description is to accurately describe the features or
                      personality. In some areas the character may be more           characteristics of the neighbourhood and the site.
                      obvious, more unusual, or more attractive, but no area         A neighbourhood and site description is not a
                      can be described as having no character.                       justification for a preconceived design. It is a factual

                      The character of all areas is to be respected (even areas      record of the physical aspects of the neighbourhood and
                      that planners or designers might not think to be               the site that are likely to affect the design response.
                      attractive). If, for a broader range of considerations, a      The neighbourhood and site description requires the
                      change in the character of an area is sought, then this        following matters to be considered in relation to the
                      must be achieved by setting out a preferred future             neighbourhood:
                      character statement in the planning scheme.
                                                                                     •   the pattern of development of the neighbourhood
                                                                                         (only for permit applications for two or more
                      Character is not heritage                                          dwellings on a lot)
                      In defining neighbourhood character, it is important to        •   the built form, scale and character of surrounding
                      understand the differences between neighbourhood                   development including front fencing
                      character and heritage.                                        •   architectural and roof styles
                      While all areas have a history or a heritage, not all areas    •   any other notable features or characteristics of the
                      are historically significant. Heritage significance is             neighbourhood.
                      determined by recognised criteria set by
                      Commonwealth, State and local agencies, with
                                                                                     Identifying the features and
                      reference to the Burra Charter. Cultural heritage is
                      largely embodied in the fabric and setting of a building
                                                                                     characteristics of the neighbourhood
                      and place. It is important to manage and retain this           Identifying the features and characteristics of the
                      fabric and setting to retain the cultural significance of a    neighbourhood required by the neighbourhood and site
                      place. Heritage significance can’t be improved, but the        description does not mean producing an exhaustive list
                      fabric of a place can be improved, restored or                 of features in the neighbourhood.
                      reinterpreted.                                                 Listing discrete features and characteristics of an area is
                      In many areas building style is important to setting the       not an adequate description of the character of a place.
                      character of the area. This includes not just typical form     Understanding the relationship between the features
                      and massing, but may also include details, materials and       and characteristics of a neighbourhood is important to
                      colours. Buildings do not need to be old or historically       describing the character of the area.
                      significant to have a character that is important to           The key is to consider the interaction between features
                      people’s understanding and enjoyment of an area.               and characteristics. A decision needs to be made about
                                                                                     which of the features and characteristics are important
                      Character and amenity                                          and then explain how they interact to contribute to the
                                                                                     character of the neighbourhood.
                      Amenity is about the pleasantness and good functioning
                      of an area. Neighbourhood character is about its sense
                      of place and community meaning. Regardless of the
                      character of an area there are standards of residential
                      amenity that apply to all residential development. These
                      basic amenity standards include overlooking,
                      overshadowing and solar access. Sometimes, these
                      amenity standards can have an effect on neighbourhood
                      character, but as a general principle, neighbourhood
                      character and amenity should be treated separately.

      What features and characteristics                                  might be identified to assist in determining the
      should be considered?                                              character of an area. Describing the character of an
                                                                         area will also depend on the extent of neighbourhood
      Describing neighbourhood character requires a
                                                                         character analysis already undertaken by the relevant
      qualitative assessment and the exercise of judgement
                                                                         council and the particular characteristics of the
      about which features and characteristics determine the
                                                                         neighbourhood in question.
      neighbourhood character of an area.
                                                                         The table is a prompt to identify and describe the key
      The following table sets out one process that could be
                                                                         features and characteristics that will influence the
      used to identify the most important features and
                                                                         design response rather than an exhaustive list of
      characteristics of the neighbourhood that will influence
                                                                         features to be considered.
      the design response.
                                                                         Any assessment that takes a ‘tick-a-box’ approach to
      The table is not an exhaustive list of either the
                                                                         identifying the features and characteristics of the
      questions that might be asked or the features that
                                                                         neighbourhood is not sufficient.

Matters to be considered          Questions that might help in       Terms/features that might          Your response
                                  the preparation of the             help to describe this aspect
                                  neighbourhood and                  of neighbourhood character
                                  site description

The pattern of development of     Is the neighbourhood typical       • Topography
the neighbourhood                 of a particular form or pattern    • Street block length
(only required where more         of development?
                                                                     • Street alignment, type and
than one dwelling on a lot is     Are there any patterns in            proportions
proposed)                         building form, height, setbacks
                                                                     • Extent of rear gardens and
                                  or rhythm?
                                                                       private open space
                                  How do these relate to
                                                                     • Landscaping and vegetation
                                  topography, natural features
                                                                       in the neighbourhood
                                  and street network?
                                                                     • Patterns of use and
                                  Is there any pattern in relation
                                  to any particular feature or
                                  characteristic?                    • Diversity of housing
                                  What is the pattern of
                                  landscape and street tree
                                  How do buildings and private
                                  open spaces relate to each
                                  other or to the public realm?

The built form, scale and         What is the predominant form       • Building mass and height
character of surrounding          of development?                    • Setbacks
development including             Is the neighbourhood               • Space around properties and
front fencing                     homogenous or diverse in             site coverage
                                  terms of the built form, scale
                                                                     • Car parking
                                  and character?
                                                                     • Fences (style and height)
                                  What sort of front fences are
                                  How is parking and access

Architectural and roof styles     What architectural styles are      • Architectural rhythm of street
                                  typical in the neighbourhood?      • Porches and verandahs
                                  What levels of articulation and    • Architectural consistency
                                  detail are typical in the
                                                                     • Roof form
                                  How do roof patterns relate
                                  to built form?

Any other notable features        Are there any other notable        • Waterways
or characteristics of the         features that have not been        • Street trees
neighbourhood                     picked up through the
                                                                     • Details of the footpath
                                  consideration of the above
                                                                       and street
                                                                     • Landscaping and vegetation
                                  Are there any significant street
                                                                       on private lots
                                  trees or vegetation that would
                                  affect the design response?        • Nearby historic buildings or

How far should the neighbourhood                            •   decide how to respond to these features and any

                                                                                                                         G E N E R A L
and site description extend?                                    other issues that have been identified, taking into
                                                                account the objectives of the residential
Council and the applicant need to resolve the area of
                                                                development provisions and any relevant local
the neighbourhood that needs to be described. The
                                                                planning policies in the planning scheme
area of the neighbourhood provides the context for
                                                            •   test the design response against the neighbourhood
decisions about the design response.
                                                                and site description and any features identified in a
In most cases, about five sites or buildings up and
                                                                local planning policy or a Neighbourhood

                                                                                                                         P R A C T I C E
down the street, across the street and behind the site
                                                                Character Overlay for the area. Does the design
in question should be sufficient to identify the features
                                                                adequately respond to the key features? How?
of the neighbourhood that should influence the design.
                                                            •   test the design response against the objectives of the
However, sometimes it may be necessary to look
                                                                residential development provisions in the planning
further than this, depending upon the individual
                                                                scheme. Have the objectives been met? How?
circumstances of the site and the neighbourhood.
                                                            •   discuss the design response and its implications

                                                                                                                         N O T E S
                                                                with council before starting the detailed design.
The role of the design response

All applications must be accompanied by a design            Satisfying the neighbourhood
response. The design response must explain how the          character standard
proposed design:
                                                            A residential development must meet the objectives of
•   derives from and responds to the features of the
                                                            the residential development provisions. The first
    neighbourhood and the site described in the
                                                            objective that must be met is the neighbourhood
    neighbourhood and site description. The design
                                                            character objective. The standard for this objective
    response should therefore include an evaluation of
                                                            requires the design response to:
    how the features or characteristics of the
    neighbourhood identified in the neighbourhood           •   respect the existing neighbourhood character or
    and site description influence the design                   contribute to a preferred neighbourhood character

•   meets the objectives of the residential development     •   respond to the features of the site and
    provisions in the planning scheme. However, this            surrounding area.
    does not mean that the applicant must provide a
    detailed written explanation of how each objective      What does ‘respect’ mean?
    is met. In most cases, brief notes on the plan
                                                            Respecting character does not mean preventing
    indicating how the design response achieves the
                                                            change. The neighbourhood character standard is not
    objectives will suffice
                                                            intended to result in the replication of existing
•   has responded to the neighbourhood character            building stock or stop change.
    features identified in any local planning policy or
                                                            Neighbourhood character is one of many objectives
    Neighbourhood Character Overlay for the area.
                                                            that must be met. Some areas will see significant
The design response can generally be presented as a         changes as a result of new social and economic
plan with notations that show how the proposed              conditions, changing housing preferences and explicit
design clearly relates to any other dwelling on the site    housing policies. In these areas, it is important that
and to the surrounding development and                      respecting character is not taken too literally, as a new
neighbourhood. It may also include a written                character will emerge in response to these new social
statement. The design response must include correctly       and economic conditions.
proportioned street elevations or photographs showing
                                                            In simple terms, respect for the character of a
the development in the context of adjacent buildings.
                                                            neighbourhood means that the development should try
                                                            to ‘fit in’. Depending on the neighbourhood, there are
Key steps in developing the                                 two broad approaches to respecting character:
design response
                                                            •   respecting the scale and form of surrounding
When preparing a design response, follow these steps:           development
•   decide what features of neighbourhood character         •   respecting the architectural style of surrounding
    should be responded to                                      development.
•   decide what features of the site and neighbouring       Determining whether either or both approaches
    sites should be responded to                            should influence the design response will depend on
                                                            the features and characteristics identified in the
                                                            neighbourhood and site description.

                      Respecting neighbourhood character does not mean
                      limiting the scope of design interpretation and
                      innovation, or mimicry or pattern book design. Instead,
                      it means designing the development to respond to the

                      features and characteristics identified in the
                      neighbourhood.                                              Planning Practice Notes provide practical advice on
                                                                                  planning and urban design matters.

                      Assessing the impact of the design                          For copies of other planning practice notes in the
                      response                                                    series contact:

                      Deciding whether a development respects the                     Internet address:

                      neighbourhood character is ultimately a subjective              www.doi.vic.gov.au/planning
                      decision that depends on the interpretation of the
                      features and characteristics of the neighbourhood
                                                                                  Department of Infrastructure
                      identified in the neighbourhood and site description.
                                                                                      Planning Information Centre
                      The impact of any design response depends on:                   Upper Plaza
                      •   the physical impact of the proposed development             80 Collins Street
                      •   the sensitivity of the area that the proposed               Melbourne 3000
                          development impacts on                                      Telephone 03 9655 8830

                      •   the planning objectives that deal with those impacts.       Fax 03 9655 8847

                      In deciding whether or not the design response respects
                      the character of the neighbourhood, consider:
                                                                                  For further details contact:
                      •   the extent to which it reinforces existing patterns

                                                                                                                                        w w w. d o i . v i c . g o v. a u
                          and interactions of elements
                                                                                  South East Metropolitan Region
                      •   the sensitivity of the character of the neighbourhood       Telephone 03 9881 8895
                          to changes in those patterns
                      •   the planning objectives to deal with those changes.     North West Metropolitan Region
                      If the change undermines a key feature or characteristic        Telephone 03 9313 1333
                      of the neighbourhood without some policy basis, then a
                      strong case can be made that the development does not       Eastern Region
                      respect the character of the neighbourhood. If the              Telephone 03 5172 2677
                      change is supported by local character objectives in the
                      planning scheme, then the development can be
                                                                                  North Eastern Region
                      considered to respect preferred character.
                                                                                      Telephone 03 5761 1857
                      Once the neighbourhood character standard is satisfied,
                      an assessment can be undertaken against the remaining
                                                                                  Northern Region
                      objectives and standards in the planning scheme.
                                                                                      Telephone 03 5434 5150

                      Where can you get more                                      South West Region
                      information?                                                    Telephone 03 5225 2521

                      More information about making a planning application        Western Region
                      is available in Planning: a Short Guide, available from         Telephone 03 5333 8790
                      your council, the DOI web site or the Planning
                      Information Centre.
                      General Practice Notes are also available about:
                      •   Making a planning application for a dwelling in
                          a residential zone
                      •   Assessing a planning application for a dwelling in
                          a residential zone