A historic city is essentially a product of the time and place of those who shape it and it is also a link between the past, the present and the future.
(Ashworth and Tunbridge 1990: p. 28)
The urban landscape, or ‘townscape’, in the sense of the cumulative layering in the majority of settlement locations of elements belonging to different historical and cultural periods, is one of the most common human experiences. It is difficult not to perceive, to interpret and to use this richness as important everyday occurrences, whether at the macro-scale of ready visual evidence, or in response to more subtle cues. These are familiar experiences of the majority of the population, certainly of Westernised industrialised countries, and for the occupants of the world’s fastest-growing cities, in the developing world.
The production and maintenance of this physical fabric of settlements absorb a large amount of the wealth of the Western world in particular, and have done so for centuries, giving rise to the historic compositeness of the townscape. The landscape of historical settlements—most particularly urban ones, but the same is often true of smaller places, even rural villages—has rightly been described as a palimpsest. Strong cases have been made for the social, cultural and psychological significance of the townscape. Many studies have shown the need, in these terms, for the preservation of historical townscapes—at least in outward appearance. Yet this leads to tension and conflict. For there is also a widespread agreement that settlements must change, or they will stagnate. Adaptation of the townscape is necessary, but this is hard to achieve without some wastage of the investment of previous societies.
Urban geographers, in particular, have long investigated these phenomena. Townscape conservation is a rich area of study in applied geography (cf. Conzen 1975). This has led geographers to explore related fields of architectural and urban design; environmental perception and linkages between environment and behaviour; town planning, and in particular the development of related law, guidance and practice; development economics; and social and cultural relations. This is a complex field, defying attempts to simplify theory or practice.
Townscapes can be understood, using the approach of urban morphology, as complexes of street patterns, which are extremely conservative, changing very infrequently; plot patterns, rather more subject to change; and building structures, changing yet more frequently. Changes should be understood through identifying and examining the actors (individuals, institutions, corporate bodies, etc.) and processes (particularly planning and legal systems) involved. Together, these ‘people and processes’ represent a microcosm of the society and culture shaping a settlement at any one point.
This perspective can be applied to townscape