Meet Community Character: What, Why and How

by Don Burns

Stated most simply, community character is a neighborhood’s basic nature, its distinctive mark and reputation.  It defines neighborhoods.  Community character consists in the arrangement or design of three basic components that make up every neighborhood:


  • Green: Trees, shrubs, other plants and porous surface including greenways, open-space, parks, cultivated gardens, and both planted and native landscaping.
  •  Brown: Architectural mass, volume and size; the structural part of the built-environment, establishing both enclosure and separation and an artificial sense-of-place.
  •  Grey: Concrete and asphalt paving, stonework and other impervious surfaces including roadways and streets, parking areas, sidewalks, and surfaced trails.


The relative proportion of these three key elements produces different types of community character.[1] Eight distinct types of community character have been recognized within three character classes along a spectrum ranging from “natural” to “urban core.”  Community character describes the relative balance of “Green”, “Brown” and “Grey” space, a scale of development intensities, along this continuum.Don's chart 2

As homes are built and cities developed, “Green” space is converted to “Brown” architecture and two-dimensional “Grey” space.  This transformation accompanies growth, but some of it can be slowed or reversed by careful design.  Where desirable, this can be done across several Community Character types by maintaining sufficient “Green” space to soften hard architectural lines, adopting complementary architectural design principles and standards, and carefully landscaping hardscapes.


Community character gives rise to neighborhood personality because it inextricably affects the human environment: household function, neighborhood appeal, a community’s social and cultural fabric, local economic conditions, and the natural world itself.  Responsive management of community character is therefore essential to personal and societal well-being and environmental quality.


Relative proportion and arrangement of the three basic elements of community character therefore produce both good (beneficial) and bad (adverse or negative) end-results or outcomes.  Whether the effects are beneficial or adverse depends on at least two things: 1) the objective composition and design of a neighborhood’s “green,” “brown” and “grey” elements and 2) the subjectively held desires and preferences of a community’s citizenry for the character-dependent outcomes thereby produced.


Different people have differing desires for Community Character itself and consequent outcomes.[2]  Typically, those living in rural or suburban environments place a high value on maintenance of visual and physical access to nature, open-space and distinctive architecture while urban residents tend to have a greater attraction to structural landscapes, architecturally defined sense of place and city skylines.

Don's chart 3

Challenges these realities pose for policy makers and administrators are several.  First is, developing awareness of the nature and importance of Community Character.  Such awareness in turn poses subsequent challenges of how to take stock of existing Community Character, identify citizens’ desires for specific Community Character conditions, plan to provide and maintain those specific Community Character types, and modify zoning and other administrative actions to maintain community integrity and social well-being.

Responsively addressing community character involves at least four people and place-based processes:

  1. Inventorying existing neighborhood Community Character conditions, community residents’ desired future character conditions and their character-dependent outcome preferences.
  2. Analyzing supply and demand to identify the specific Community Character types that will sustainably produce the specific outcomes desired by citizens of each neighborhood.
  3. Crafting responsive management plans that provide and maintain desired Community Character conditions, optimizing desirable beneficial end-results—and avoiding those undesirable.
  4. Integrating provisions within relevant zoning ordinances, and ensure responsive follow through.


[1] Brett C. Keast, The Role of Community Character in Place-Based Planning, Arkansas APA Conference, September 9, 2011

[2] “Beneficial and Negative Outcomes” table adapted from “Appendix to Chapter 3 Positive and Negative Outcomes Checklists” (pp. 69-73) in Managing to Optimize the Beneficial Outcomes of Recreation by B.L. Driver, Venture Publishing, State College, 2008.

[3] Extracted from Community Character, Principles for Design and Planning, Land Kendig and Bret Keast, Island Press, Washington, 2010.



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