Questions about being a community in both past and present are fundamentally about its physical basis, and how people defined its boundaries. Answering them involves gathering information about the local terrain as part of a wider social whole. People interacting with terrain as a place to settle have added the human dimension to create a 'landscape'. Their comings and goings to partake of its resources have put down countless physical and biological markers of human development, and also created a notional layer to the landscape. The notional layer is often based on descriptions and opinions of people who have selected certain physical, biological and cultural elements to conceptualise and communicate 'the spirit of the place' through literature and art.

'Halesworth’ is an exemplar to show people how they can begin to visualise, and value their community's past, as part of its present system of economic development. Indeed, community appraisal first began with visual appraisal. It was Ralph Jeffrey, inspired by a book by De Wolfe written in 1964 on Italian towns, who was one of the first to advocate a formal system of environmental appraisal.

De Wolfe advocated that this should start with people making a 'visual enquiry' to establish the local 'spirit of the place' by posing leading questions centred on
  • its spaces;
  • its decoration;
  • its light
  • and its buildings.

The Halesworth Conservation Area was first designated in 1970 and amended and enlarged in 1979 and 1997. The latest development is the publication in February, 2006 of Waveney District Council’s Character Appraisal and Management Proposals/Strategy. This describes the conservation area and its designated buildings, with some aims of management and suggestions for amending the boundaries and listing more buildings.

Actually, there are as many ways of evaluating a community as there are people in it, the particular problems that bug them, and the passions that excite them. However, a community appraisal based on its landscape fits the requirements of producing a neighbourhood knowledge system in its broadest context. It involves the presentation of an environmental ethic, supported with knowledge of the historical, economic, and ecological basis of community life. This is the foundation for environmental value judgements required to launch projects to change things for the better. It involves promoting an understanding of processes and skills by which this can be done by participating citizens. Community appraisal should therefore equip people to answer, and act upon, the following questions;
  • what is good and bad about the neighbourhood, and why;
  • what is missing from it, and what is superfluous;
  • what could be done to improve it;
  • is it harsh, soft, hostile, friendly, human-scaled, dramatic, relevant to modern lifestyles;
  • what are the factors for change and stability?

Seen in this context, the practical objective of ‘Halesworth’ is to spur people to get involved with their community’s past in the present by collecting information, writing stories about their lives, and generally opening their eyes to the variety of cultural detail that surrounds them. The aim is to set them thinking about their future society, and how it should be expressed in the rest of the millennium.

Regarding cultural change, the following checklist of questions has been found useful:
  • Delimitation of the sequence—when did it start?
  • The order of the sequence in relation to time—what followed what?
  • The order of the occurrence—why did it happen in that sequence?
  • The timing of the sequence—why did it occur when it did?
  • Why did not something else occur?
  • The rate of change—how long did the entire sequence take?
  • Were certain elements of it faster or slower than others?
  • Where there any differences between communities?

With the addition of an occasional 'where?' to incorporate the spatial component, the authors have found this checklist particularly useful when applied to the various social dimensions of the history of Halesworth. From answers to these questions would come the measurement of change, but full answers are not yet available for historical analysts in many cases. Nevertheless, the remembering of the questions in relation to the availability of information has produced a provisional quantitative history of the town. This traces its preindustrial economy through the industrial phase, which peaked in the 19th century to the present post-industrial society looking for ways to move into a ‘sustainable future’.

Sustainability is not a scientific concept but a social idea. In this connection, it is not really a unifying concept for planning, but is more a ‘generator of problems’, which will only be solved by the community moving into a new cultural mode (Fig 1). To get there requires novel community organisations by which the town’s stakeholders can control their local authority representatives so that the collective will is carried out. The great economic events of industrialism happened mostly when the fate of communities was in the hands of narrowly based local councils or cliques and ad hoc bodies like the Turnpike Trusts and Navigation Commissioners. Since the Reform Acts at the end of the 19th century there has been a move towards regionalism, which is still in progress. A small outcome, that had a large local impact, was the commandeering of Halesworth’s ancient market rights by the District Council. A small, but significant sign of the growth of communitarianism is that in response to local demand they have recently been returned.

Fig 1 The Halesworth historical model of social ecology