All posts by Tim Stonor

Architect & Town Planner | Managing Director, Space Syntax Limited

A new science for cities

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Smart City control room

We hear a lot about smart cities as the solution to the needs of urban places. But although technology allows us to live remotely and speak to each other from deep forests and mountaintops, humanity as a species has become more and more urban. The more that we could be apart, the more we have actually come together.

Perhaps we need to understand that smart cities is not a new concept: cities were always smart – if they weren’t smart we wouldn’t have them.

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Human interaction – the purpose of cities

The future of cities will not be resolved by technology alone – we need to direct the technology towards the ultimate purpose of cities: interaction between human beings for social and economic purposes.

Cities are intensification of opportunities for such interactions, which also have impacts on resources.

Again, we hear that cities consume greater levels of resources and generate greater levels of emissions – but we need to review this in per capita terms which, when you do the analysis, shows that cities consume fewer resources per capita and generate fewer emissions.

Cities are the best places to trade socially and economically. Crucibles of innovation in the sciences and the arts. But only if we get them right. And, for most of the last hundred years – despite all best efforts, cities haven’t been got right.

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If your city has one or more of the following, then it will be underperforming:

  1. one-way streets
  2. roundabouts
  3. staggered pedestrian crossings
  4. a shopping mall that looks inwards, with blank walls to the outside.

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These features are the product of the 20th century science of cities – a science that has given us transport modelling which costs thousands and thousand of pounds to operate and may be more wrong that it is right – creating models that take weeks to run – weeks we don’t have – and that may not include the full network of connections that real people use because these models are so unwieldy that it isn’t possible to include them all.

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Yet models that have the power of authority – to prevent change, to stall development – that preserve the very negative nature of connectivity that is severing our cities: the one-way systems, the roundabouts and the staggered crossings that work against the very human interactions that cities are there to support.

A thought: we need to make better use of our limited resources – now more than ever when budgets are tighter. I would like to leave you with an idea: that every asset should have not one purpose but at least two or, ideally three. That a concourse through a railway station is also the walking route home for a child from school – is also a place for business meetings. One asset: three purposes.

20th century planning separated land uses into zones, separated cars and pedestrians, separated the movement of cars from places for people. It gave us ring roads, subways and shopping precincts, housing estates and business parks that have divided and fragmented the city rather than connect and integrated. This was well intended but misplaced and has had unintended, negative consequences. One asset: one purpose.

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21st-century planning must be different – radically different – seeing movement and place as the same thing, occurring on the same streets. Our one-way urban highways need to be transformed as boulevards. Inward-looking shopping malls need to be opened outwards to the wider city.

The naive claims of retail agents, that doing so will make them leaky, need to be challenged. What nonsense is that? That we should worry that sentient people might wish to find a simple way out of a shopping centre? We need to look at it the other way round – these same people need to find a simple way in to the shopping centre in the first place.

Why do you think we got high streets in the first place? With their gentle widenings to allow space to bring animals and goods into town to trade? Places to go to and move through and have life occurring along them? Trade occurs through friction between moving and stationary people. We need to allow for this friction to occur.

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This means vehicles in towns. Parking on the streets. But, at the same time, space for pedestrians to walk, space for sitting, space for bicycles. No more roundabouts and subways. This is not impossible – we just need to plan for it.

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And if you don’t believe me, then simply look further afield – at the way that cities in the UK, elsewhere in Europe and throughout the world – like Darwin – have transformed their built environments – making radical decisions that defy conventional transport planning – but that have created places for people that serve the ultimate purpose of cities: to facilitate the interaction of human beings.

It is in this direction that a new science for cities should be directed – one based on the study of human behaviour patterns. Yes, we need to model movement – but the movement of all people: on foot and on bicycles as well as in vehicles. And we need to model more than movement: awareness, contact, interaction and transaction. Finally, we need to model the consequences of this for economic wealth, social cohesion and environmental impact.


Bill Hillier’s Smart London

Notes of Bill Hilliers opening talk about the NLA Smarter London exhibition, 8th October 2014.

Congratulations to the NLA and CASA for the exhibition.

It’s evidence that London is the original smart city – nowhere such a collection of top class practices, imaginative authorities and academic departments developing new ways of doing things, and new technologies –and talking to each other !

But I think London is a smart city also in another sense – the city itself and how it’s put together.

When I was young London was regarded as an unplanned mess, in need of being tidied up into a system of well-defined neighbourhood units separated by main roads – a bit like Milton Keynes.

I’ve been asked to say something about one of the technologies on show – space syntax.

When we apply space syntax analysis to London it suggests it’s not mess at all

That under the apparent disorder, there is a pretty smart city. Continue reading

Let them smoke ciggies because it keeps them calm

Jeddah Unplanned Settlements

“Cul de sac layouts may be the opium of the unwary – seemingly an analgesic against high-density urbanism – but beware the risks of over-indulgence”.

Steve Morgan, founder of housebuilder Redrow, attacks high-density urbanism in today’s Building Design. He says:

“Build cul de sacs because that’s how people want to live”.

This reminds me of some other things I’ve heard:

“Give them salty food because they enjoy the taste.”

“Let them smoke ciggies because it keeps them calm.”
Continue reading

Moving cities: from transport to transaction

If the scope of urban policy makers can be widened from a fixation on transport to an appreciation of value-rich urban outcomes, built on the benefits of effective human transaction, then future cities are more likely to be places that meet the expectations of future citizens.

Trafalgar Square Steps

Cities are ultimately vessels for the concentrated production and sustenance of life. Yet this intrinsic aspect of urbanism – the human factor – is neglected in many future cities discussions, which are instead dominated by the subject of transport and the use of technology to manage existing traffic systems more efficiently. Continue reading

Forwards to the past! Technology’s greatest triumph



There are so many reasons why what you have set out below is interesting. But I think I can take a different position to the one that you are developing.

My approach will be that, far from taking the human mind, behaviours, and cultural norms beyond where they have ever been before, the true value of modern technology, analytics and predictive capacity will be for cities and civilisations to recover the unbelievable sophistication that they once had. Continue reading

Integrated Urbanism – Massachusetts & the United Kingdom Partnership Forum

Good afternoon Governor Patrick, visiting delegates and colleagues from the UK. As a recent resident of Massachusetts myself, it is a special pleasure to speak alongside the Governor on the subject of data and cities: and to share some remarks on the common interest in this room: the science of cities.

Massachusetts and the United Kingdom Partnership Forum

A few words about me: I am an architect and an urban planner in private practice. My company, Space Syntax is a consulting company that specialises in predictive analytics - using data science to forecast the impact of urban planning decisions – the “what goes where and how does it all connect together” – on urban impacts such as mobility, interaction, wealth, health and personal safety. Continue reading

Building a Smart City modelling team

Integrated Urban Model


Cities planning their future are increasingly turning to the production of Integrated Urban Models. These are tools that bring together various datasets on different asoects of urban performance, from the behaviour of people to the flows of energy, water and other utilities. The aim is to better predict the future of cities by better understanding how they are currently working.

This is a nascent but rapidly developing field in which knowledge is emerging and evolving at a pace. Given the complexity of cities it is a good idea to involve many specialists in different subjects, led by an Urban Modelling Advisory Panel (UrbanMAP).   Continue reading