Category Archives: Conference talk

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.

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

From cities of movement to places of transaction

Summary of Tim Stonor’s talk at the World Cities Summit, Singapore, 3rd June 2014

From cities of movement to places of transaction – a new mobility focus for city leaders, planners and everyday users

Key responsibilities for cities
1. Imagining the future of cities and mobility.

2. Designing integrated, people-focused planning to sustain cities.

3. Measuring the social, economic and environmental value created by the movement, interaction and transaction of people.

The fundamental purpose of cities
Cities are for transaction: economic and social transaction. People come to cities to trade. It is why we have cities – they are intensifications of opportunities to trade. The public realm of the city – its network of streets and spaces – is where much of this trade occurs: a “transaction machine” which, like any machine, is more or less efficient depending on how it is engineered. Continue reading

Spatial Layout as Critical Infrastructure

Stub…notes for an upcoming conference talk

Key issue to be addressed:

- Urban-Rural development

- Urban Regeneration

- Smart Cities.

When a network of streets is laid out, planners and designers build in an enormous amount of “embedded potential”:

  • the pattern of movement
  • land use potential
  • safety
  • land value
  • social interaction
  • public health
  • carbon emissions.

The design of the street network has a fundamental and measurable influence on each of the above.

Later changes – to land use pattern or to the local design of streets (eg road widening or narrowing, adding cycle lanes or public transport) – can enhance or even diminish these potentials, but such later changes always occur around a benchmark that is set by spatial configuration decisions.

Buildings come and go – are built and demolished – but the spatial network, once laid out, is harder to adjust.

Exceptional new connections – such as bridges – can be built to connect disconnected networks but grids are resilient to change. Therefore, putting the wrong grid into an urban development can be a pathological move, setting the socio-economic potential of places for generations to come.

How do we know this?

The evidence-base: post-war housing estates; UK New Towns. Places that go wrong within a generation, if that – sometimes within a few years. Car-dominant transport planning. Land use zoning.

Risk of failed UK models.

In finding a balance between the tension of urban and rural development, Chinese towns and cities should learn from China first:

- mixed use planning: marginal separation by linear integration.

- mixed mode planning: roads, streets, lanes, canals: Jiading.

- mixed character planning.

What are the Spatial Layout requirements?

The historic Chinese grid: rectilinear hierarchy.

Pervasive centrality.

A smart street-grid.

To be developed…

Space Syntax City Projects Walk

On Tuesday afternoon, 3rd September, I led a walking tour of built projects by Space Syntax.Space Syntax City Projects Walk

Trafalgar Square

Royal Festval Hall

Tate Modern

One New Change

New Bloomberg Headquarters (under construction)

Willis Building

30 St Mary Axe

Heron Plaza (under construction)

Liverpool Street Station retail concourse

Broadgate, Exchange Square

Barbican Arts Centre Continue reading

MSc Advanced Architectural Studies – graduate employability

A talk given at the 40th Anniversary celebrations of the MSc in Advanced Architectural Studies – the “space syntax” MSc at University College London, 3rd September 2013.

Good evening, everyone.

Let me begin by paying tribute to the genius of Bill Hillier and Julienne Hanson. Not only for pioneering a theory – the theory – of architecture, but also for finding a way to teach it that has had such an effect on us all.

I’ve been asked to speak this evening about the issue of employability: does taking the MSc in Advanced Architectural Studies either enhance or inhibit the job propsects of its graduates?

Here’s what I want to say:

First, I’d like to review the perceived problem of Space Syntax – why it’s sometimes viewed with skepticism and how that impacts at interview; second, the nonsense of this criticism: why do I even need to be up here to defend the course; third, the “Hang on, maybe there’s an element of truth here” moment; and finally a belief that we can’t rest on our laurels. Continue reading