Category Archives: Urbanism

UK Spatial Infrastructure Model

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This is a model of the spatial infrastructure of Great Britain (and will soon include Northern Ireland to become a model of the United Kingdom). It allows us to zoom in and out on cities, towns and villages as well as the connections between them. It also lets us understand the hierarchy of connections at different scales – which routes are more important at a local, pedestrian scale and which are more important at a cross-country, car scale. More important routes are coloured red, then orange and green to less well connected routes in blue.

The colours are created by a computer program that calculates how likely it is that any route will be travelled along by people going from anywhere to anywhere else. The program tries many different kinds of journeys: longer ones right across the UK to shorter ones within local neighbourhoods. By doing so it simulates the real nature of movement in the UK: some is longer-distance and some shorter.

Origins of the model
My colleagues and I at Space Syntax have developed this model because we passionately believe that the practice of planning needs support through more effective, science-based tools. This particular tool allows us to simultaneously think about local as well as global journeys between places. It lets us analyse pedestrian, cycle and car journeys at the same time and within a single modelling framework. There is no other model that does so. Our plan is for the model to be disseminated into urban planning practice so that practitioners can use it in a hands-on way first, to understand how places are currently working and then to plan change. By using the model, people can clearly see the impact of the proposed change.

We are dissatisfied with the current situation in the delivery of urban infrastructure in the United Kingdom which is led predominantly by transport modelling that prioritises the car. This approach has created car-dependent development that isolates people who either can’t drive, don’t have access to a car or prefer not to drive. Our argument is that you get what you are given and what people have been given by the spatial planning industry is based on models that only assess car journeys. We haven’t had cycling models; we haven’t had pedestrian models. It’s no surprise then that we have poor pedestrian infrastructure and poor cycle infrastructure. We have housing estates cut off from shopping centres.

Using this model we can now think about providing infrastructure that works for all modes of movement. Our experience shows that this leads to more sustainable places that deliver financial returns and create social conviviality.

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…

SkyCycle – elevated but not remote

The comparison between SkyCycle – a proposal to create a network of strategic cycling routes above London’s radial railway lines – and the City of London’s much maligned network of (unbuilt or demolished) upper level walkways is one worthy of attention.

1.         The City of London “Pedways” often paralleled routes at street level. When they did so they effectively split the pedestrian flow between upper level and street level – thus typically making neither level particularly/sufficiently vibrant. This is why most of them did not work or were resisted from being built in the first place.

However, as all good students of spatial networks understand, not all links are equal. When upper level walkways genuinely create routes that are not available at ground level then the evidence of observation surveys shows that they can be very well used. Some of the upper level routes through the Barbican are as well used as ground level residential streets elsewhere in London. Reality is, as always, more subtle than simplistic classification.

2.         In contrast, SkyCycle follows railway lines that have historically created morphological “fissures” in the street network either side of them. In this way SkyCycle does not recreate routes that are already available. Instead, it create new routes.

3.         Spatially, these SkyCycle routes have two important characteristics:

a)         because they connect directly from the edge of London to the centre, linking to the ground level at accessible points in the street network (identified by Space Syntax through spatial accessibility analysis) SkyCycle routes add to London’s “foreground network” of important arterials (the red and orange links in a Space Syntax map of London).

London_Global Choice

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Space Syntax: the push of intent, the pull of need and the resistance of the “pre-digital”

I was asked an interesting question yesterday about the barriers to growth and acceptance of Space Syntax and Integrated Urban Models.

I believe there are three important components to the answer.

First, the growth of Space Syntax Limited‘s business was robust for 19 years, following its startup as a UCL spinoff company in 1989 – until 2008, when the bottom dropped out of the global real estate market. In that initial period, the company’s turnover grew at an annual rate of over 20%. This allowed continuous staff growth and market penetration. During this time the company devoted profits to the production of new software and new research findings as well as a modest return to shareholders and staff bonuses. It invested this way because it was determined that its growth should be about long term success and sustainability, not short-term reward.

2008 saw the global financial crisis hit the urban planning and design industry at home and abroad. This disrupted the growth curve at Space Syntax for two years. The company is today back on an accelerated growth track having seen consistent turnover growth at over 40% in each of the past two years, the steepest rate in its history. Continue reading

A definition of “Smart” – screens, signs and shop windows

“Smart” is too often, too narrowly defined in terms of the benefits of digital technology. Of course, digital technology can help cities to be smarter. But being smart means much more than that.

My own preference is to define “smart” by focusing on three factors:

1. people
2. the information that people receive
3. the behaviours that then follow.

Smart Cities create behaviour changes that benefit social, economic and environmental outcomes.

Behaviours rely on information, which can be derived from many sources: certainly, from digital sensing and smartphone displays but also from the physical and spatial world that surrounds city users. From shop windows that reveal the contents of their interiors; from a glimpse down a lane that lands on the sign outside the pub; from the faces of other people – the human display. Each of these sources provides information that influences human behaviour. Each has its place in the definition of a Smart City.

Smart digital technology – the sensing, the display, and everything in between – helps people to be smart but the sum of digital technology does not create the Smart City. There are other non-digital technologies to consider:

- the street layout of a city is a technology, guiding the movement patterns of people through the connections it affords, prioritising certain streets by virtue of their greater connectivity and backgrounding others that connect less well

- a social network of human relations is facilitated by the same technology and becomes a technology in itself: a powerful repository of knowledge and intelligence.

The spatial and social fabrics of the city are machines in their own ways, with mechanisms that deserve equal attention to digital technologies when it comes to defining the Smart City.

People – the ultimate consumers of information – should be put at the centre of the Smart City. Their behaviours should be enabled by both digital and non-digital technologies. Because these behaviours rely on information sources, the places in which people move and interact in the city should be created to act as efficient information devices. They should be clearly laid out to optimise information flow as well as comfortably furnished to support effective – call it “smart” – human transaction.

Smart = human behaviour * technological (Digital * nonDig) behaviour

Inspired by a conversation with Michael Mulquin

Spatial Planning and the Future of Cities

How might cities be planned in the future?

This is not only a question of how they might look but also, and more importantly, about how they might be laid out as patterns of buildings and spatial connections.

Laying out a city means answering two key questions: “what goes where?” and the “how does it all connect together?” The answers to these questions have fundamental implications for the social, economic and environmental performance of urban places. And the jury is out as to which is the best way to do so: to use spatial planning to create place.

The global urban risk is that architects and planners have created, and continue to create, highly unsustainable city layouts – car dependent, socially divisive, congested and life-suppressing. And, it would seem, the more technologically advanced cities have become, the less efficiently they have worked.

By contrast, the street-based, continuously connected grid – the kind of layout that the slow, incremental evolution of cities produced before the intervention of modernism – has largely fallen out of fashion.

My argument in this piece is that the continuously connected grid is the only form of urban layout that can deliver sufficient social, economic and environmental value. The only kind of grid that is truly sustainable. Continue reading

Smart City Planning & Design Principles

Smart Cities are smart in two ways. First, they harness technologies to improve the way that urban places are led and managed. Second, they create better outcomes for the people that use them. This two-pronged approach applies to all aspects of Smart Cities.

When it comes to the planning and design of Smart Cities, technology can improve:

1. the performance of the places that are produced by planning and design (the outcomes)

2. the processes involved in creating plans and designs (the inputs).

A Smart City approach should direct the capabilities of urban planners and designers to:

1. facilitate effective human transaction in new and existing places

2. provide access to places of transaction, both physical and digital: on-land and on-line

3. support the mobility required to access these places of transaction by providing networks of connectivity for all modes of transport, both physical (walking cycling rolling driving) and digital

4. take an outcomes-oriented (ie transactions & emissions) approach first and foremost, aware of the inputs required (ie materials, energy & mobility) to achieve these desired objectives

5. provide effective analytic and forecasting tools aimed at social economic and environmental impacts.

UrbanRural: one system, many tensions

Notes from a meeting with the Beijing Institute of Agriculture and Forestry at Space Syntax London, 18th September 2013.

Common themes
Production
The rural landscape is a place of production. So is the city: production of goods and production of ideas.

Protection
Protection of natural assets in the rural landscape. Protection of historic buildings in the city. Avoidance of pollution in both. Protection of water courses – natural and artificial in both.

Waste
Avoidance of waste in both urban and rural settings. The rural landscape as the wastebasket of the urban landscape. Tension.

Movement
Conflicts in the rural landscape between local movement (agricultural productivity) and urban-rural movement (commuting). Tension. Continue reading

Urban data: some risks – unnecessary complexity and shallow artistry

As a user of urban data I know the benefits that can be gained from visualising information on city form and city performance. But… and this is the but… these benefits only flow if the visualisation is followed up with analysis of that data – analysis that seeks out patterns, correlations and associations in order to make sense of the data. Then, on the basis of this analysis, it is possible to inform urban planning and design decisions – indeed I find that good analysis inspires design thinking, pointing the user in certain directions.

The approach we have developed at Space Syntax is to be simultaneously a) “data-light”, b) analysis intensive and c) outcomes oriented. I appreciate that we are using our Integrated Urban Models in specific contexts – usually in the crafting of public space designs, urban masterplans and, increasingly, regional strategies – but I believe these principles apply to whatever kind of modelling is being undertaken.

One of the weaknesses of urban transport modelling, for example, has been its “data intensity” – its use of multiple variables, coupled with a degree of data “manipulation” – at least this is what I’m told. The result is expensive, time-consuming modelling.

Another trend I detect is “data-as-art” – making visualisations, usually animated, of data flows. These create seductive imagery but I do question their purpose – because the analysis is often missing.

And therefore, for both of these reasons (data intensity and data-as-art) I worry that cities pursuing urban data initiatives may find that these become extremely complicated, expensive and unwieldy – if aesthetically charming – and I wonder what such data strategies would do to further the cause of cities. They will, no doubt though, reward their creators.

The importance of grids

The natural shape of the network is a grid, not a tree. Trees focus on singular points – grids share the burden.

The natural shape of the city is a grid, not a tree. The evidence of history tells us as much. Rectilinear grids pervade the historic record – in the Middle East, Latin America, East Asia. The gridiron is not then a modern creation – it would seem we have always built grids.

Why should grids be as important – indeed fundamental – as they are? Continue reading

How should the Transport industry change?

First, by seeing the purpose of Transport as the facilitation of human transaction and not only as the movement of people/goods and the construction of roads, rails and runways.

Second, that the economic benefits of transport investments are measured not as savings in time but as the creation of opportunities.

Third, that when you say transport, people think walk and cycle as well as drive and ride.

Fourth, that digital transportation if considered alongside physical transportation by the same people working within the same teams/departments.

Fifth, that the accuracy of transport forecasts is improved – too many initiatives don’t work the way they were meant to and, of these, many create unintended negative consequences such as traffic congestion, illness and social isolation.

How HS2 should learn from HS1′s urban errors?

St Pancras Way will one day have active frontages, costing millions more than the initial HS1 investment. The blank frontages and negative street character that were originally built will eventually be transformed to create a place that London deserves. In the meantime, people walk through the loading bay, across the security barrier, past the blank walls.

This is the lesson of cities – they fix their problems. But only after money has been spent needlessly. It is a mistake that  HS2 must avoid:

St Pancras north Continue reading

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

Integrated Urban Modelling – Space Syntax’s approach

I’ve written before about the benefits of using science-based models in the planning and design process. I’ve raised concerns about the frequent lack of objective analysis in urban and building projects, and the risks this creates in decision-taking. Basing important decisions on gut instinct and experience, then willing on success with little more than hype, just isn’t good enough.

Integrated Urban Model

Here is a diagram that summarises Space Syntax’s approach to urban modelling. It’s a staged process: collecting datasets; analysing them to identify relationships between urban form and urban performance; drawing out key issues and developing creative ideas – all the time using the model to test proposals. The approach is transparent and communicative – helping stakeholders participate in the process and, most importantly, helping people take decisions that lead to actions and changed behaviours.

It’s more than a pipedream – we’ve been using the model on projects for over 25 years, evolving it through continuous application. And we’ll continue to do so, adapting to the ever richer data context that digital urbanism provides.

And always remembering that the ultimate objective is the creation of behaviour change to the benefit of human wealth, health and education.

Download the presentation

Unbuilt Britain: 3. A Revolution in the City

Broadcast 26th August 2013 on BBC4, featuring Space Syntax analysis of Wren, Hook & Evelyn’s plans for rebuilding the City of London after the Great Fire of 1666.

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Tim Stonor, Kathryn Ross, Olivia Horsfall Turner and the crew from Timeline Films

Link to the programme on the BBC website

Link to the programme on YouTube

Download a presentation of Space Syntax’s analysis

“Using her skills to uncover long-forgotten and abandoned plans, architectural investigator Dr Olivia Horsfall Turner explores the fascinating and dramatic stories behind some of the grandest designs that were never built.

Destruction, whether intentional or circumstantial, often creates a clean slate and demands a fresh outlook in which we come to think the unthinkable. This programme looks at bold, and in some cases shocking, plans to make revolutionary changes to Britain’s biggest cities. Continue reading

Darwin CBD – Workshop 1 – Transcript of Tim Stonor’s presentation

Given by audio link to Darwin CBD Masterplan Workshop 1 on 21st August 2013.
Download the presentation, including voiceover

“Good afternoon, everybody.

My name is Tim Stonor. I’m the Managing Director of Space Syntax and unfortunately I’m not able to join you for the workshop today. But my colleague Eime Tobari is with you and will be able to address any questions you may have at the end of this presentation. I did though have the pleasure of being in Darwin a couple of months ago and had the chance then to meet colleagues and discuss some of the issues facing the future of the city.

Today, I want to give you a presentation about the Spatial System of the city – it’s route network, its streets, its pedestrian pathways – and how these can work to improve the movement of people across the city; the bringing together of people in space to trade socially and economically. And I want to show you the work that Space Syntax has done to date in analysing the strength currently of spatial connections in the city and then analysing some opportunities for future growth.

But I want to start by looking at some issues that face all cities worldwide, and especially the issue of the private car and its place alongside other modes of transport, namely public transport and walking. Many cities worldwide have got the balance wrong and they have over-provided for private transport and under-provided for those other modes to their cost. Continue reading

Avoid “blunt” urbanism by prioritising constraint

The high density versus low density debate is a blunt, catch-all discussion, which tends to divide opinion and create conflict. We need instead to find the issues that bring people together. My experience is that these tend to be about:

- convenience
- safety
- sense of community and cultural identity
- sense of privacy and individualism
- access to urban amenities: work, school, shops
- access to nature.

There are apparent contradictions here, yet urban settlements handle multiple needs if they are laid out to be, first and foremost, accessible to all users. This comes down to the design of connections at every scale, from motorways to footpaths. It also requires a degree of constraint: you shouldn’t be able to drive through the middle of town at top speed but nor should you walk on the highway. Continue reading