Connecting the disconnected – how much is enough?

Yesterday evening, Ed Parham gave a talk at the Graduate School of Design on Space Syntax’s work redesigning unplanned settlements in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Despite the really awful weather, which turned Cambridge into a pedestrian sludge, there was a full house.

Ed showed how Jeddah’s unplanned settlements share a common spatial property of being locally walkable but globally disconnected from the bigger movement structure of the city. This supresses the economic potential of these places. To counter this, the Space Syntax team has developed Area Action Plans for dozens of unplanned settlements, identifying opportunities to bridge between the local and global movement networks with new streets lined with commercial activity. These streets allow the unplanned settlements to trade outwards in new ways.

The big question raised by this work is: to what degree should unplanned settlements be reintegrated into the spatial fabric of the city? To a degree, the spatial distinction of these places creates a cultural identity for the inhabitants, with certain social benefits. The risk of reintegration is that this identity will be diluted or even lost by the new flow of movement, social identity and capital through the unplanned areas.

Ed described how, in fact, a spatial hierarchy can be created that leaves much of the original spatial fabric intact, especially the fine-grained, more residential and more spatially segregated fabric that helps to structure the cultural identity of the unplanned settlements. The long audience discussion that followed Ed’s talk showed how relevant the challenge of urban connectivity is to urban practice.

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