Visions of a digital urbanism – inhuman metropolis or rural idyll? All is not what it seems

19th October 2011
IBM Smart Cities Conference
Helsinki, Finland

In addressing the question, “What will the future city look like?” I am less concerned about the visual appearance of individual buildings and more concerned about how the city is planned as a layout of streets, spaces and land uses.

Why? Because the spatial layout of a town or city organises the movement and interaction of people. Movement and interaction lead to social and economic transaction. These are the building blocks of society, of culture and therefore of being human.

Digital technologies offer new forms of online human connectivity. Does this mean we no longer need traditional city layouts? This is a key question for urban planners and there is a body of professionals that thinks we don’t need cities, at least in the form we know them. Instead, it argues, we can now live in small-scale towns and villages, which are supposedly more humane. This idea has huge appeal and it is shared by many environmental campaigners and Landscape Urbanists.

I will argue that this is a flawed idea. Digital technology is a new urban utility, of immense value to the social, economic & environmental performance if cities – but the “essential structure” of a dense, compact & continuously connected city should remain in place. Yes, cities have been damaged by divisive and polluting highway engineering but these failings are recent mistakes in the long history of urbanism; mistakes that can be fixed.

However useful they are, digital technologies can not replace the powerful and beneficial effects of the street grid. What are these beneficial effects? The most important, I will argue, is “first contact” – the unplanned, informal encounter between people that have not met before and may not have known that they would benefit from meeting. Densely connected cities create networks of movement and interaction that lead to rich transactional outcomes.

Certainly, people can become aware of each other online – and technologies will continue to improve the quality of these encounters. But technology is unlikely to replicate the subtle, spatial dynamics that convert awareness to interaction to transaction. Or, even if “online” does come close to doing so, the loss of “on land” first contact is a risk that is not worth taking.

Unless digital providers appreciate the risks of small-scale, dispersed settlement patterns, they may be lulled by the quaint imagery of a highly damaging rural idyll. Instead, the future city should continue to be densely connected, built according to planning guidelines that focus on the creation of high quality interpersonal transactions.

What does this mean?…

Public realm and “public infrastructure” (cafes) as workplace.
“Grown up” workforces & management practices.
Campuses of innovation.
Connections between fundamental research and live practice.

Digital urbanism – the role of research in urban planning & policymaking

15th September 2011
A talk at the EPSRC

Tim Stonor will give a lunchtime seminar about the role of research in urban planning and policymaking. He will describe his international experience in academia and practice, gained as Managing Director of Space Syntax Limited – a spinoff company from University College London – and more recently as a Loeb Fellow at Harvard University.

His focus will be the urgent need to meet the global challenge of population increase and its effects on carbon emissions, resource availability and urban settlement patterns. Tim will describe the growing social, economic and environmental threat of slum living. He will set out a course of action for urban research and professional practice that he believes is needed to create a radical rethinking of the ways in which towns and cities are developing.

Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council
Polaris House
North Star Avenue
United Kingdom

“The Architect: What Now?” Some suggestions…

The Architect: What now?” is an exhibition using debate, inks, film, sound and sculpture to explore the momentous identity change facing the architectural profession. Its aim is to encourage visitors to define / redefine the role of the architect and understand what this means for the construction industry.

I was delighted to be asked to participate.

Weekly update

1st-7th August 2011
Site visit in Manchester.

Annual review with Bank Manager.
Monthly Company Meeting of Space Syntax Limited.

Project Review session at Space Syntax studio with Bill Hillier. Reviewed: projects in Shoreditch, Southwark, Reading, Aberdeen, Derry-Londonderry.

Skype call with Christian Beros, Space Syntax Bucharest.