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.

The subject of spatial layout planning is arguably less of a problem in London – where the framework is largely there. It is much more of a problem when it comes to extending towns and villages in the UK. And a huge problem when creating cities from scratch, as many contemporary urban planners are charged with doing in China, the Middle East, Latin America, India and Africa.

And it is worth here pausing to say that cities are the places in which the future will be made. Of course there is an alternative, often promoted by IT organisations – of a rural idyll, in which we live remotely and connect online. I think this is a vision that fascinates some but will never happen. We need to connect both physically and digitally.

So what will the future city be like?

Thinking about the future spatio-physical form of cities is not a new challenge. From Christopher Wren’s plan for the post-fire rebuilding of London in 1666 to Ebenezer Howards’s Garden City concept, to Le Corbusier, to Bladerunner, human ingenuity has been tasked with anticipating the future.

A problem, if we care to admit it, is that these plans tend to fail. Look at what replaced Wren’s ideas: more of the same. Or, consider the legacy of post-war housing and the New Towns movement where, unlike Wren, these plans were actually built. What did these places create? Social and spatial isolation. Car dependency. Traffic congestion.

Why should this be?

In the first instance it was because the markets resisted the proposed change and the time it would take to restructure the City of London. That is what happened to Wren.

In the second, and this is a 20th Century problem, because of silos: professional silos that have led to poor decisions being taken on the basis of poor information.

As our professional institutions grew in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as the  scale of our interventions increased, as we built our cities increasingly around the car, creating divisive urban motorways, with sheds and car parks replacing high streets and public spaces, we lost a focus on the essential purpose of human aggregation: not movement but transaction.

In doing so, urban planners developed simplistic, diagrammatic propositions for cities: land use zoning being the most trite.

It is now more important than ever to regain a focus on the reality of global change. World population is growing and this population is increasingly urbanising.

Look more closely at these figures and two other facts emerge. First, an increasing middle class, which will create an increasing demand for energy. Second, an increasing population living in unplanned, informal settlements and slums.

What are the implications of this kind of growth? Social fragmentation and carboniferous consumption – if things stay as they have been. If we choose to let things continue as they have been.

And of course we shouldn’t. Because business as usual is not sustainable.

A shift in thinking is needed.

So, this is not an argument against planning. Just against the wrong kind of planning. Cities are growing and they are currently growing the wrong way: towards slums and traffic congestion. They need to be planned differently.

And this is not only a UK challenge. It is a global as well as a local challenge. For the UK service sector in future cities we should look as much, indeed more, towards our international export markets as our domestic markets. There are major business opportunities wherever economies are growing because, if economies are growing then they are urbanising.

Let us look more closely at silos. Why have they come about? They have their origins in 19th century thinking in the natural sciences. Compartmentalisation of the different species and subspecies was the way of organising the proliferation of data emerging from the development of science. From better imaging creating more and more data. It is not a new problem.

Rapid industrial growth in the 19th gave rise to professional specialisms: the architect and the engineer. Then specialisms within specialisms: traffic engineering from structural engineering from electrical engineering. Town planning from architecture, then the emergence of landscape design and urban design.

As we have specialised so have we siloed our learning.

Now there are new silos: the physical silos (engineering and architecture) have been joined by the digital. This means that there is an even greater need to integrate.

For an architect who struggles to speak with a traffic engineer, just imagine their difficulty in holding a conversation with a technology provider.

So, how should we organise this interaction if history suggests we have been frequently inept at doing it before.

My suggestion is that there should be a change of focus from the delivery of services to the receipt of them by customers. We should think about the customer as the client: think the way Steve Jobs thought – about how the customer receives the product. How they open the box and interact with its contents. We need to translate this approach to thinking about the way people behave in buildings in cities.

The urban planning industry has been, and still, is designing cities as if it were a computer manufacturer designing hard drives and monitors for the retailer, not the end user. Who cares if the buttons are in awkward places so long as we shift boxes?

So how might this be done? My proposal is that we do nothing more obvious than to focus on day-to-day urban activity. In particular, to focus on people. Focus on human behaviour.



This is what we have been doing at Space Syntax: recording and analysing human behaviour patterns in cities, then identifying the influences on behaviour of the spatial and physical form of urban places. This means looking at the attraction of different land uses, the influence of transport connections and, in particular, a focus on the spatial connections – the highways, streets, parks, public spaces – that link people together.

Through our partnership with University College London, we have discovered that the network of connections in cities is a scientifically measurable object and, when you measure it in the right way, you can predict how – when the form of the city is changed – people are going to use it. To move, to interact and, crucially, to transact: to trade. In other words, when you change the layout of a place, you can change the way that people behave in it.

Using these techniques it is possible to predict land value, crime patterns: the economic and social performance of cities.

Space, we have found, is the integrating framework of cities and its influences on the social, economic and environmental performance of cities can be measured with new urban tools.

In the course of our work – helping to create urban planning and design strategies in many towns, cities and urban villages worldwide – we have found certain common physical and spatial properties. Places that work well, work well in similar physical and spatial ways. Places that fail, fail for similar reasons.

So what do real cities look like and how do real people use them?
Successful cities certainly rely on propinquity; being close to multiple opportunities is essential. But closeness isn’t enough. There are also the some more subtle, geometrical properties:

First, it is important that the layout of urban settlements creates a set of simple, direct links from edge to centre. These radial connections allow people to move directly between the outskirts of the settlement and its centres. Such movement is essential for trade – bringing goods into and out of urban centres in an efficient way.

Second, the layout of the urban settlement needs to provide this pattern of edge-to-centre links not only on the main radials of the city but also at a more local scale: edge-to-centre links at the level of the urban village. In geometrical terms, this means a fractal pattern of spatial connections, where the edge-to-centre structure is repeated at multiple scales.

Third, it is then essential that there is an overlap between those streets carrying larger-scale movement and the same streets carrying more local activity too. Again, this is a geometric problem, with a geometric solution, where the objective is to create multi-scale movement on the same street. These global to local and local to global relations provide cities with socio-economic potentials that are vital to the prosperity of urban places.

Fourth, these multi-scale movement connections must be places of transaction too ie they should be lined with land uses, especially retail, that can take advantage of the passing human activity. People moving along the multi-scale streets should be able to stop and trade; to convert interaction into transaction.

This definition may at first sound complex but it is the essence of urban retail in cities throughout history and across the world. It gives us High Streets, Main Streets and Souks.

When streets are designed both as places of multi-scale movement and places of transaction then they succeed. The key to their design is not only in their physical form – the provision of shops to trade from, benches to sit on, parking spaces to pull over into – but, crucially, in the design of their connections to the wider street network.

This is a geometrical design challenge. A configurational challenge.

And it needs to be handled not only in the creation of socio-economic centres but also in the design of edges – the edges to individual centres.

Again, the lessons of the research show clearly that stronger centres are created in spatial layouts that have poorly-defined edges – fuzzy edges – so that one centre can link into the next. This means that, as you leave one centre, you seamlessly enter another.

The only geometrical solution to this is the continuously connected grid, where the street network is generally clear of interruptions and discontinuities; where large open spaces are few and well-spaced. Think the Royal Parks of London or the open spaces of Manhattan. 

By contrast, less successful places – usually the places that have either been created or radically remodelled in the 20th century – follow geometrically different layouts: simplistic, car-oriented, divisive, enclave-creating forms of urbanism. These forms, popularised by Clarence perry and Le Corbusier, as well as others, have prevailed for over a century, damaging urban productivity in the process.

How do current urban propositions fare against this analysis?
Neighbourhood Planning/New Urbanism
New Urbanism proposes a mixed-use approach to urban planning. On the surface, its outputs resemble traditional urbanism. Look further, however, look for the edge-to-centre connections at every scale, look for the multi-scale centres, and these are often missing. 
Mixed use, yes.
 But not multi-scalar.
 Too defined at its edges, making it difficult to move on bike, on foot, or on short car journeys from one centre to another without encountering the severance of a fast road. This creates one kind of bounded community, with implications for social rigidity.

Landscape Urbanism
An extreme form of Neighbourhood Planning – “New Urbanism Plus” – many Landscape Urbanism projects create highly bounded parcels of buildings, surrounded by continuous networks of extensive parkland. Connections between urban parcels are made by fast roads and slow parks. There are few or no fuzzy boundaries, which means no multi-scale centrality. The end of urbanism as we knew it, and a land-intensive approach too, that encroaches on the rural landscape, creating a blurring of the urban-rural boundary. To me, this approach carries even greater risks to the effective performance of cities than New Urbanism. At least with New Urbanism, there are possibilities of future retrofitting by detuning the divisive highways and redeveloping the edges between neighbourhoods.

Slums, informal and unplanned settlements
A further phenomenon of contemporary urbanism is the informal community. Unplanned settlements are often highly-local, intense, walkable places, encircled by fast-moving traffic. Strong local centres but highly bounded parcels of urbanism. Sounds familiar?

It seems, in whichever guise, contemporary urbanism has tended towards a highly local, fragmented, car-dependent and divisive pattern of spatial planning. But if the continuously connected, fractal form of urbanism is so successful then why haven’t architects, planners and civic leaders, pursued it to date? Perhaps because they thought it too mundane (magnificent bridges and tunnels were a more appealing prospect – bigger and bolder, involving the pouring of more concrete)? Or alternatively, because the professions didn’t know how to do it?

I suspect it was a bit of both with a weighting towards the former. If the establishment were really interested it would have developed the human observatory technologies well before now, even despite its siloed thinking and siloed practice.

But it didn’t.

Digital urbanism
Nevertheless, new urban technologies have emerged. Sometimes through the deliberate efforts of urban scientists. Often, unexpectedly, through uptake of the social media applications that pervade everyday urban experience: smartphone mapping, location tagging, and route planning.

When it comes to the importance of physical places, the emergence and increasing uptake of digital technology has not altered this. Indeed it has reinforced it.

Cities need great human gathering places more than ever because human interaction is the analytic filter for all of the data that new technologies are producing – cities need human interaction to transform the data into intelligence.

If the last digital revolution was in data capture and representation then the next is in auto-analysis and sense-making. Crowd sourcing is an example of this – when the service provider is also the receiver. But of course this is not an exclusively technology-driven transformation. It is a human-technological interaction.

And even this will not be enough. By all means, we should use technology to improve sensing, awareness-raising, even collective decision-taking. But the challenge is even greater. It is a creative challenge.

Why? Because technology is not only telling us more about ourselves. It is changing our behaviour. And in ways that we don’t understand. Reading emails during meetings? Occupying the new online public space? Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Living in “transpace” – forming weak global networks at the expense of strong local ones. How does this change us? Does this mean economic prosperity at the cost of social wealth? Or not?

Transformational technologies are creating a phase change right now. The challenge of future cities is a creative one. To think thoughts and take decisions that haven’t been taken before.

And this challenge is a different one to the 19th challenges of the physical sciences. For example: using the laws of thermodynamics to create more and more powerful and efficient engines to enable industrial growth; challenges that can be resolved through single sciences. Today’s challenges are the global challenges of terrorism and climate change. They are multi-disciplinary challenges. No single engine will provide the solution.

History suggests that human beings are particularly good at handling phase change. We are able to act not only as data filters and sense-makers but also to make the creative leaps that phase changes necessitate. When the terrain shifts, when the rules change.

Catal Huyuk – the first city – emerged by both accommodating and enabling a transition from a hunter gatherer to a settled agrarian society.

The Nile Valley saw the establishment of sophisticated, permanent trade and governance systems by harnessing the beneficial power of irrigation technology to produce more food than was needed. This enabled the creation of food storage in warehouses, which meant that societies could survive poor harvests by calling on food reserves, assisted by new food processing techniques. Ultimately, this allowed societal permanence, which created the first forms of urbanism.

In other words, new technologies have led to massive shifts in our ways of living. It is at times of technological transformation that humanity innovates, switching to new rule sets, creatively finding new ways of being. Ways that didn’t exist before. Or perhaps ways that once did exist haven’t existed recently.

Whichever uncertain form it takes, there is one thing that I think we can be sure about: innovation requires first, face to face contact; second, random, unplanned encounter; third, the interaction of groups. These are the building blocks for the human transactions that lead to innovation.

Each of these come in abundance in well planned cities. Both are lost with spatial segregation and congestion.

Future cities therefore need, first and foremost, to provide the conditions for face-to-face human transaction: to provide the majority of first contact. Technology will then facilitate a majority of second contact. And, when technology is not available, first contact can only be achieved through human interaction in physical places.

It is possible to speculate that, in order to achieve this, localism will become more important than globalism. Hollywood/Bollywood may therefore have a limited shelf life. They have, or will soon have, achieved globalism. Thereafter, people may well seek “sensation” in the differentiated experiences of local places.

So what will we need to achieve this? Exactly what we have lost: cities, with numerous co-located, locally differentiated clusters, allowing innovation across silos. Cities of villages.

In urban planning terms, this means great streets and spaces. It means getting rid of divisive inner-urban motorways. These badges of honour are the last century’s badges of honour, not this century’s and certainly not the next. Yet cities continue to build them. Perhaps not so much in the UK but certainly overseas – often as UK exports. We need to reflect on this practice. Is it an ethical foreign policy?

Here’s a prediction: if we get it right, future cities will look more like pre-20th century cities than 20th century cities.

In this regard, many UK cities are already Future Cities.

London is largely a future city. Birmingham is largely a Future City. Newcastle is largely a future city.

But vast tracts of housebuilding are certainly not Future Cities – yet this is what many in our industry are delivering. “Eco” in name. Perhaps “Eco” in thermal insulation. But not “Eco” in terms of urban footprint.

And so there is significant further work to do to go the final mile, to make the essential case for complete urban transformation.

My recommendation is to start by understanding how cities are – how they work. How people behave in them. Start here. This is why Urban Observatories are such a good idea.

Then think about changing cities around the principle of face-face human transaction, supported and enhanced by digital.

Future Cities

Integration between professional silos is essential. Otherwise I see a divide forming, with one half of obsessing over having more and more data: like putting up more and more CCTV cameras, generating more and more imagery, which is barely useful if people are not analysing and acting on the data. And the other half painting fantastic pictures of futuristic cities.

We can avoid this error by integrating, yes. But, I believe what’s most important is that we integrate around the receivers of our services, not simply the providers. Around people and their transactions.

If the 20th century city was the “city of movement” then the 21st should be the “city of transaction”.

In this regard, the single, most important task for designers is to provide the continuously connected spatial networks that history shows us deliver places that work for people.

This is the challenge.
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View and download PowerPoint presentation here.

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