Category Archives: Architecture

Integrated Urban Planning – balancing the multiple flows of the city

Notes for the UK-China Sustainable Urbanisation Conference in Chengdu, China on 24th September 2015


My job as an architect and urban planner is to design new towns and cities – as well as new parts of existing urban settlements. This means designing the multiple systems that make up a city. We often think about towns and cities in terms of their physical stuff: their buildings. Perhaps also in terms of their roads and rails. But for me the success of any city can be seen and measured in terms of its flows, the flows of:

  • energy
  • water
  • data

and, most important of all, the flows of:

  • people: in cars, on public transport, on bicycles and on foot.

Each of these flows is impacted by urban development: how much of which land uses are placed where, and how they are then connected to each other. Flows impact on other flows.

Sometimes these impacts are positive, sometimes negative. They have enormous social and economic implications.

Urban planning is as much about designing flows as it is designing buildings.

We live in an age of unprecedented computing power – this gives us the ability to better predict the nature of these impacts.

This is especially important to avoid the unwanted effects of urban development: congestion, air pollution, social isolation and unsustainable stresses on natural resources.

And computing can help create the positive impacts that are needed to support the essential purpose of cities: to be:

  • machines for human interaction
  • crucibles of invention
  • factories for cultural creation.

The last decade has seen the emergence of Integrated Urban Modelling. My company, Space Syntax, is a leader in the field: one of the UK companies referred to by the Chancellor as contributing to China’s growth and development. Working, for example, with the China Academy of Urban Planning and Design across China in Suzhou and Beijing.

Integrated Urban Models link the data generated by the multiple flows and reveal the interactions that help architects and urban planners create sustainable plans. Space Syntax has identified the essential role of spatial layout as the principal influence on urban performance. Spatial analytics are at the heart of our approach to Integrated Urban Modelling and we have made our discovery open source and openly available so that others can benefit too.

The Space Syntax Online Training Platform is a freely available, web-based resource through which urban practitioners, policymakers and local residents can equip themselves with information and skills to create more sustainable urban futures.

I’m pleased to announce that this platform is currently being translated into Chinese so that the Space Syntax’s discoveries and experiences can be more readily disseminated here in China.

Integration, balance, glue, pivot: space
In many ways, urban planning is the integration and balancing of multiple flows. Integration needs glue and balance needs a pivot. Spatial layout provides both.


A definition of design

I believe that a definition of design needs to be more than a list of designers. A list is certainly useful but the definition should also capture:
– what is designed
– how design happens.  

I think a longer – or more dimensional – definition is needed so that designers can better communicate with non-designers who may not understand design and who may therefore be sceptical/fearful/cautious of design – people who may see design as a kind of Emperor’s-New-Clothes-creating hype. 

Design is a) the creation of b) a proposition in c) a medium, using d) tools as part of e) a process. 

The nature of each component of this definition may differ between designers:

b) Proposition

Visible objects 

eg building, dress, kettle, car but also 

Invisible objects

eg software code, analytic algorithm, policy, process. 

c) Medium


eg pencil sketch, 3D model, oil painting, words



eg the plan of a building or street grid of a city


eg computer game, smartphone application, spreadsheet-based model, immersive (virtual reality) architectural model, sound


ie designing with the medium of time eg a process: a construction sequence or cash flow model. 

All the above are different forms of design medium. 

d) Tools

Designers will use tools (pencil, knife, keyboard, other people’s opinions) in both:

Creative and 

Reflective/analytic modes. 

e) Process

Designers will use one or more means of design inspiration and design review, working alone or in collaboration with others. 

While the nature of b), c) and d) may vary between designers, I believe the consistent ingredient is:

a) Creation

Design is innately creative and creativity is a rare and precious commodity that is fortunately found in abundance in the UK – not always buried deep but often sitting right at the surface. 

Green space in cities – when more is less

Tim Stonor‘s response to a study published today, which shows that green space in cities improves the mental development of schoolchildren. 

I welcome the study: the more we understand cities the better; the Science of Cities – the link between the design of the built environment and the way that we use it – much 20th century planning has been based on guesswork and gut instinct. 

The UK has recently embarked on a national effort to develop this science, setting up the ministerially-led Smart Cities Forum, the Government Office for Science’s study on the Future of Cities. My own organisation, Space Syntax, is a keen participant in this effort and has been pioneering the scientific study of cities for over 25 years. 

My concern is not with the study but with how the study might be interpreted by urban planners in the UK. 

The UK has had something of a love-hate affair: we enjoy visiting Barcelona, Paris, Prague, New York as tourists BUT our efforts to build new cities have given us low density, car-dependent new towns; housing developers continue to deliver this, saying this is what the customer wants; and we believe it. 

BUT go to Skelmersdale – built on garden city principles with great swathes of open green space – and speak to residents who rely on a taxi culture because there aren’t enough buses – because it’s not economically viable to cover all parts of the town with public transport when the housing is so far apart; or lonely parents in one-car families who are stuck at home because their partner has taken the car to work. 

Perhaps the most salutary fact is that the study was carried out in Barcelona: high density, mixed use – in other words, not zoned into housing zones, office zones and shopping zones – so people can walk to work, to the shops, to school – this is the sort of place we need more of. 

And, as Barcelona shows, it can be equally green and highly bio-diverse: street trees and grass verges can provide just as good access to green space as great empty swathes where you might come across more discarded shopping trolleys than people.

The Prince of Wales defines the resilient city #DCR15

3 key features:

1. Embracing local culture, knowledge and customs. Local understanding. 

2. Creating places for all types of people to live together – not ghettos. Diversity. 

3. Integrating people and nature at the centre of the process: urban gardens, parks, orchards & allotments – while protecting rural hinterland.

The Urban DataFrame

The Urban Data Store is a collection of databases on the social, economic and environmental performance of the city. 

The proposal
These databases can be organised by an Urban DataFrame. Like threads being organised by a loom. Without the loom they are just threads: disconnected on reels or tangled in a pile. The DataFrame organises and makes sense of the threads. 

Components of the Urban DataFrame
The DataFrame has spatial and temporal components.

The Temporal DataFrame is perhaps the more straightforward. A linear sequence – 1 dimension ie time goes forwards and backwards, not sideways or upwards. Databases are time-stamped, allowing temporal analysis: what happened when?

The Spatial DataFrame of the City is its street network and building footprints. Being more complex – having 3 dimensions – this is organised configurationally using Space Syntax spatial network analysis. What happened where?

Benefits of the Urban DataFrame
In combination with the Urban DataConnector, the DataFrame makes sense if the data threads, finding cause-and-effect associations and correlational patterns within them. This knowledge forms the basis for future evidence-informed urban policy making and planning decisions, the likely impacts of which can be modelled in advance.   

City resilience – a definition from history

Today’s city planners could learn a lot from ancient history when creating resilient cities, says Tim Stonor, Managing Director of Space Syntax.

In his book, De Architectura, the Roman architect Vitruvius asserted that a good building must have three qualities: “firmitas, utilitas, venustas”. In other words, it must “last long, work well and look good”.

While the relative importance of these attributes can be debated, what is certain is that together they can deliver resilience. Cities exhibiting strength and stability; that function to the benefit of their citizens; and that are pleasant places to live, work and visit are, by their very nature, resilient.

Unfortunately, the last hundred years of planning have demonstrated that by abandoning these principles, resilience has been overlooked in city planning. The rise of car ownership in the 20th Century, combined with a desire to zone and segregate, has led to highly disconnected places, particularly in terms of walking and cycling, and removed what is the very essence of cities: human transactions.

Cities engender collective purpose, deliver great benefits – social, economical and cultural – and drive innovation. This great mechanism, that brings people together, is risked when planning centres around the car. Continue reading City resilience – a definition from history

Pedestrian movement – the forgotten transport mode

In the field of traffic planning, pedestrian movement is often the forgotten transport mode. But the reality is that pedestrians are the most important mode – because it is when we are pedestrians that we are closest to the places where we make money and spend money; when we are most healthy and, above all, when we are most human.