Category Archives: Health

We don’t guess the structural performance of individual buildings so why do we guess the human performance of entire cities?

The structural steelwork of a large and complex building would not be designed without running engineering calculations. Even the smallest of buildings is subject to objective structural analysis. No client and professional team would rely on guesswork, no matter how famous or experienced the architect or engineer.

So why do we leave the human performance of places to the whim of architects who run no calculations and rely only on their instinct and ego? Why is the science of human behaviour so poorly developed? Why is chronic failure still tolerated?

In the early sixteenth century, William Harvey challenged the medical profession to take a more objective, more observation-driven approach to the understanding of the circulation of blood. At the time, medical thinking was largely based on the beliefs of Galen of Pergamon, who had set these out in the second century. Harvey challenged a medical mindset that hadn’t changed in one and a half millennia. And he encouraged his peers to embrace advances in science that allowed new forms of investigation.

We can see a similar state of affairs in the prevalence of, and institutional inertia around, twentieth century planning. Based on belief, not observation-based science, a doctrinal approach to urban planning and design pervades the professions. This is the case, whether the specific approach is Modernism, the Garden City movement or (and especially) Landscape Urbanism. Each is to some degree unscientific.

These approaches propose different kinds of urban outcomes but what unites them is a belief that the future should look fundamentally different to the form of continuously connected, dense and mixed-use urbanism found in cities for as long as there have been cities – the kind of urbanism that architects and town planners visit on their holidays.

The kind of urbanism – and here’s the irony – that Galen would have recognised. If only architecture and town planning were stuck in a fifteen hundred-year-old mindset. We would still have vehicles on the road but we wouldn’t have vehicle dominance. We wouldn’t have land use zoning that generates long-distance commuting, traffic congestion and negative health impacts. We wouldn’t be encroaching on the rural landscape with semi-detached, density-fearing dwellings.

Fundamental change in our professions is needed and science has an important part to play. In the spirit of Harvey’s observation-based approach, we need to embrace the new capabilities offered by sensing, analytics and modelling. We need to understand how cities truly work before we then form ideas about how to change them. We must move beyond the beliefs of twentieth century practice. The evidence is there to demonstrate that practice based on belief hasn’t delivered great places with the consistency required either by the investors in them or the users of them.

We can learn from Harvey, even if our end goal is the urbanism of Galen.

Sustainable cities of the future – sketch

Notes for keynote at UK Green Building Council Annual City Summit, Birmingham.

1. Spatial planning & human behaviour implications of sustainability – reduction of transport carbon through shift towards walking, cycling & public transport

2. A massive shift needed in transport + land use planning, urban + landscape design, architecture. Professional inertia. Turning the supertanker.

3. A massive opportunity. Reason to turn.

4. Lessons from the past eg Pompeii, Brindley Place.

5. Examples from the present eg Darwin, London SkyCycle, Birmingham Charette.

6. UK government: Smart & Future cities agenda is a sustainability agenda.

7. Social inequalities dimension of sustainability.

8. Need to act at all scales simultaneously ie there’s work for all of us to do.

9. Challenge for modelling.

10. Challenge for research.

11. Challenge for practice: design, development & real estate investment.

12. Already being acted on. The supertanker is turning.

Building a Smart City modelling team

Integrated Urban Model


Cities planning their future are increasingly turning to the production of Integrated Urban Models. These are tools that bring together various datasets on different asoects of urban performance, from the behaviour of people to the flows of energy, water and other utilities. The aim is to better predict the future of cities by better understanding how they are currently working.

This is a nascent but rapidly developing field in which knowledge is emerging and evolving at a pace. Given the complexity of cities it is a good idea to involve many specialists in different subjects, led by an Urban Modelling Advisory Panel (UrbanMAP).   Continue reading Building a Smart City modelling team

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.

Are streets the answer – yes, but…

Yesterday’s launch by think tank Policy Exchange of a report calling for the removal of inner-city high rise estates and their replacement with streets is a welcome contribution to discussions about the design of future cities. The report, authored by Create Streets, concludes that high rise estates are unsafe, antisocial and economically substandard. By proposing to replace estates with streets, the authors claim they are responding to residents’ concerns. They also say that well designed streets can provide just as much housing as sprawling estates.

The argument for street-based living appears to be straightforward: people like streets and they deliver economically. Yet it isn’t as simple as this and the report quite rightly references research by Savills, Space Syntax and the Brookings Institute that shows the importance of street layout. There are better, well-connected, well used streets and less good, disconnected, poorly used streets. Continue reading Are streets the answer – yes, but…

Urban Process Diagram