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:
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.
Notes for the Connected Cities Conference, London, 15th September 2015.
How long has Space Syntax been going?
Space Syntax was established as a consulting company in 1989.
Why did you set it up?
Space Syntax was set up to exploit academic research at University College London: computer-based methods of analysing space in buildings and cities and predicting human behaviour. I joined the company to practise a new kind of architecture: one more attuned to human needs and one powered by new analytic capabilities that de-risk an otherwise data-light and judgment-heavy spatial planning process, one which has a history of social and economic failure. Read More
2nd September 2015
Good evening. It is an honour to have been asked to speak this evening and I’m grateful to Lady Sondes, Sir David Melville and Chris Wright for their invitation. As I prepared for this evening I wondered if I had ever given a talk on the water. I thought I hadn’t and then I remembered I once spoke at a conference on board a cruise ship between Genoa and Marseille. I’m pleased to say I’d trade the crystal waters of the Côte D’Azur for the muds of the Côte de North Kent any day.
We are lucky to be here and lucky to be part of Faversham. Simon Foster mentioned the work I’m involved in that’s looking at the UK 50 years from now. This may seem like a long time but it’s a drop in the ocean/Creek for Faversham. Here we have at least 9,000 years of continuous human habitation. There aren’t many other places in the UK that can claim this. In fact we don’t yet know of any that can.
And why did people first come here and then stick around for so long? It’s the Creek. First for the hunting: its game, its fish and its fowl. Then for its waterborne trade. We are one tide from London, where merchants could poise offshore, like greyhounds in the trap, waiting for fire signals from London to tell them their stock prices were high enough to catch the next tide in.
This place is important. This water is important. Many of us feel this viscerally. Others still need persuading. How can we do that?
I have seven thoughts. Read More
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:
eg building, dress, kettle, car but also
eg software code, analytic algorithm, policy, process.
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.
Designers will use tools (pencil, knife, keyboard, other people’s opinions) in both:
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:
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.
Designing Resilient Cities – notes from Day 1
A note from the Vice-Mayor for Infrastructure to the Mayor
Vice-Mayor for Sustainability
Vice-Mayor for Engagement
Vice-Mayor for Disruption
Avalon faces the risk of functional failure. The only way forward is to change.
Our infrastructure is inefficient. It needs to become efficient. This is not just a question of maintenance. There won’t be enough money to run the transport network, supply water, remove waste, provide broadband. Unless the city either shrinks to a size its current economic structures can afford; or grows to create a larger tax base – so long as the city can retain control over how that tax is spent.
The view of the infrastructure team is that Avalon should grow. But not off the back of its existing industries. These are running out of steam. The industrial infrastructure of the city needs to expand and to reinvigorate. Creative industries will be central to this.
A new population will come to Avalon. A younger population, joining the older, wiser and more experienced population that built the city’s wealth in the 20th century. Joining young people who, having grown up in Avalon have chosen to stay there rather than take the increasingly well-trodden path elsewhere. The city has seen too much of this. Its infrastructure of talent must be rebuilt.
And these people will need somewhere to live. Houses that are affordable. We need to build.
But this does not mean ever further sprawl into our precious countryside – which is too beautiful and too productive to become a building site. No, it means building on our existing urban footprint. We need to find space within the city, not outside. Some of our redundant industrial sites will provide excellent places for new housing: close to transport infrastructure, with excellent, ready-made supplies of water and power. We need to look hard at the vast city parks that were built many years ago and have simply not worked as they were intended – they have harboured crime rather than nurtured culture.
And culture is central to what we must do. Avalon needs to recapture the spirit in which it was first built: a pioneering spirit where anything was possible. Music, art, sculpture, performance: song and dance – we were good at it when we tried. The future memories of Avalon will be built on the strength of the cultural infrastructure that we put in place in the next few years.
And to achieve all of this we need to change the way that we make decisions in the city. No more top down dictats. We need a governance infrastructure that involves everyone: participatory planning, budgeting and decision-taking. An elected mayor for a start.
Components of infrastructure
– on ground
– above ground
– below ground.
– physical buildings
– building protection
Set in its ways.
No desire to change.
Reliant on the public sector.
Declining core industry.
Few common places.
Weak cultural identity.
Running out of time.
– not enough revenue to run the city.
– in governance, leading to rivalry and underperformance.
– no sense of belonging.
– of people from planning
– reinforced by physical remoteness of outlying centres.
– class distinctions, unintegrated, breeding distrust.
– when older population retire.
– no fun
– no stimulation
– no sense of belonging.
– no innovation.
– committees to reflect areas
– directly elected mayor
– participatory planning
– devolved management of infrastructure.
– common vision
– built around the creative industries
– attracting people from outside, not only serving existing population
– business development area
– enhance links to surrounding agriculture.
– multiple uses of each infrastructure asset e.g. reservoir is boating lake.
– more affordable.
– intensify existing urban footprint rather than further sprawl.
– revitalise the centre.
– integrate existing modes.
Designing City Resilience is a two-day summit at the RIBA, 17-18th June 2015. Avalon is one of four imaginary cities being looked at during the event in a creative approach that breaks the mould of typical, presentation-only conference agendas. By engaging in a rapid prototyping exercise, delegates immediately test the ideas they have heard in the keynote presentations and on-stage discussions. They also bring to the event their own international experiences.
The result is a two-way, creative conversation that produces a richer outcome: a set of designs for the transformation of the physical, spatial, environmental, industrial, educational, healthcare and governmental structures of the four cities.
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.
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.
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. Read More
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.
There are two kinds of #SmartCity technology. “Smart at” and “Smart from”. Which is yours?
Here’s our technology. We developed it for another purpose (often agriculture or aerospace). We’re not sure if it really works in cities but we hear that cities are a big market and we’re prepared to have a pop.
Here’s our technology. We developed it through rigorous research on cities: their current conditions and their future needs. We did this because we recognised the importance of cities some time ago. We’re delighted that the rest of the world has now drawn the same conclusion.
NB “Smart at” has derivatives eg “We developed this technology for cars because cars were the “be all” and “end all” of urban policy. But now we’re told that bikes and pedestrians are top of the pile so we’re repurposing it and rebadging it for them. We hope it works but we’ve no research to show it does.
“There is nothing in the world that some man cannot make a little worse and sell a little cheaper, and he who considers price only is that man’s lawful prey.”
Inspired by Richard Saul Wurman’s presentation at the NZPI Annual Conference 2015 & discussion afterwards.
In looking forwards it is important to learn the lessons of history.
Look at Pompei. A city built for efficient mobility.
A model of the 1st century with lessons for the 21st century.
The grid – no cul de sacs. Built for mobility. Built for commerce.
More or less rectilinear – not labyrinthine. A layout that brains like. Easy to wayfind. Hard to get lost in.
A Main Street with shops – no inward-looking shopping malls. Active frontages. About as much surface for pedestrians as for vehicles – the right balance for then. Perhaps also for now?
And shopkeepers of great wealth! It was not a compromise to open onto a Main Street. It was a sound commercial investment. Who would turn their back on the flow of the street?
Pedestrian crossings! The deep kerbs channel water when it rains, flushing the dirt from the road and keeping it clean. Integrated infrastructure.
Pedestrian crossings that are aligned with pedestrian desire lines – not following the convenience of traffic engineers’ vehicle turning arrangements. Pedestrians first because its the pedestrians that carried the money, not the vehicles.
A small, pedestrian only zone in the very heart of the city. No bigger than it needs to be…
…unambiguously signed that this is where you have to get out of your chariot and onto your feet.
Pompei: a city of great streets – great street sense.
But in recent times we lost our street-sense.
Look at Birmingham then…
And now. What happened to our street sense?
And Birmingham was not alone.
Look at US cities:
What they were…only 60 years ago – recognisably like Pompei: simple, rectilinear grids.
Then what they became…
We became entrapped by traffic models.
And a love-affair with the car.
We need to regain our street-sense.
Fortunately this is happening.
At the Elephant & Castle, this design puts the pedestrian crossings on the pedestrian desire lines – just like those crossings in Pompei. We’ve talen pedestrians out of subways and given them their proper place at street level, next to the shopfronts. We’ve made the humble crossing an object of beauty, spending many different budgets (landscape, planting, pedestrian, cycling, highways) on one project so that each budget gets more than if it had been spent separately.
This new approach – a rediscovery of street sense – has been made possible through advances in science that have made us see the errors of previous ways.
The more we look into this the more we find of value: for example, how connected street grids create higher property values in the long run.
And Birmingham has pioneered this science:
Brindley Place – the bridge on the straight east-west route – a lesson from Pompeii! It may seem obvious today – because it’s a natural solution – but it wasn’t obvious to some people at the time, who wanted the bridge to be hidden round the corner because, they said, there would be a greater sense of surprise and delight! What nonsense. We had to model the alternatives and show just how powerful the straight alignment was.
We still have to do so today. Many urban designers and transport planners have been slow on the uptake. The average pedestrian gets it immediately. What does that say for our professions?
Now cities all over the world are recovering their street sense, creating plans for their expansion that are street-based, not mall-based.
In time to accommodate a new, two-wheeled chariot: the bicycle.
SkyCycle – a new approach to urban mobility. Creating space for over half a billion cycle journeys every year. Constructed above the tracks, allowing smooth, predictable, junction-free movement between edge and centre. Developed by a consortium of Exterior Architecture, Foster + Partners and Space Syntax.
Adding to cycling at street level – not taking it away.
Recently, at the Birmingham Health City workshop,a discussion about the location of healthcare facilities quickly became one focused less on hospitals and wards and more on streets and public spaces. On “free”, preventative public health rather than expensive, clinical curative care. Free in that it comes as the byproduct of good urban development.
Rob Morrison’s drawing of the Birmingham Boulevard…
…an idea to turn the Inner Ring Road into an active street.
And to achieve this there are clear principles to follow:
1. Connected street layouts.
2. Mixed mode movement – not separated by tunnels and walkways.
3. Active streets ie lined with street shops not mall shops.
4. Pedestrian crossings on desire lines, not where it’s most convenient for traffic turnings.
5. Limited pedestrianisation of the most important civic areas.
A thought – yes Pompeii was a city of commerce but the houses of the city are filled with references to literature, poetry, music: the arts.
Huge cultural value.
After all, this is the important, aspirational aspect of living in cities that comes with the efficient mobility that results from pragmatic planning: the grid, mixed modes, active frontages on main streets and special, limited, high intensity, pedestrian only places.
When we get this right we have time to truly enjoy ourselves in the arts and sciences. In culture. That is truly great urbanism.
Too often the Garden City is visualised as a place of huge green spaces enfolding small pockets of grey streets. The green and the grey.
But why should streets be grey? What about avenues? Boulevards? Rows of trees? Grass verges? Street planting at various scales.
And don’t those huge green parks just separate the urbanism? Don’t Green Parks create barriers between people and opportunities? Between homes and jobs and places of leisure?
The city of the future should be a city of green streets as well as green parks? And, if we wish to call it a Garden City then we should remember to include the Garden Streets as well as the Garden Parks?
After all, they were always part of the mix.
Notes for today’s talk at the NLA’s conference on “How do we build a smarter London”
The London context:
– more people (growing population)
– more data (sensors everywhere)
– more sophisticated computing.
Strategic problem: how to handle it all.
Space Syntax’s experience: address the problem via “the questions of reality”.
The commercial application of Space Syntax research was catalysed by approaches from London residents in the early/mid 1980s eg Limehouse Basin, South Bank, King’s Cross: citizens groups opposing property developments they saw as being alien to London life. Today we work for those developers as well as community groups. Developers have learned to “get it”.
Data and computing create an art of the possible (sometimes the seemingly impossible too eg the wonderful Pigeon Sim). Pass the art of the possible through the filter of reality/market demand. Then it’s possible to make sense of it all – to know what to do.
The questions asked by our clients are the necessary filter.
Then evolve the technology according to new and difficult questions.
This is what we had to do to understand Trafalgar Square – we’d never studied such a complex open space before.
Technology by necessity.
I prefer the term “Smarter City” to “Smart City” even if it has already been claimed by IBM.
“Smarter City” suggests the city is already smart and technology can make it smarter, whereas “Smart City” can be misinterpreted as suggesting that the city is dumb and technology, like a White Knight, will ride to its rescue.
And in truth some cities are dumb – or have been made dumb by modern transport planning: choked with congestion in pursuit of car-based sprawl.
But not all cities are dumb. We have cities for a reason. They are fundamentally smart in the way they create intensification of opportunities for people to meet, interact and transact. In this sense, cities are a natural product of human evolution.
To be truly smart, cities need to recognise their fundamental smartness. Real cities – the places that resonate to the “urban buzz” – are already smart cities. Historic cities, unsullied by destructive modern planning, are smart cities. Low technology cities, if they are compact and people-focused, are already smart cities.
Future cities need to be as smart as great historic and low technology cities.
Smart City – good.
Smarter City – better.
Smart as Cities – best!