Multi-scale approaches to suburban centre life

December 17, 2006

In our last meeting, we started discussing the idea of transportation data vs accessibility of the local high street. The beginning argument was (on the surface) about the level of accuracy and detail in transportation data sets, and our doubts about if any relative potential of a node in a macro scale network could be related to the buzz on the high-street.

But I believe what should be discussed (the underlying argument basis) is the abundance of scales (and methods) we can use to look into the existence of a successful suburban town centre. I do not see this as a data issue or something to be decided on level of accuracy, nor something related to only transport and accessibility, but as a discussion of a multi directional, relational approach to “place”. If we find a discrepancy in the flow of any urban event between a higher level and a lower level order, this is still something interesting to find out, although working on different levels, they will probably not be totally independent from each other.

Just to give an example, the town centres project approached the existence of centres as a surface of several factors. As far as I understand, it was not looking into “why (a town centre here)?”, but more into “where (a town centre is)?”. Now, I do not see this as a weakness: both macro and micro scale studies may look into “where?” only. This is especially important, when, as with the Town Centres project, the government and other institutions need a framework to answer to “where?” in order to produce effective policies, distribute investments and responsibilities. In the end the TC project did produce, methodologically, some boundaries that people could more or less agree on, which was a success. By contrast our project examines why, but even we need to take a starting point of where. That’s why we have started thinking about some suburban candidates of these resultant centres (to give ourselves an anchor point), and hopefully we will add the “why?” and will probably have different boundaries for our own focus. But by no means is this as a comparison ground between the two projects.

Looking into “why?” can also be done in several scales. Potentials do build up regionally and locally, so do investments. The controlling bodies are separate between these two sides, how they clash with each other, or how they serve each other has not found significant place in policies.

Which brings us to the state of spatial research here. In my limited experience, apart from a small number of people thinking about urban phenomena, in both geographical and configurational terms, these two worlds seem still vastly separated to me, not understanding each other enough, maybe not even giving enough care for what the other one has been coming up with. I have seen the tension between these two worlds on several urban phenomena, including land use, socioeconomic status and crime.

I believe we have a fantastic opportunity in this project, if we seize it, for a fresh comprehensive approach to combine, compare and simply relate what comes from the a) the global centre b)surrounding, and c)self structure of suburban town centres. How we allocate the amount of effort into these parts is negotiable, and depends on what we see as the main value and difference of our expected results.


3 Responses to “Multi-scale approaches to suburban centre life”

  1. SG Says:

    I agree that positioning our case studies in relation to the various regional scales at which town-centre import/export jobs, possess market share etc is important if we intend to position our research fully within a polycentric model.

    The relative success of a high street (one might hypothesise) to some extent reflects how it is incorporated in the day-to-day routines which take place at different scales from, the highly local to the global. This raises question of accessibility of the centre to ‘transport nodes’ – which was an issue raised by URBED and also by the town centre neighbour hood ‘ped shed’ idea.

    Are you suggesting then that we view ‘accessibility’ and ‘sociability’ as a question of scale from the street block to wider region so that ‘where’ and ‘why’ are not unhelpfully kept in separate analytical sphere?

    We need to be careful though, I would argue, to allow the polycentric-regional element to ‘bubble-up’ from data derived from the town-centre ‘ground level’ (where do the people who use such and such a shop come from) rather than vice-versa. To do otherwise could be to risk imposing a typology on our centres ‘top-down’ on the the transport data – where we need to be focused on the centres themselves. This is primarily an opportunity presented by the second stage of research.

    In this initial phase, I think you are right to push for the use of transport data – particularly if it could help establish relations between a number of centres in the same area. One ‘case study area’, for example, might be the Barnet M1 – A1 ‘wedge’. That would give us a basis for exploring polycentricity more thoroughly at a later stage, (for example if we then selected one centre from four initial area clusters.

    Having said this, (I’m sure you agree) great caution needs to be used so that we do not end up accepting London’s transport’s typology of centres (perhaps tacitly). We need to know more about it, I suppose.

  2. SG Says:

    Another comment: Bill’s new ‘patchwork analysis’ offers a space syntax approach to questions of differential scale. One thing we could do is to see what metric radii (if at all) correspond with town centre boundary ‘place names’ on the axial map.

  3. mukih Says:

    This post is indeed important in the context of our project. It is not surprising that issues of scale popped up quite rapidly – at least in Geographical thought and theory, problems of scale (such as ‘for phenomena X, which is the correct scale for analysis?’) are central to Geographical research.
    We will need to use multiple scales of investigation – and reconciling them won’t be a simple task both conceptually and practically. For example, data from different scales comes in different accuracy and generality, while at the same time we need to consider if all train stations are the same without further checks on numbers of passengers, frequency of trains and all the other micro aspects that differentiate each one.
    Sam’s suggestion not to try to separate ‘why’ and ‘where’ is useful and I don’t think that we should be especially concerns with issues like ‘where exactly the Town Centre ends’.
    On the methodological point – it might be worth exploring multi-scale analyses methods that been developed in Geography, in addition to internal Space Syntax methods such as ‘Patchwork analysis’

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