Today I gave a short presentation to the UCL Summer School for Research Students. The Summer School is held by UCL Grand Challenges and is meant “to provide an experience for research students at UCL that enables them to understand and discuss the Grand Challenges philosophy and also develop practical skills in preparing research proposals that necessitate and combine expertise from different disciplines.”

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I took the opportunity to present some of the thinking behind a book chapter written with Professor Muki Haklay on the challenges of interdisciplinary work. In the chapter we focus on the tensions and common ground between geographers and architects when researching urban space – especially at the neighbourhood scale. It is based on experience gained over seven years of research into how networks of activity and the changing form of London’s spatial networks have had an impact on the city’s adaptability to social and economic change. This research involves a team comprising an architect, anthropologist, geographer, historian and spatial scientist. The project has been highly productive in shaping new theories on cities in general and suburban town centres in particular. The collaboration between geography and architecture serves to change thinking into the nature of human behaviour in the built environment. Despite the fact that the architectural field of space syntax theory and methodology provides a powerful means of exploring and representing the structure of the built environment through the use of axial network maps, its traditional emphasis on spatial structure has tended to marginalise the socio-economic and demographic processes that are the human geographer’s primary concern. At the same time, geographical research has tended to prioritise the social construction of space at the cost of considering how this relates to the spatial context in which social activity is situated. Using space syntax methods coupled with built form and land use analysis to track the evolution of London over the past 150 years we can build new theories of emergence. The spatial analysis indicates that local centres follow different patterns of building densification and street intensification that are shaped by the configurational trajectories taken by existing routes. We propose that flows of movement are shaped by the manner of growth in organically emergent systems, where spatial structures and social practices both evolve synergistically.

Following is a list of further reading recommended to students at the Summer School:

 

Surbiton

The Adaptable Suburbs Closing Conference, the culmination of four years’ research into the factors that influence the success of town centres, heard from a wide selection of international high street researchers. A number of themes emerged with direct relevance to current policy debate on the future of the high street and have been written up in a report, downloadable here.

Following is a summary of the report:

  • Despite the obituaries the high street is still very much alive. High streets have proved resilient, surviving centuries of social change to remain the functional centre of most towns and cities.
  • High streets have changed in order to survive but, while buildings and businesses may be different, the mix of uses has remained very similar. This mix is essential to a successful high street.
  • Cities function as movement networks, and because movement creates activity it determines whether high streets succeed or fail. If pedestrians and traffic are diverted away, high streets wither and die.
  • High streets are poorly understood, but they represent a combination of complex influences creating enormous economic and social benefit, which is both under-recognised and undervalued. They are an asset that we need to appreciate, and to invest in.
  • High streets are threatened by poor planning. Standard planning definitions of high streets miss out large areas of business and other non-domestic activity. This leaves them unprotected, and pressure to convert commercial premises to residential use could permanently undermine their viability.
  • Not all high streets are healthy. Many are suffering and will need intervention and investment to support them. Policy should focus on bringing people back to high streets, generating the activity needed to support businesses.
  • Planners and policymakers need to take ordinary, small-scale high street uses more seriously. Ignoring small businesses and local activities means ignoring the important social role they play and the people who make a living through them.
  • Both the economic and the social value of high streets need to be measured and represented better, and communicated clearly to investors and decision-makers.
  • The future of the high street is an international issue, and an international research agenda is needed to help understand and address common problems.

A new series is starting this week, Tuesday, 2 November at 9pm, on BBC One: a history of the high street, in which (as per the standard formula nowadays), a “living history” is enacted of life in various periods “from 1870 when the high street was born”. I think the Romans might have something to say about that (have they not heard of the Cardo?!). Anyway, looks like interesting viewing, at least in order to see how the High Street is seen nowadays (if that isn’t too postmodern a perspective).

The SSTC project team ran a workshop at The Building Centre in London on 23rd April 2009. The aim of the workshop was to give the project team an opportunity to present their research and to receive feedback from interested agencies, including representatives of local councils responsible for town centres studied by the project, Dr Nicholas Falk of URBED and Mr Tom Bolton of CABE.

The workshop was introduced by the leading historian of British and American suburbs, Dr Mark Clapson of Westminster University. An opening presentation by Dr Laura Vaughan, instigator of the SSTC project, was followed by the presentation of three detailed case studies focusing on Barnet, South Norwood and Surbiton.

The discussion, led by Dr Muki Haklay, explored four themes: the importance of research into suburban town centres, the relation of movement patterns and land use, the socio-economic diversity of the high street and the proposition that sustainability is essentially a question of identifying sources of adaptability in the historical built environment.

The SSTC project team would like to thank all those who participated in the workshop.

Last week Dr Haklay and I traveled to Manchester, North England, to take part in the annual GISRUK conference. It is one of the main forums for presenting and discussing Geographic Information Science research in the UK. Here we gave a 15 minute presentation to the conference titled, “Visualising London’s Suburbs”. The presentation introduced the Towards Successful Suburban Town Centres project, outlined the impetus behind producing the profiler application and demonstrated how it was used in a project workshop to develop project hypotheses, which was especially important because we have adopted an inductive approach to exploring the sample centres and their socio-economic and spatial characteristics.

The 1,500 word abstract is available for download from UCL e – prints and the presentation can be viewed below.

Photography exhibition

March 17, 2008

Stockport Viaduct, England, 1986I would like to recommend an exhibition at The Photographers’ Gallery, London, of the nominated finalists of the Deutsche Börse prize. One of the finalists, John Davies, is showing his large format black & white photographs of the “changing post-industrial British landscape”, with some particularly interesting views of suburban life in northern cities. Click here for more details.

I attended a conference on ‘New New Towns‘ last week, brilliantly chaired by Sir Peter Hall, Professor at the Bartlett School of Architecture and Planning. A highly diverse audience comprising architectural and planning students and practitioners, academics and local government officers spent a fascinating day divided into three sessions – on the past, present and future of New Towns in the light of recent government announcements on plans for eco-towns. For our purposes it was interesting to hear from David Lock, TCPA chairman, that eco-towns were a diversion away from the challenge of intensifying the existing suburban environment. Nicholas Falk warned against repeating the mistakes of the past with “nameless suburbs”.

Despite some fascinating accounts of exemplar projects in the past and present: Sylvia Borda showed her photographic account of the Scottish New Town of East Kilbride – highlighting its success as a community due to its unusually having a good mix of middle and working class inhabitants (if you look at her book you see she also mentions ‘connectivity’ as being a factor in its success) and Nicholas Falk presented the suburban extensions to Freiburg), little attention was given towards the human scale of the built environment: how new housing can be inserted into existing areas with the new requirements for green energy and recycling. Equally troubling, was the defeatist attitude towards the lack of tools for creating good communities. The consensus seemed to be that although we in the UK have in the past come up with inspirational and influential ideas, such as the Garden City movement, we are unable to create successful communities (with the exception of the continuing success of Hampstead Garden Suburb and Span Housing). It is indeed correct to say that society has changed and become more fragmented; people have become more mobile, but surely it is wrong to suggest that we don’t have the tools to begin to engineer solutions to these problems. The worst-case scenario of continuing with the prevailing orthodoxy of urban regeneration will be worsening housing conditions, overcrowding and social dependency.

On the subject of eco-towns, see also the following article in Building Design on a new proposal for a suburban development in Sutton. Of course the devil is in the detail. The report concentrates on the master-planning, but clearly the detailed design is just as vital to ensure the future success.