Adaptable Suburbs: a study of the relationship between networks of human activity and the changing form of urban and suburban centres through time

Lead Research Organisation: University College London
Department Name: Bartlett Sch of Graduate Studies

Abstract

This project is a study of how small-scale centres of social and economic activity are shaped by the way in which physical and social networks change their form through time. Due to their frequently being below the policy radar, there is a clear gap in knowledge about how smaller centres form part of the large-scale spatial/social network. This subject area requires an interdisciplinary approach; both to provide the tools to handle large data sets on street-level activity within and around town centres, as well as by providing the knowledge and understanding to interpret the spatially related social/economic data in a meaningful way. Due to our collective expertise, we are in a position to test a novel proposition about how centres of socio-economic activity emerge through time, for which existing theoretical models of centre-periphery or fringe-belt do not seem adequate. We will address the question of how local self-organisation, design interventions and functional changes have an impact on large-scale network of connections. The need for a specific policy on suburbs to realise their untapped potential is essential to improve the quality of cities today. Our research will provide the evidence for targeted funding in the UK suburbs that Kochan and others have maintained are required for preventative action to halt further decline in the suburbs and to avoid the need for major expenditure in the future . It is clear that the city as a whole is inextricably linked and no centre can succeed in isolation from the others (as outlined in the London Mayor's report on 'Planning for a Better London', July 2008). At a time of great social and economic flux characterised by new communications technologies and radically changing patterns of work, living and consumption (such as flexible working and the current economic downturn), suburban centres are critical to an urgently needed re-evaluation of how to plan for the future growth of our older cities.These theoretical gaps are mirrored in the design and policy worlds, which find it hard to apply general principles to particular cases; taking one example, a policy demand for 'densification' implemented nationally comes up against an inability to understand its implications in particular, local contexts. It is vital to understand the spatial configuration and social/economic significance of smaller centres at the peri-urban edge. An informed understanding of how to shape these smaller centres is necessary to prevent current solutions creating their own problems in the future. This proposal comes at a critical juncture in policy and place-making. We have been told by policy-makers that there is an urgent need to address the future sustainability of urban and sub-urban environments by tapping into their potential for densification, reuse and adaptation. An understanding of how smaller centres work within their immediate and regional networks of larger centres is critical to the future economic, social and environmental sustainability of complex mega-cities such as London. One of the major problems with current conceptualisations of these three domains is that they are not viewed in an integrated and holistic way. Preliminary evidence suggests that diversity of activity helps create the vitality in local centres that provides the customers, employees and employers of the local economy; the economic and social aspects are dependent in turn on environmental sustainability: we need to understand the potential of an aging infrastructure to reduce resource consumption.

Planned Impact

The project will provide an empirical, evidence-based approach to analysing cities that will generate an increased understanding of how spatial structure and social conditions contribute to the ways in which people use their local areas and which can benefit local planning bodies, government agencies, civic society and the 'Third Sector'. The impact on these will be as follows: Policy: the knowledge gained will inform policy-makers and assist in the creation and application of national and local government policy to foster economic performance, physical and social sustainability, assist in planning urban infrastructure engineering and neighbourhood renewal. Through this the effectiveness of public services will be enhanced and will in turn enhance the quality of life for people living and working in the UK. Bearing in mind our plans for rapid dissemination of project outputs, the impact should start to be felt within eighteen months of the project's start. We intend to ensure the impact is long-lasting by building capacity amongst end-users of the project knowledge so that it can be disseminated within organisations in a form that is relevant and comprehensible. The knowledge gained will inform policy in urban infrastructure engineering, planning, social justice, and local government. Of particular importance is the realm of place-making, which is central to much activity in design and planning research and where there are insufficient studies that employ quantitative alongside qualitative techniques such as this proposal. For this reason we are bringing in expertise in dissemination of research outputs to practitioners and policy makers in architecture and the built environment. Quality of Life: the ability to demonstrate the importance of local areas to maintaining and sustaining economic growth, and the influence of economic success on well-being will have an important outcome on improved social cohesion. We envisage making an impact by improving the quality of the public realm as well as assisting smaller market-places in informing decisions on start-up businesses and job creation in smaller centres. Knowledge Transfer/Exchange: New methods will be obtained by: urban designers for integrating knowledge into their designs and GIS specialists working in government and practice. Collaborative innovation in spatial data analysis across time will enable rapid modelling of the vast temporal social/spatial datasets held by government in order to enable detailed planning of interventions in the ageing built fabric. Specific organisations who have already expressed an interest in project outputs and promised their support are: CABE (The Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment), Savills Research, the Greater London Authority, the Outer London Commission and Shared Intelligence. Our plans for communication and engagement encompass traditional means, including conferences and journals in our respective domains that reach out both to academic and to non-academic audiences. We will publish a book to disseminate the innovative interdisciplinary activity to students and researchers. We will also use less traditional means of dissemination, such as a web-based profiler of spatially-related socio-economic data, a project blog, professionally facilitated workshops with local inhabitants and workers, professionally written project briefings circulated via a recognised built environment design body, placement of project staff in local authorities and publication of project outcomes in the press.

Publications

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Dhanani, A. (2013) A porous urban fabric: the structures and scales of London's peri-urban development from 1880 to 2013 in 9th International Space Syntax Symposium, South Korea

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Laura Vaughan (Author) (2013) A suburb is not a tree in Urban Design

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Laura Vaughan (Author) (2010) The spatial signature of suburban town centres in Journal of Space Syntax

 
Description This project was a study of how small-scale centres of social and economic activity are shaped by the way in which physical and social networks change their form through time. Due to our collective expertise in architecture, history, geography, anthropology and engineering, we were able to test a novel proposition about how centres of socio-economic activity emerge through time, for which existing theoretical models of centre-periphery or fringe-belt did not seem adequate. In order to do this we developed unique methods for cartographic redrawing of historic street networks and building footprints for the spatial description and analysis of morphological change over time using space syntax and urban form analysis. We captured historic business directory data for three historic periods from 1890 to 1960 and carried out a survey of current land uses across four outer London cases: High Barnet, Loughton, South Norwood and Surbiton in a spatial database of land uses. The project made use of GIS as an integration hub for data captured using the above techniques at both city-wide and hyper local scales, allowing road network, building footprint and building usage data to be analysed within a single framework across space and time. We developed a GIS-based algorithm to facilitate understanding of change across time of road network connectivity (e.g. what was the impact on the network of new roads), building structure (e.g. were buildings sub-divided into smaller units or merged to accommodate different uses) and use (e.g. what is the change in the distribution of non-domestic buildings across time) and then visualize this data in an understandable way for statistical interrogation of patterns of interest We also carried out an ethnographic study of the work of local enthusiasts without a strong tie to council or business and the benefits this provides to the socio-economic health of an area alongside another ethnographic study into food markets and access to food for disenfranchised groups. Together, this has allowed for a deep understanding of the nature of the high street as it has changed over the past 130 years and we have published the results in a variety of outlets, whilst analysis is planned to continue well beyond the life of the project.



We found that settlement at the urban fringe encompasses patterns of segregation, economic patterns and housing stock that whilst being characteristically suburban according to measures of density or distribution of land uses, nevertheless illustrate the fundamental linked nature of the city's larger and smaller centres into a single system. London's suburbs, though thought to be places where people live to simply commute into the city, are entities in their own right. Whilst at the start of their emergence as suburban settlements in the 19th century, these communities were largely self-sustaining, today they constitute embedded entities within the wider urban network



The analysis demonstrated the importance of adaptability, of the street network, of the buildings and of the land uses within them. A simple butcher's shop may have been in that location for over 100 years, though the name or ownership may have changed; thus, proving a continued need for this keystone establishment in the community. Alternatively, depending on the building size and shape, businesses can easily move in or out, contributing to the changing diversity of non-domestic activity in the area as it responds to social and economic. The analysis also highlighted how certain pathways in the street network lends themselves to particular classes of activity - a form of path dependence that evidently relates to how accessible they are to local residents.
Exploitation Route Through systematic, multidisciplinary reviews of the data, important concepts were distilled and delivered via social media to outline "ten things one might not know about high streets":



These simple, yet effective, narratives explain the importance of the high streets in each of the suburbs in movement of people and commerce that creates the lifeblood of the community. This information is already being put to use by local community groups and third sector organisations to provide evidence in their dialogues with policy and planning organisations, such as response to the London Plan of 2014. We have plans in tow to inform planning and local/national policy makers who could learn from our greater understanding of how suburbs grow and adapt over time. This has already started via our final conference (with over 75 attendees from a range of organisations) and will continue through open-access publication routes as well as a variety of social media.



Where possible under data licensing terms, we have been able to provide members of the public to the wealth of data collected in our four case studies for their own use, such as: local history, planning and community engagement. To facilitate this downstream use we have compiled a very detailed document (of over 35 pages long) describing the data capture and analysis tasks undertaken by the project. This could also be used to support further academic publication of the work.
Due to their frequently being below the policy radar, there is a clear gap in knowledge about how smaller centres form part of the large-scale spatial/economic network. This subject area requires an interdisciplinary approach; both to provide the tools to handle large data sets on street-level activity within and around town centres and high streets, as well as by providing the knowledge and understanding to interpret the spatially related social/economic data in a meaningful way.

The need for a specific policy on suburbs to realise their "untapped potential" is essential to improve the quality of cities today. Our research provided the evidence for targeted funding in the UK suburbs and we were involved in the shaping of policy around London's outer suburban centres since the start of the project. We have shown that at a time of great social and economic flux characterised by new communications technologies and radically changing patterns of work, living and consumption (such as flexible working and the current economic downturn), suburban centres are critical to an urgently needed re-evaluation of how to plan for the future growth of our older cities.



An understanding of how smaller centres work within their immediate and regional networks of larger centres is critical to the future economic, social and environmental sustainability of complex mega-cities such as London. We have captured a wealth of data on London's spatial network, built form and land use patterns that shows how throughout the past 130 years a diversity of activity i helps create the vitality in local centres that provides the customers, employees and employers of the local economy; the economic and social aspects are dependent in turn on environmental sustainability.

The Adaptable Suburbs project challenges the notions of the suburbs as static entities that are simply satellite towns to the nearby large city. By combining outreach via social media and community engagement with increased academic visibility through conferences presentations and publications (www.ucl.ac.uk/adaptablesuburbs/publications), the project demystifies certain aspects of what makes the suburbs sustainable and rich in diversity. Various members of the team have published findings in journals such as Urban Design and the Journal of Space Syntax and have presented at a wide range of conferences, such as the Royal Geographic Society's annual conference and the International Space Syntax Symposium.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Environment,Retail,Transport

URL http://www.ucl.ac.uk/adaptablesuburbs/
 
Description Although sustainable urban environments are a growing focus of activity in the UK, there has been a long-standing gap in knowledge on how to manage urban growth within current economic and environmental constraints and without damaging the quality of existing environments. This research is relevant to a wide range of researchers as well as architects and built environment practitioners, developers, town centre managers, small and large business investors and people working in sustainable communities and urban regeneration. Since the start of the project we have been invited to various academic and policy-making fora to present our research methods and outcomes. These are as follows: 30/6/2011: LSE/DEMOS Centre for London: 'State of the knowledge on outer London'; 26/4/2012: Quality Streetscapes conference, RUDI: 'Have the reports of the high street's "death" been greatly exaggerated?'. http://www.rudi.net/node/22846'; 10/9/2012: The future for Town Centres: Death or Evolution? conference at Kingston: 'Suburban Adaptability: how can the past inform the future of town centres in London?'; 1/10/2012: CPRE symposia on 'The Country and the City' - invited speaker; 3/12/2012: GLA/Design for London conference on the geography of the economy: 'Adaptive Suburban Town Centres'; 28/11/2013: KTH School of Architecture, Stockholm: 'Redefining sustainability'; 11/2/2014: UCL Lunch-hour lecture (online at YouTube): 'Butcher, baker, candlestick-maker'; 15/5/2014: The Conversation (online newspaper set up to disseminate research ideas to the general public): 'Urban renewal needs more than 'garden city' stamp to take root'; 7-9/2014: Written evidence for the Examination in Public on the Further Alterations to the London Plan. The work of the Adaptable Suburbs project was cited in the discussions. 11/9/2014: Department for Transport Cities Policy and Delivery Unit: 'Future of the high street: implications for transport policy and planning'. 15/10/2014: House of Commons Transport Committee conference on Transforming Research into Policy and Practice: 'The past, present and future of the connected high street'
First Year Of Impact 2011
Sector Communities and Social Services/Policy,Retail,Transport
Impact Types Policy & public services

 
Description Further Alterations to the London Plan
Geographic Reach Local/Municipal/Regional 
Policy Influence Type Participation in a national consultation
URL http://www.london.gov.uk/priorities/planning/london-plan/examination-in-public
 
Description Widening the pool
Amount £10,617 (GBP)
Funding ID Experiencing research fieldwork through suburban tour-guiding 
Organisation University College London 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 04/2012 
End 03/2013
 
Description Debate - Tomorrow's City, Today's Challenge: Live to Shop or Shop to Live? 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact Description
"Live to Shop or Shop to Live?" The challenges & changing face of retail in Tomorrow's City As consumers we have all seen the changing faces of retail due to the explosion of technology and the birth of social media, but how has this affected bricks and mortar businesses in a virtual shopping environment? What can be done to ensure all those involved in the retail industry are meeting the needs and expectations of consumers who have it all in the digital and physical world?

The Panel • Belinda Earl Style Director at Marks & Spencer and described by Harold Tillman (former head of Jaeger and Aquascutum) as the "Queen of retail". • Steve Sunnucks former Global President of Gap Brand at Gap Inc from November 2012 to December 2014 and also renowned for his repositioning of New Look during his reign as CEO in the early 2000s. • Laura Vaughan, Professor of Urban Form and Society and Director of Space Syntax Laboratory, Bartlett School of Architecture UCL.

Discussion with the audience centred around the role of online shopping in the future of high streets and the importance of land use diversity in the long-term success of smaller town centres.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
URL http://wedlakebell.com/articles-and-comment/2015/10/22/tomorrows-city,-todays-challenge/
 
Description Invitation to keynote and chair The History of the London Street workshop (Urban Design London and Historic England) - 9th November 2016 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Presentation on the history of high streets as well as chairing a day's worth of events around design and conservation of London's streets.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL http://www.urbandesignlondon.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/16.11.09-The-History-of-the-London-Str...