We are heading for a disconnected, socially bankrupt future unless we adopt measures now to revive our failing high streets, Tim Stonor believes. “The loss of the main street is an urban extinction event, as threatening to humanity as the loss of the Amazon rainforest and the extinction of other species,” he says. The human race has never been more disconnected as a species “in terms of how we live and our reliance on a machine to bring us to places because we are unable to walk everywhere”.
Tim Stonor is managing director of the architectural consulting company Space Syntax Ltd, a spin-out business from the research group Space Syntax Laboratory, which was formed at University College London in 1989.
For more than 20 years, Space Syntax Ltd has been creating modelling platforms to assemble data on mobility, land-use and transport connectivity to help clients design people-friendly urban places and buildings. The firm has been involved in major projects such as the Trafalgar Square redesign, the Waterloo and South Bank masterplan, the redevelopment of Television Centre London and St Botolph’s Quarter masterplan in Colchester, Essex.
Other recent projects include: modelling of land-use, public transport scenarios, population density and street networks in Milton Keynes to forecast the potential for modal shift; creating an integrated approach to public transport and urban space design in Jilin Province, China; and developing a masterplan for the city centre of Darwin, the capital of Australia’s Northern Territory.
Modelling can help illustrate the economic and social benefits of less car-dependent environments, says Stonor. He recalls the absence of modelling tools during his formative years as an architect. “There was no science in what I was being taught in architecture school. It was all guesswork; sorry, it was all ‘expertise’. I was working on projects and realising the most powerful person in the room was the transport planner because she or he had numbers and models.”
This meant that architects all too often saw their street designs dismissed as unworkable. “There were good ideas that intuitively felt right while so much of what transport planners were putting forward didn’t seem like common sense. They’d tell us, ‘the model says you can’t have a straight-across pedestrian crossing, you can’t have a four-way intersection, you must have a guard rail’. It seemed like they were intent on building a really terrible form of SimCity – barriers and obstacles everywhere!”
It was this frustration that encouraged Stonor to start developing modelling tools with Space Syntax. “We have been challenging some of the conventions to good effect ever since.”
Stonor says he takes an architectural and anthropological perspective to how street layouts influence behaviour. “At Space Syntax we measure the interconnectivity of spaces and record and measure the patterns and behaviour of people. That is the full spectrum of our approach, and within that sits mobility because mobility is one of the parts of human behaviour, but ultimately we are interested in what happens socially and economically.
“The majority of transactions occur when we are stationary and herein lies the problem in transportation – its obsession with mobility, at the detriment of the place. It isn’t all about mobility. And it is that separation of professional convenience that has led transport planners to focus and obsess about movement and architects to focus and obsess about place. I think we can now see the tide turning to where we can bring together architecture and transport planning, link and place.”
Space Syntax works with clients to develop models that analyse how people move through an area. This has revealed that people are often looking for the simplest as well as the shortest route, says Stonor. “They are making a very sophisticated calculation whether they are walking or driving as to ‘how can I get to my destination by deviating least from a straight line’?”
The company has made all its models open source and free, with downloadable instruction manuals. “We want this technology to be pervasive within the industry – after all, it was university-funded so has largely come from the public purse.” Models are also funded by private sector property developers – roughly two-thirds of the company’s clients are from the private sector while the other third are public sector.
“We also train people, with material available free online and a paid-for classroom-based training service. Space Syntax is an employee-led organisation built around open data. We think it is commercially wise to do that, because there’s no point us having a monopoly on a small piece of technology. We would rather see the technology become big and well used.”
Cities are the “crucibles of invention”, encouraging partnerships and connections that generate new ideas, says Stonor.
He recognises that things such as digitalisation, augmented and virtual reality can enhance people’s lives, but offers a word of caution: “I think that’s all brilliant – bring it on! But it will only ever be a supplement to the quality of face-to-face contact that you get between people. And that’s why we need to bring back the boulevard – that is where life thrives.”
In Stonor’s vision, these thriving places of the future would resemble the 19th century city “minus the acoustics and the other emissions of horses”.
A crucial component of a thriving urban centre is the grid street layout, he says. “The grid is the fundamental consistent object of human evolution – in every city and town throughout millennia there has been a grid, either perfectly rectilinear or slightly deformed by topography. The grid is an incredibly resilient geometrical form, so if one street goes down, because there is a traffic jam, a fire or an accident or a flood, then the grid can absorb the movement that can’t go down that street. That’s not the case with cul-de-sacs.”
Car-centric city layouts encourage obesity, exacerbate mental health problems and loneliness, he says. “It’s the loneliness of being at home when your partner has taken the only car to work and you don’t have many friends because the urban planners, in their wisdom, decided that low density was good and landscape was healthy, so they’ve surrounded you with acres of green space. That has done nothing but separate you from what would otherwise have been your close neighbours in terraced streets.”
He observes how urban planners in the United States have focused on car travel and open space. “I see a lot of ‘landscape urbanism’ in the USA, which accepts the fragmentation of the town into little enclaves connected by fast roads. These places are smothered in green as if that’s the answer to everything. I just point out to my US counterparts that’s what we called the New Towns programme here, and it didn’t work.”
But there is another way, as more and more urban planners are realising. “We are at an interesting point in the history of urban planning, into which I put transport planning, architecture and urban design. We now have an industry that is interested in the full spectrum of data and technology, not just the narrow spectrum around vehicle transport and mobility but the fuller spectrum, which includes cycling and walking. So, that means not only looking at journey time, but health and social inclusion.”
There is a pressing need for closer ties with health practitioners “who see the world differently to how we in transport have been thinking about it – they are concerned with other issues, air quality being the prevalent one”.
Rather than making urban streets car-free, there should be more emphasis on slowing down traffic, says Stonor. He has been actively involved in a campaign in Faversham, Kent, where he lives, to implement a town-wide 20mph scheme. The campaign group has been working with Faversham Town Council and Kent County Council to develop the scheme, and Stonor is confident it will be rolled out everywhere except three roads on the perimeter of the town.
He thinks that self-enforcement will be key to achieving compliance. “There will be a degree of physical intervention, with a bit of kerb narrowing, surface treatment and removal of the road centre lines. Self-enforcement is key – if you can create cultural change then the majority driving at 20mph means that people behind them will drive at 20mph.”
It is vital to win over the community before introducing new speed limits, he says. “You shouldn’t just drop in a scheme and force it on people without consultation. It has taken us four years, and you could say it’s been excruciatingly slow, but during that time we have brought the community with us and got people to understand the benefits.”
Stonor questions moves by some local authorities to curb ‘rat running’ by closing roads to through-traffic. “It is such a horrible expression; it’s not ‘rat running’, it’s just people trying to get somewhere. What we should do is slow it all down to 20mph and then people will get to their destination in a civilised manner.”
Rather than modal filters – in which a through road is closed to motorised traffic but not to cyclists – Stonor prefers “dynamic permeability” where streets are closed during the day but open to traffic in the evening. “I think this is a bit more sophisticated, with barriers that can swing open to let vehicles through in the evening, allowing shops to re-stock and then closing them, say, from 10am to 4pm. It just requires a bit of management – it is about having the right amount of permeability for the amount of vehicle movement.”
Removing all through-traffic can make areas of a city feel sterile, Stonor argues. “It’s not to say you can’t have the odd cul-de-sac if you really want total peace and quiet. You can build a few of those and give people the choice about the kind of street they want to live on. But if you don’t let people go simply through somewhere they will have to go around the edge, which means they will get frustrated and will either try and go faster or will be more aggressive.”
Stonor is not a fan of the pedestrianisation of town and city centres. “We have very clearly seen the largely failed experiment of pedestrianised town centres in post-war Britain. If there is not enough movement around a street it feels unsafe or actually is unsafe. That is especially the case in the evening when the shops are closed.”
This sense of desolation is heightened when residents are relocated from living in the centre to estates around the edge, often outside a ring road.
“There is a conspiracy of moves with pedestrianisation involving land-use planning and transport planning, which we’ve seen in Wolverhampton, West Bromwich, Bracknell and many other places. I think we know that pedestrianisation doesn’t work, and people are now moving back into town centres.”
How would autonomous vehicles function within thriving urban centres? Again, much will depend on how fast the vehicles are going, Stonor suggests. “I wouldn’t want to see autonomous vehicles doing 30 plus miles an hour through the middle of town. I’m left terrified by those conference presentations by ‘smart city’ gurus, where they say autonomous vehicles will hammer through a junction at 50mph to 60mph in both directions, and you won’t need traffic lights.”
If self-driving vehicles start to become common, issues will arise about how much road space they need. “There has been the mindset in the past to just build more roads. We know we can’t do that any more, but we need to apply good urban design principles to the autonomous world of the future, which will be about ensuring there is enough space to stop and sit, and that it isn’t a world of 50mph intersections.”
A fundamental element of developing ‘smarter cities’ is to collect movement data of pedestrians and vehicles in a systematic way, says Stonor. “This means covering both sides of the street, and collecting the data on a regular basis.” But this hasn’t happened yet in any city in the world “despite all the talk of smart this and smart that”.
“Having said that, Singapore does now appear to be building excellent datasets – I’ll be watching what happens there with interest. My recommendation to any city wanting to be smart is to start simple – don’t build an enormous control room filled with 600 people staring at 3,000 screens. I have seen this and wondered, ‘what are you doing?’ They’ve spent a lot of money but still can’t provide a map of pedestrian movement, maybe that’s because they are doing it for other purposes. But they could be building an average pattern of movement across the city, by collecting pedestrian and vehicle movement data in a very simple, systematic way.”
Large, well-established transport planning firms are not predisposed to exploring new ideas around place and mobility, Stonor suggests.
“Big organisations seem to be locked into methodologies and wanting to do the same thing again and again and not being prepared to behave differently. This is because change is costly, so if you have a transport planning design methodology that is ticking over and feeding the beast you don’t change it easily because that could risk your business model. But as a small business you can be far more agile in the way that you work, and that is about education but also about the inertia of large organisations.”
He concludes: “As a process we never stop changing what we do. Part of the role of an urban designer who thinks about the future is to speculate but to do it with humility, and to rely on data and evidence.”
Space Syntax is helping develop a masterplan for Darwin, the capital of Australia’s Northern Territory. The firm was appointed to measure current patterns of footfall and to run workshops with local people.
“We showed how concentrated levels of footfall were and where the pockets of quiet space were,” explains Tim Stonor.
“It raised everyone’s awareness that there was a real need to improve footfall. This is a huge project that has to be footfall-led rather than car park-based. The city will need to reduce parking numbers.”
The future prosperity of the city will depend on whether it can move from a parking-dominated to a footfall-based economy, and from shopping malls to high streets, he says. “Shopping malls deliver the lowest-paid jobs. When you are building high streets you are able to mix retail in with offices and other types of businesses. Our urban value model would monetise opportunities so people can see how the street-based design approach can lift land value.”
The re-design of Darwin city centre will not be about making it car-free, he insists. “It is more about offering mobility options other than the car. If you do have a car you will probably use it less, sell a car if you have more than one or rent one. It is about enabling people to walk, cycle or use public transport.”
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