Urban Formation blog by Professor Laura Vaughan
A while ago I was asked to tweet my ‘five things a perfect city needs’ and came up with the following:
- Spatial Justice
- Sociable Streets
- Diversity of ages, uses and cultures.
Aaron Landsman (http://www.thinaar.com/) asked me how policy might play a role in shaping such a city. The following series of short blog posts is my take on an answer to that question.
1. Spatial Justice
When I talk to my students on the MSc/MRes Spatial Design about spatial justice, I propose that the role of the city is to shape social diversity. When it is done well, we get vibrant, eclectic collections of people from different parts of the country (or the world), whose intermingling is the essence of urbanity. When it is done badly, we get into situations of segregation and ghettoization.
Ed Soja argues in ‘Spatial Justice’ that space itself can influence the justice/injustice of society. He discusses how cities such as Los Angeles, who had opportunities in the past to distribute access to resources equitably, chose the route that results today in a mass transit system that is more likely to serve the rich than the poor (who arguably need it more too).
Carl H. Nightingale has also shown how early 19th century Algiers was transformed by the creation of a European open street grid alongside the existing inward-facing courtyards and alleyways of the Casbah and the result was a spatial-racial division between native and incoming peoples that evolved over time: The coexistence of grids of unequal accessibility led to the Casbah to become increasingly separated over time: segregation can be an emergent process and unequal access to the functional heart of a city can be worse if you lack in access to motorized transport, whether public or private.
Whilst the essential role of the city is to bring together and to organize diversity, this isn’t a random mixing of uses, cultures or economies; it is structured system of interdependence between different uses, cultures, classes and so on and the essential distinctiveness of cities lies is in their ability to accommodate difference. The way in which diversity is structured is essentially to do with how cities are formed and how their intrinsic nature is shaped over time.
This argument is laid out in full in Is the Future of Cities the Same as Their Past?, Urban Pamphleteer #1: Future and Smart Cities, 1, 20-22. http://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/1392981/
2. Sociable Streets
Urban designers like to pay a lot of attention to the liveliness of streets, harking back to Jane Jacobs and the ‘ballet of the sidewalk’. But how do you actually go about creating lively streets?
Many urban theorists have pointed out that the pattern of everyday life – whether it is the chance encounters outside the front door, or the conversation while the children are at play in the local square, or the chat at the city-centre snack bar at lunchtime – are the raw material of society. As shown by Hillier and Hanson (1984):
[the] man-made physical world … constitutes (not merely represents) a form of order in itself: one which is created for social purposes, whether by design or accumulatively, and through which society is both constrained and recognizable. It must be the first task of theory to describe space as such a system. (The Social Logic of Space, p. 9)
Space syntax analysis of countless cities around the world has shown that it is the pattern of the streets, the complex interactions between one street and the next, but also each street and the wider city, that shapes the way in which people are co-present in space and so, their potential for interaction.
Depending on the location and the way in which the street network is utilized, clustering can enable the intensification of communal activity, socialization, networking and self-support, but constructing boundaries around groups to somehow ‘create community’ has shown to be a social disaster. Since the space of the city is continuous, if boundaries are artificially constructed, this is reflected in the way human experience space. If a social group is spatially segregated, it lacks interaction with the city, while the barrier becomes determinant for the group.
This isn’t to say that people cannot choose to vary the way in which they shape their own patterns of potential interaction as they move through the city. Different daily routines and practices of individual and of groups will become over time realized in patterns of local encounter, as Julienne Hanson has shown in her reflection on Young and Willmott’s comparison between the life on the unplanned streets of Bethnal Green and the planned streets of a housing estate in Essex*. It is not that the suburban housing estate is unsociable per se, but that the way in which the streets shape patterns of movement between different people – both local inhabitants and people just passing through on longer journeys – gives rise to the potential for people to meet and interact with one another. Poor design can prevent these natural sociabilities and is a form of spatial injustice.
Why did I include entrepreneurship as one of the five essential things for the perfect city? First of all, in a way ‘perfect’ is a misnomer. I am writing about the city that works, that is alive, functional and somewhere that people want to live in and can thrive in, not some ideal city of beauty (though beauty might come into a list of ten if the exercise had allowed this). Entrepreneurship is an essential part of the working city. Cities which work well will accommodate new businesses to start up, whether in people’s front rooms as laid out so lucidly by Frances Hollis in her live/work analysis or in a section of a subdivided shop on the Walworth Road, as described by Suzanne Hall in her ethnography of an ‘ordinary’ high street.
Holliss has provided evidence for Jacobs’ conception of public life as being sustained by people doing little more than coming and going, carrying out prosaic, small-scale activities. She shows how a closer connection between work and home can strengthen local social networks, support people with caring responsibilities and indeed feed back into the local economy. An urban setting which mixes use in an intelligent way, by organizing different activities so that they are within reach spatially, but are in minimal conflict with each other will encourage such use. It is a formula that we seem to have forgotten in our drive for clean and tidy zones of use.
Our Adaptable Suburbs project on London’s town centre evolution since the 19th century demonstrates that light touch planning coupled with high streets – well connected to their local street network but also within reach of the wider city – can help build in resilience against economic and social change. The important thing is flexibility: in land use designations and business licences as well as the built form itself. We have shown that arrays of buildings with smaller footprints, decent floor-to-ceiling rations, positioned on accessible sites do best in adapting to change.
Entrepreneurship is also essential for migrants seeking new lives in a city. Indeed, my research into historically successful immigrant groups shows that the appropriate urban setting helps create the foundations for economic activity and ultimately, economic mobility. On the other hand, a pronounced separation from the economic centre can break this virtuous circle. Some entrepreneurship will stem from migrants identifying a gap in the market, whilst in other instances an entirely new industry will stem from the immigrants’ own presence in the city – as Claudia Roden has pointed out, fish and chips is in fact a 19th century Jewish-Irish innovation, whilst the UK’s “Indian” food industry, has bloomed since the arrival of Bengali migrants in the last century.
Walkability has (happily) become one of those taken-for-granted aspects of modern urbanism that no urban planner or designer can ignore. The problem is, like with connectivity, it is easy to have as an aim, but harder to achieve in reality. One of the reasons for this is that first, what makes for a walkable area is not fully understood and second, the way in which walkability translates into actual benefits to individuals and society is quite hard to measure (and if it’s not measurable, it’s undervalued).
Scholars of ancient Rome point out how central walking was to people in the city. Professor Ray Lawrence has pointed out how Martial’s epigrams (published 86-103 CE) are full of spatial signifiers that place him at particular viewpoints towards the city, describing the city in relation to time that is measured by the length of a walk. His analysis shows that walks were planned for given times of day since particular public places were known to be where, at certain points in time, you’d be likely to meet certain people. In the absence of means of communication, if you wanted to see someone, you’d have to plan your walk to find them where they were most likely to be along your route, such as in the baths at sundown. Interestingly, Professor Mary Beard maintains that walking in Roman times was a signifier of status; one’s gait would differ accordingly. The importance of movement is not only to reinforce one’s social status, but it is an essentially social action, not just because it allows for planned encounters, like in this example, but because it allows for unplanned encounters between the world of strangers, the ‘virtual community’ as Hillier would have it, that takes form, grows or shrinks as a result of the way in which the pattern of streets brings people to be co-present with each other. Walking is an essential ingredient for urbanity, yet it is soon lost when people become co-absent, transported from one planned activity to another, without the opportunity to build up connections with wider society. Such connections are built up over time, so whilst the Hillierian theory would suggest that co-presence is sufficient to constitute society (at the least, society-in-potential), the opportunities to deepen connections through shared encounters are there all the time as you walk through public space.
For me sociability is at the heart of walkability. All the other benefits flow naturally from it, whether it is economic vitality (or footfall, as the shopping experts term it) or active travel (the health experts’ term for, yes, walking – and cycling), or social inclusion. Design Council CABE has started a campaign on this recently, highlighting the importance of “shaping buildings, streets, public spaces and neighborhoods so that healthy activities are integral to people’s everyday lives” and my own research with UCL colleagues Dr Jenny Mindell, Dr Ashley Dhanani and others on the Street Mobility and Network Accessibility project use as our starting point in studying community severance the fact that people are more likely to incorporate walking into their daily activities where local streets and footpaths are well connected to the wider street network.
In policy terms it is essential that we build walkability into the decisions we take about the layout of new and old schemes alike. The battle to prevent developers from closing Manchester’s Library Walk at night-time exemplifies how people value the permeability of the public realm, seeing it as an essential public good.
5. Diversity of Ages, Uses, and Culture
I stated in my first post in this series that the essential role of the city is to bring together and to organize diversity. Diversity isn’t a random mixing of uses, cultures or economies; it is structured system of interdependence between different uses, cultures, classes and so on and the essential distinctiveness of cities lies is in their ability to accommodate difference. The way in which diversity is structured is essentially to do with how cities are formed and how their intrinsic nature is shaped over time.
The question remains though why diversity is a good thing to have in cities per se. The anthropologist Amanda Wise explains this well, coining the term ‘quotidian transversality’ to describe how differences between people are negotiated in the public realm through a variety of spoken and unspoken signs, such as shop sign in a foreign language. She claims that this is a way for cultural difference to be mediated in a safe way and for different identities to be maintained without one being dominant over the other.
Intercultural interaction allows for differences to be smoothed over and while terms such as segregation and integration remain slippery outside of the domain of the sort of analysis that quantifies residential segregation as being about ‘black’ vs. ‘white’, we need to view cultural mixing as a spectrum of possibilities, allowing for someone to be (for example) integrated at work, but living with their own group at home.
Last week’s post on walking is relevant in this context. In his study of ‘shared space’ in pre-1948 Jerusalem Yair Wallach describes how important it was for the multifarious religious and cultural groups to perambulate streets that connected between social and religious divides so as to encourage cross-group interaction: “the paths and roads used reflected, no doubt, wider social and political patterns; they depended on social status, ethnic identity and gender. Nonetheless, a wide array of people encountered each other in the streets of the city, in planned and chance meetings.” The nature of public space as bringing together what society divides is central to this thinking. Whilst we may choose to remain separated in our homes, clubs and religious institutions, an integrated public realm is an essential component of my formula for a ‘perfect city’.
- B. Hillier, “The Architecture of the Urban Object” (1989) 334 & 335 Ekistics 5-21. ↵