Design buildings like sandwich boxes?

This post is taken from my reply to Peter Madden’s LinkedIn thinkpiece:

The silver lining of COVID is that it’s exposing the links between where we live and how we live, whether that’s the exercise we get/or don’t get from the ways we now travel to work or the windows we open once we get there. It’s making us think.

So if we take notice of whether what we eat is grass fed or free range or plant based then why shouldn’t we equally be interested that the air in a theatre is fresh-filtered? Why shouldn’t we think what it would mean for building facades to be like bean tins or sandwich boxes? Carrying information on their environmental and health performances. Not simply ‘as designed’ but also ‘as used’.

Perhaps not plastered across the windows and rooftops (like the Shandwick packet in my photo) but embedded in QR codes and augmented reality overlays. Or just tastefully (pun intended) done as in Peter Madden’s photo.

Streets first, buildings second

I’ve been invited to lecture to the Harvard GSD ‘Unterbau’ options studio this Thursday. They’ve been offered the concepts of the Continuous City (ie buildings aligned into street-fronting blocks) versus the Discontinuous City (ie modernist standalone architecture). This makes me think about a second pair of types: the Continuous Street Network (simple, linear, grid-like) and the Discontinuous Street Network (convoluted, labyrinth-like). 

These two categorisations can be combined, I think positively, as:

CC:CSN (the most traditional form of #urbanism, found for millennia)

DC:CSN (street-based but ‘gappy’)

or negatively as:

CC:DSN (trying to be like a city but overly convoluted in layout – I see a lot of this in contemporary urbanism)

DC:DSN (the worst of the worst – complex and incoherent).

In other words, what matters most is the geometry of the street network, then the continuity/discontinuity of the buildings. Streets first, buildings second. Sometimes/often/always hard for architects to accept.

I might weave this into my talk…

Form ⇝ Flow ⇝ Function

Many places work in ways not originally intended. The artist’s impression is often unrealised, with public spaces less well used than in the drawings, shops not getting the footfall shown in the CGIs, tracks worn into green spaces painted as pristine in the renderings.

The actual function of places – as opposed to their intended function – follows the flows set up by the spatial form of those places, independent of their designers’ wishes otherwise.

It’s risky to think that form follows function if you don’t first understand how the actual functioning of places is a consequence of the flows shaped by their physical forms.

If you don’t understand how physical forms shape human flows and these flows then support functions (such as sitting, shopping, resting, feeling comfortable or feeling unsafe) then you risk designing the wrong physical forms and ending up with problematic functions.

So, in the classroom it might be:

“Form follows function”

But in reality it’s the other way round:

Function follows flow, and flow follows form.

In other words:

Function follows flow follows form.

With software that forecasts flows by analysing physical forms, and with design principles shaped by decades of experience, my colleagues at Space Syntax and I have been able to de-risk the design process. We’ve analysed forms, predicted flows and been able to anticipate the functioning of schemes at the earliest stages of design, feeding back our recommended changes to the physical shape of design proposals in order to optimise flows and close the gap between intended and actual functions.

All ravens are crows but not all crows are ravens_Reflections on Transit Oriented Developments & Walkable Urban Centres

Sometimes confused for being the same thing, Transit Oriented Developments (TODs) and Walkable Urban Centres (WUCs) are two distinctly different urban creatures. TODs create efficiencies of urban movement, reducing car-dependency by providing proximity for residents and office workers to public transport infrastructure. WUCs sit at the heart of communities, providing mixed-use environments that foster social, economic and cultural productivity.

In the same way that all ravens are crows but not all crows are ravens, so it is that all WUCs are TODs but not all TODs are WUCs. Why should this be?…

Read More

World Cities Summit: leveraging the science of cities

As an architect & urban planner my principal concern is to make cities work for people. This means understanding how their streets connect to either encourage low carbon transport such as walking and public transport. Or, if they’re disconnected, do they lock in car dependence and its carbon impacts?

Read More

Choosing the office of the future: a time for quality, not quantity

Released today, Deloitte Real Estate’s London Office Crane Survey reports a 50% reduction in the construction of new office space in central London in six months. Yet even such a significant reduction in supply may not be enough to offset a greater reduction in demand. As a result, there is likely to be an oversupply of office space in central London. 

Mike Cracknell, director at Deloitte Real Estate, said, “By transforming outdated buildings into COVID-safe, high-quality workspaces, developers are looking to upgrade and futureproof their offices in a market where occupational demand is increasingly discerning.”

Indeed, in a buyers’ market, what matters is quality not quantity. And not only the functional specification of office space in terms of health and safety – such as air quality, general environmental cleanliness and the presence or not of touchless interfaces – but also in terms of organisational performance: is this an office in which my organisation can thrive?

When evaluating their needs, organisations must consider the fundamental purpose of an office. 

It is no longer enough – if ever it were – to think of an office as a place that’s big enough to get most people together to give them a place to work from where they can occasionally gather in large rooms for group meetings. That can all be done, to some degree of success, on Zoom. Nor is it about having a desk where everyone can work from. For most, a kitchen table or home office may still be good enough. 

No, what matters is everything that doesn’t get programmed into the working day: the incidental, the serendipitous. Sometimes thought only of in terms of ‘the social side of things’, the informal interactions that occur in offices are actually the hard currency of operational effectiveness. Offices that ‘buzz’ are places where ideas are born and shared. Where people not only want to work but want to stay working. And where outsiders want to visit, bringing with them their own ideas, their own colleagues and, in so doing, enhancing the melting pot of creativity.

Read More

“7Ls” of urban planning & design

Location – where is the site and what’s around it

Linkage – where are the principal ways into the site (can any new ones be established?)

Layout – the pattern & hierarchy of streets

Land use – more than housing?

Landscape – the look and feel of the place (covers a lot eg materials, blue/green)

Lining – how the buildings meet the street (active or blank frontages)

Longevity – quality construction & operational expectations

How do we measure connectivity, walkability & car-dependence at Space Syntax?

Spatial Layout Attraction Modelling’ is a computer modelling technique that calculates the relative importance of each street segment – each piece of street between two intersections – for people moving within towns and cities. 

We begin by analysing road the geometry of the street network, using road centreline data.

By finding the simplest routes from all street segment origins to all destinations – the shortest routes that involve the fewest twists and turns – an algorithm calculates how likely it is that movement will pass along any individual route.

Segments that are part of straighter, more connected and more central streets tend to be used more frequently as part of journeys across the urban network. 

Journey catchments
However, the overall importance of any street segment may vary depending on the scale of the journey. Some segments are more likely to be used as part of longer journeys, some as part of shorter journeys, some at both scales and some at neither. 

For this reason, Spatial Layout Attraction modelling is undertaken at two different scales: first, for a catchment of 10km, which typically identifies the movement hierarchy of people making longer journeys in vehicles and on bikes:

Read More

What are the physical & spatial characteristics of sustainable towns & cities?

First, the ability to walk to the place you buy your food.

Second, the ability to walk to see friends, go to school, visit a doctor or dentist or catch public transport.

‘Walkability’ requires fine-grained spatial connectivity: simple radial routes from edge to centre to get people to the shops from every direction and then orbitals to let friends get to other friends, to work, school, public transport and so on. Combine radials and orbitals and you get a latticework, or a grid. More regular grids, or less.

To be economic, both food shopping & public transport require sufficient density.

Combine 1) a fine-grained spatial latticework with 2) sufficient density and you have the building blocks of sustainable #urbanism.

If you can only have one then start with the connectivity: the radials feeding a centre and the orbitals helping people move around. Then add the density over time, intensifying the grid with more closely spaced and taller buildings as well as an increasingly finer network of routes towards the centre, where there is more pedestrian activity and an increasingly coarser ‘grain’ towards the edge, where there is less.

‪Cycling & public transport follow on.

This is how sustainable – ie walkable – towns and cities can grow.

Ten top tips for community campaigning

1) expect it to be a long run

2) celebrate small victories

3) gather the opinions of local people (local people are local experts)

4) gather the opinions of non-local experts

5) don’t accept “no” as an answer (“no” is an excuse, not an answer)

6) keep a record of everything (because people will come and go and they won’t otherwise know what has gone before)

7) expect setbacks (because nothing is linear and you’ll go in circles from time to time)

8) be patient with the naysayers since they can sometimes become your firmest advocates

9) be active online to promote and rebut


10) hang on to the fact that, however unlikely it may sometimes seem, common sense will prevail!

Good things take time…

Urbanism is a long game. The kids grow up for a start.

This morning I met with local town council members & county council officers to discuss a new pedestrian crossing in #Faversham. Only later did I realise this is on exactly the same location as the photo taken 12 years ago for an article by Katie Puckett for Building Magazine!

Here’s the article:

“This junction has been designed for the benefit of cars. At 8.30am it is teeming with kids trying to get to school but there’s nowhere to cross the road.”

This small but significant intervention would build on the recently approved 20mph speed limit in Faversham, something that’s been a long time in coming. Let’s see what happens in the next few months.

We can’t wait another decade.

What will cities look like 30 years from now?

I joined a carbon reduction event yesterday where, by way of introducing ourselves, we were each asked to predict the future: what did we think we would see more of in 2050 – in terms of objects, experiences and services. A neat little ice-breaker if ever there was one.

Here are my top-of-the-head responses:

1. Object

Green, shaded main streets

⁃ fronted by shops at ground level with people living above them

⁃ lined by trees that provide shade, lower air temperatures, disperse strong winds and encourage walking

⁃ forming the centres of local neighbourhoods that are built relatively densely but that are also intensely green (green walls, green roofs, green verges

⁃ connected into a secondary network of slow streets that people can walk, cycle and drive along.

2. Experience

Conviviality: the “Urban Buzz”

– people standing, sitting, talking and generally being present with one another, forming local communities.

3. Service

Data-driven urban planning & design

– harnessing machine learning and AI-driven algorithms to create future plans and predict their impacts.

The first two will help address the Climate Emergency by reducing transport emissions. The third will threaten the established authority of the architectural and urban planning professions, which will need to adapt to survive by accelerating their uptake of digital tools.

Office or home – where’s the best place to work from in the New Normal?

Screenshot 2020-05-04 at 16.53.58

The question about when we return to work is also a question about how we return to work. For many, remote working has been a revelation. Perhaps not ideal in every respect but certainly helpful in many: the convenience of not commuting, the realisation that Zoom, Teams, Miro, Skype, Whatsapp and other platforms mean it’s possible to stay in touch in ways we hadn’t realised.

So there’s a fair amount of “unlock inertia” going around and a good set of very reasonable questions being asked:

  • will anyone want to work 9-5 anymore?
  • and on every day of the week?
  • can we carry on having those online meetings because they seem, at least for some purposes, to be more efficient than round-table events?
  • and how do we stop ourselves drifting back to the Old Normal?

We’ve been discussing the future of work at Space Syntax, both for ourselves and for our clients who we help create workplaces that foster interaction, encourage serendipitous encounters and nurture creativity. I wrote recently about what the office of the future might look like, with no desks and board rooms – a little provocatively for some as it turned out, but deliberately done to stimulate our thinking about why we need offices. Read More

Is physical distancing possible on city streets?

Until a vaccine is found for COVID-19, and perhaps beyond, it will be important to practise physical distancing in towns and cities.

Whether this is possible will come down to the “carrying capacity” of the urban infrastructure: in particular, the relationship between Pedestrian Supply in the form of sufficiently wide footways and Pedestrian Demand in terms of the need for people to walk, whether that is to work, home, school, the shops or for leisure and pleasure.

Both supply and demand are calculable using tools from tape measures to multi-variable modelling algorithms.

Screenshot 2020-04-28 at 17.40.49

Much well-deserved attention has been paid to the Sidewalk Widths NYC project, a digital map that “is intended to give an impression of how sidewalk widths impact the ability of pedestrians to practice social distancing.” By measuring the available width of footways, the map indicates which footways may or may not be suitable for physical distancing.

Sidewalk width provides an important piece of the “Pedestrian Supply” equation. However, it is not on its own capable of answering the central question: is physical distancing possible?

First because it is a one-dimensional measure and physical distancing is at least two-dimensional: it may be possible to keep 6 feet to the side of someone else, but is it possible to keep 6 feet in front and 6 feet behind? Given the length of many streets in New York City it may seem apparent that there is plenty of space to go around but the generously wide sidewalks of Times Square demonstrate that, under normal circumstances it is possible for these to be swamped with human activity and, as a result unsuitable for physical distancing under the new normal. Furthermore, it may be possible to observe distancing while walking mid-block but what happens at street intersections? Is there space to queue? Are the street lights synchronised to let one “platoon” of users cross before the next arrives behind them? Is flow predominantly one-directional (which it may often, but not always, be in the rush hour) or two-directional (as it can be at lunchtime)? One-way flows may have less of the “ordered chaos”, the urban ballet of two-way flows and so one-way flows may be more efficient.  Read More

No board rooms, no desks. The office of the future…

Images of future offices, with physically distanced workstations to separate desk-bound workers, seem to miss the point. Offices aren’t for staying apart – they’re for coming together. But how can that be organised in a post-COVID world?

Offices have desks because we’ve long thought that people couldn’t or shouldn’t work from home. Attitudes were changing slowly, with progressively greater levels of home working in recent years. Now, enforced lockdown has shown, in a short space of time, that for many of us it’s entirely possible to do much of our work from the place we live.

This is especially so when we’ve got the right kit and the right applications, and when we’ve moved sufficiently well along the learning curve to use our tech properly. And home working is likely to be even easier when, for many, the kids are back at school and home is an emptier, quieter and less disruptive place to be.

To continue to be relevant, to be attractive to people who are used to the comforts of home working, offices should no longer be boxes where people sit further apart from each other. Instead, they need to be places for doing what can’t be as easily done at home:

⁃ serendipitous encounter outside of planned meetings

⁃ overheard conversations that prompt interruptions, discussions and, as a result, new ideas

⁃ introductions between the person you’re with and the person you bump into. Read More

Silver linings: how design can exploit the virus

A “to do” list for urban planners, architects & interior designers, in response to the coronavirus.

In towns & cities:

  • reduce traffic speeds to 20mph/30kph to discourage speeding on empty streets during lockdown & to keep the air clean, the sound low & the accidents down after the “return”.

On wide streets:

  • broaden footways to improve physical distancing in the short term & encourage pedestrian flow in the long
  • then narrow roadways further with cycle lanes to support physical activity during lockdown & active commuting on the return.

In public spaces:

  • provide more shade, more seats, more WiFi
  • place more seats on broadened footways so calls can be answered & people can convert from moving to sitting down…
  • …and so “I’ll call you back” becomes “Just give me a second to sit down.”

Read More

The Auranga Story: create streets = create jobs

Research by Mike Cullen of Urbacity has shown that:

Out-of-town malls generate 0.5 non-retail jobs per retail job created.

Mall-dominated towns generate 1.2.

Street-based retail generates 2.6

Answer = build street-based retail

As if we didn’t know enough already about the social, economic and environmental benefits of connected, mixed-use urbanism, Cullen’s research provides one more good reason to plan towns and cities around beautiful, shaded, slow, thriving streets.

Space Syntax is working with Urbacity in support of Design Urban in its masterplan for Auranga, a new urban settlement to the south of Auckland. Developed by Made, Auranga breaks the mould of car-based sprawl by co-locating residential and employment uses around a tight-knit, walkable town centre and rail station.

Read more about the Auranga development.

Image (c) Design Urban

Reflecting ourselves in the city

What can the form of cities tell us about the structure of the brain? And what can the structure of the brain tell us about the form of cities? These are questions that I’d like to address in this talk. In summary, I believe we can learn a good deal about the interaction between the mind and the urban places in which the global majority of people now lives.

After all, the city is the largest intentional product of the human species. We’ve had them for millennia and, in them, we’ve manifested our societies, created our industries and developed our cultures. They are the product of our imaginations, the places where we take decisions – and they are the inspiration for new thought. The link, I want to suggest though, is not just contextual. It’s much deeper than that. Read More

Beyond placemaking: 7 dimensions of “Place Performance”

Notes from a talk at the Bartlett Real Estate Institute, University College London, 24th April 2019.


Placemaking is the art and science of planning and designing spaces for human activity, however that is done: ‬

– by a single hand (usually not a good approach) or by multiple hands (usually a good approach)

– by academics, professionals and non-professionals. ‬‬

‪But beyond placemaking is “place working”, or “place functioning”, or “place performance”: when the planning, design and construction work is finished and the place becomes operational. When it fills with the mysterious liquid called human behaviour. ‬‬‬

And key to which is human transaction: the everyday social and economic exchanges that take place between people – these transactions not only sustain lives but bring about inventions that shape cultures.

Place Performance has many dimensions. Here are seven that I have seen work in practice: Read More

Transport & housing: tools, standards, principles

Notes for presentation at Transport & Housing conference:

To understand where we are & where we need to go, we first need to understand where we come from. And where we come from is a relationship with the car that has fragmented cities & damaged lives.

Transport & housing

Big problems:

– obesity

– mental health

– social unrest.

The irony. The paradox.

We have never been as connected.

We have never been as spatially segregated. Read More

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