Giving it all away? Space Syntax & the future of urban planning software

Notes for a lecture to be given at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, 23rd March 2011
With notable exceptions, the current use of technology in planning and, especially, urban design/architecture practice is medieval. More visual than analytic. More about the “Wow!” than the “Why?”, the “Which?” or the “Will it?” Example of animation in traffic models – “Our clients like to see them move!”

Urban imperative – rapid scaling up of urban centres – provokes need for new thinking.

We need to look more at how places work than how they look.

We need to bring academic research into practice and for academia to be better led by the needs of practice.
We need to think about online social networks as well as “real-world” physical/spatial networks. Indeed real world is as much online as physical/spatial.

We need to share our data. The future will be made by great partnerships, not great individuals. It has arguably ever thus been.

Open source makes commercial as well as ethical sense as the route to collaboration.

Space Syntax as the case study.
First of all, our discipline is medieval in its use of technology. We “ooh” and “ahh” at heat maps that tell us nothing more than what is already there in front of us. What we really need to know about is the future.

“What will happen if we do this?”

“Or that?”

“What should we do?”

At this point there’s not much out there that is truly a forecast model. There are scenario models but they show you what you have told them to show you. Traffic models likewise.

If we consider the future of an urban place, what are the kinds of questions that concern us?

– economic success

– safety

– community cohesion

– carbon footprint: has led much urban thinking, arguable to the relative neglect of economic and social vitality as drivers.

A clue to this is movement, human copresence & interaction. Perhaps the key because if we know how people are likely to move, to become aware of each other then we can anticipate socio-economic and environmental consequences more accurately.

In the past, we thought land use attraction governed movement. We were wrong. It’s only partly the case. Landscapes of failure eg UK New Towns Programme.

Before we understood its consequences, we liked this approach because it was simple: zoning, compartmentalisation, enclosure, repetition, hierarchy. Legacy of 19th century epistemological thinking. Natural History Museums.

It turns out it’s more complicated – urban centres are more sophisticated. We shouldn’t be surprised by this – who says life is simple?

So, what’s missing? It turns out to be the glue – space. Glue with amazing properties. Configurational properties.
Look at this amazing software. Space Syntax. It’s gold dust.

Yes, it is – has been used to generate millions and millions and millions of dollars of consulting income over the years. Proven in multiple markets.
And now we want to give away our secret sauce.
Why on earth should this be?

Space Syntax works especially well for cities, the basic unit of future urbanism – urban density or sprawl? Urban density will prevail, not just because energy will become more and more expensive but because the human convenience of density is its greatest asset. At heart, more of us embrace convenience more of the time. So, we’ll still drive long distances – that just won’t be the norm that it is became for many in the 20th century.

As we care more for the local than we have done for the last hundred years, we will discover the enormous benefits that come from locally strong places: the convenience of social networks, the resilience of economic proximity. Time is precious. Time and space are our greatest natural resources.

The need to plan new urban places is greater than ever. The need to access knowledge and tools is similarly great. Hence the drive to disseminate.

What form should that dissemination take? The creation of a global giant? Or, a network of local centres? Global giants have one guiding financial imperative – the need to feed the beast. A network of local centres allows for local cultural distinctiveness. But it also requires a weakening of central control. A leap of faith too far? Not if the network is founded on strong principles. If it has a DNA.

Is there a model for this? The city. The place where the simultaneous actions of individuals somehow create socio-economic cultures.

“The Cathedral and the Bazaar” sets out an argument for the power of the network, albeit with reference to the development of software, contrasting the traditional command and control model with the alternative structure of an open source community.

Link to post on networks.

“The knowledge is free but the wisdom you have to pay for.”

6 Comments on “Giving it all away? Space Syntax & the future of urban planning software”

  1. That’s an interesting development, Tim; good news! I know enough of Space Syntax to be convinced of its power as a predictive tool, but I’ve never managed to create an opportunity to bring it into projects I have been involved in. I look forward to finding out more about when and where we might we get our hands on it!

  2. Tim,
    As you know from our previous discussions here in Australia I have always wanted Space Syntax to be more freely available. I welcome the change in strategy and believe it will yield more for you than the model previously followed. How will you go about releasing the software without it being misunderstood and misused? I look forward to further developments. All the best. Steve

  3. I have used Depthmap and some of the other software in research where it is available free and it has assisted me immensely in understanding urban and public space dynamics and would welcome its becoming available for commercial use as I believe the more people who are abel to understand the dynamics of place before interacting with it and being able to model the results of their interventions – the more likely they are to at least “do no harm” – I think there are ooprptunities in open source also to develop the depth of modeling to include ecological and other human factors which are as yet not emphasized in Space Syntax research, although work is being done in private practice and showing-up in the conference papers.

  4. Pingback: Giving it all away? Space Syntax & the future of urban planning software (via The power of the network) | Urban Choreography

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