London Policy Conference – don’t turn your back on housing
These notes accompany a PowerPoint presentation.
1. Connectivity is an issue that has come up several times already at this London Policy Conference.
As an architect and town planner, my interest is in the influence of physical connectivity on the behaviour patterns of Londoners. Was connectivity a factor in the London Riots?
London’s street network, illustrated above me, is a connectivity matrix. It is the principal organiser of the movement patterns of pedestrians, cyclists, bus passengers, car drivers and even – if I had time to show you – tube and rail travellers.
These connections provide the routes by which we get to work, go to the shops or navigate our way to see a friend.
London’s street network is a piece of infrastructure. Indeed it is London’s largest piece of infrastructure. I believe it needs investment and management just like any other piece of infrastucture, not least because it is in this network that London’s values are created; it is where Londoners transact their lives, both socially and economically.
2. Like a machine, London’s street network has some links and connections that need to work harder than others. It has a hierarchy. Londoners are, in the main, pragmatic, choosing the simplest most direct routes from origins to destinations. The more connected routes are shown here in red. The less connected routes are in blue.
Again, there isn’t the time to show how the mathematics of this model works, or how this pattern of connectivity changes according to the length of journeys but it does. Some streets are more important for longer journeys. Some for shorter. Some for journeys at many scales. Indeed these multi-scale places are typically where you find London’s shops, picking up on trade routes both short and long.
For many centuries this was a largely unplanned, natural process. Layout influences movement. Movement influences the viability of retail. And, the research shows, many other things such as land value and even crime. London’s success as a healthy economy and convivial society depends on the degree to which we understand and nurture these natural processes.
3. When we began to look at where riot incidents had occurred – the black dots on this slide – we immediately found that almost all had taken place within 400 metres of highly connected streets. Hardly surprising you may say given that this is where the shops are.
But we also concluded that this wasn’t a sufficient explanation. There are many highly accessible places that were unaffected by the riots.
4. We then looked at a different kind of spatial phenomenon – London’s large housing estates. Estates are typically characterised by overly complex spatial layouts – quite unlike more traditional street-based housing layouts. By this, I mean that estates often have shorter sight lines, a greater level of twists and turns. You can see the shorter, less direct routes in red in this image.
5. When we added these places into our assessment we were able to find a much stronger association with riot incidents. Around 90% of the incidents we looked at occurred within 400 metres of both a highly connected town centre and a poorly connected housing estate.
Now I have to stress that all we have found is an association. We have not found causation. We are not saying that the estates caused the riots. Only, and it may be a big only, that there is an association.
6. However, the association is compelling. My colleagues at University College London have studied London’s housing estates over many years and found patterns of peer socialisation among children that are quite different to those in non-estate street layouts. They observed much lower levels of co-presence between adults and children on estates. They identified higher levels of anti-social behaviour in the heart of estates than in the heart of street-based areas. They counted levels of overall movement in estates that are so low they are the same during the day as nighttime levels in street layouts.
7. And so my plea to this conference is not to overlook housing estates in searching for answers to the riots and solutions to the regeneration of London’s high streets. Estates, both old and new, need equal attention. This means further physical redevelopment, opening them up, simplifying their layouts, making them everyday parts of London life. After all, they provide the local, walkable catchments for London’s village centres. We should not turn our backs on them.
I’m interested in this approach not only for the reasons you advance but also because it presents a great opportunity for increasing the density of the cycleable network of our city. It’s already happening, to some extent. In Haggerston, for example, new north-south streets are being established as a result of redevelopment of 1950s social housing which sealed off all north-south cycleable links between two heavily trafficked streets (Kingsland Road and Queensbridge Road). We (London Cycling Campaign in Hackney) did have to intervene during the outline planning phase to persuade the developers and planners to make these two-way for cycling, and unfortunately the new streets are neither being adopted by the local authority nor being modally filtered, but it’s going to be a lot better than the impermeable status quo.
By the way, it would be interesting to know your thoughts on the desirability of modally filtering the hoped-for new streets when social housing areas are redeveloped.