Bill Hillier’s Smart London

Notes of Bill Hilliers opening talk about the NLA Smarter London exhibition, 8th October 2014.

Congratulations to the NLA and CASA for the exhibition.

It’s evidence that London is the original smart city – nowhere such a collection of top class practices, imaginative authorities and academic departments developing new ways of doing things, and new technologies –and talking to each other !

But I think London is a smart city also in another sense – the city itself and how it’s put together.

When I was young London was regarded as an unplanned mess, in need of being tidied up into a system of well-defined neighbourhood units separated by main roads – a bit like Milton Keynes.

I’ve been asked to say something about one of the technologies on show – space syntax.

When we apply space syntax analysis to London it suggests it’s not mess at all

That under the apparent disorder, there is a pretty smart city.

Let me explain.

Those of you who’ve come across space syntax professionally (and there are quite a few of you now) will know that space syntax is a technique for analysing design proposals in terms of the way they organise space, and predicting how they would work if built.

Familiar examples include
-Trafalgar Square – what had to be done to make it a well-used civic space, as opposed to the pigeon-feeding centre – unused by Londoners – it once was
– Would the Milleneum bridge be well used and what would be its impact of on the area both sides of the river
– how could you wake up the spaces of the South Bank
– how could you create new urban areas such as New London or Brindleyplace

Space syntax thought it was able to answer these questions because it began in the university as a tool for understanding cities; how they were put together spatially and how they worked – and how they emerged as large workable structures from innumerable local decisions, often over hundreds of years. Was there a pattern of some kind ?

It started by trying to analyse the street network – how easy or difficult was it to get to different parts ? how would people find routes through it ? was it efficient in getting from everywhere to everywhere else. High speed computers meant we could begin to ask such questions for the first time .

No one had tried to do this before. In those days, street networks seemed to be a boring background, too uninteresting to be an object of design – even out of date –anyway streets meant cars, and we had to keep people away from them

This reinforced the idea that London was – or should become – a set of separate areas linked by main roads even though the beautiful and characterful nature of London’s areas was somehow achieved without boundaries or demarcations

It was against the background of the idea that places should be one thing and movement another that space syntax’s efforts to analyse street patterns led to a discovery that seems more and more important as time goes on

It was that the position of a street in the structure of the street network was in and of itself the main determinant of movement flows along the street – not just local connections, but how the street was embedded into the whole system

What about the attractors ? the attractors are there because that’s where the street network put people. The people attracted the attractors in the first place!

Think of Oxford Street. Its obvious people are there for the shops. But why are the shops in Oxford Street ? Because that’s where the street grid put the people in the first place.

This process linking the movement generate by the urban grid to land use patterns is what turns London into what it is, not bounded areas, but a rich pattern of centres and sub centres, formed by the ways in which the street system shapes movement, so that locally it feel like a series of towns and villages, but at the same time, part of a vast city.

In technical terms, London is not a system of neighbourhood units separated by the main road.

But a dual network of streets, made up of
– A foreground network of centres at all scales from a couple of shops and a cafe to large tow like area
– Set into a continuous background of largely residential space

Seen this way, London has hundreds – maybe over 1000 – of local centres at all scales

This is highly sustainable, in that wherever you are you are close to small centres in different directions, and not far from a larger one.

With new technologies we can master this level of complexity. We don’t have to reduce the city to a caricature

In fact, many, if not most, cities have something like this generic form: London is a singularly clear example

With these concepts I believe we can link this new understanding of the city to the architectural imagination, design cities again.

They will not be copies of the past, but new architectural forms and spatial patterns generated by our understanding of what makes a city a city.

Perhaps the strange thing is that with 21 century technology we can understand the traditional city and, even more importantly, how it evolves and emerges from local decisions.

But to make a city a city, the key is movement. Movement is not one thing and place another. Movement is the heart of place. It’s recognising this that makes space syntax work. This has to be one of our starting concept for London from now on.

We can create more London-like places for London using new technologies.

bh ​​​​​​​​​​ 071014

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