Cities from scratch – Astana Economic Forum

Good afternoon. I’m delighted to be a member of this panel today.

Let me start by describing my organisation’s approach to the creation of cities from scratch.

Space Syntax is an international urban planning and design studio and has been involved in plans for new cities and new city extensions throughout the world, including here in Kazakhstan.

Our approach is built on three key ingredients:

Slide 1 – Truman Brewery

First, a focus on people. Not just the movement of people but especially the interaction between people. After all, this is why we have cities: for social and economic transaction between people. Cities are transaction machines. They are the largest and, in my view, the greatest creation of human beings.

It’s easy though to think about cities creating problems: air pollution, traffic congestion, unplanned settlements, crime. And of course we need to address each of these problems. But, in creating a city from scratch I believe it’s essential to have a higher vision: that what we are creating is a transaction machine that will, if we design it well, lead to the creation of new ideas, new inventions and new cultural innovations. All of this has powerful economic implications.

In order for people to transact effectively we need great streets and public spaces. Great cities are great not just because of their buildings but especially because of their public spaces. And we don’t just need public space to relax in. Far from it – we need public space to do our business in. So much business is done in the public realm – if we design the public realm to provide places for people. So a focus on public space is the second key ingredient in our approach.

Slide 2 – Trafalgar Square

Space Syntax has been involved in many hundreds of public space projects in the last thirty years, including London’s Trafalgar Square.

Slide 3 – Jilin

We are currently working in the city of Jilin in north-east China, designing four major public spaces that integrate the new metro system into the street life of the city.

Slide 4 – Astana

We have recently submitted our proposals for the future of Astana – plans that are built around networks of highly connected, human-scaled streets and public spaces. I’m very pleased to be able to show – for the first time in public – an image from our submission.

The third key ingredient is technology. Space Syntax is a Smart Cities company. We employ processes of digital planning and design to predict human behaviour patterns in our master planning proposals for new buildings, streets, parks and public spaces. These forecasting techniques work at every scale, from predicting micro-level movements in a single public space, right up to the prediction of the economic performance of entire cities and even countries.

Slide 5 – IUM

We use a process of Integrated Urban Modelling to bring together the many different factors that influence the way people move and interact in cities. This approach works both in existing cities and in cities that we are designing from scratch.

Slide 6 – Shanghai

What we’ve learned is that the spatial layout of the city is absolutely critical to its social and economic performance. The pattern of streets and spaces has a fundamental effect on how people move around – whether they will walk or whether they will have to drive. If streets connect sufficiently well then we find there’s more walking in existing cities and there will be more walking in new cities. If street networks are disconnected then cities can’t create local movement economies. Instead, people drive.

Similarly, when cities are too fragmented it’s very difficult to make public transport work economically.

The lessons of history are that great cities are people cities and people cities are built on highly connected, highly animated networks of streets and spaces.

Integrated Urban Modelling tells us:

– whether our designs are sufficiently well connected

– whether we have the key attractions in the most accessible locations

– how land values will be affected

and therefore:

– whether investments are likely to return a premium.

DESIGN SYSTEMS (physical, governmental, financial)

Let me make a couple of further points:

Slide 7 – 3 design systems

Creating a city from scratch is never just a physical design problem. It also requires the design of two other systems.

First, the design of systems of governance. This certainly means having capable leadership in the public and private sectors. It also means having processes of consultation so that people can contribute to decision-making processes. There are others at this Forum far more capable than me to speak about this theme of leadership and governance but, as an architect I need to work with both city leaders and private individuals, and if I’m involved in creating a new city or city district then I need confidence in the processes of decision-taking I’m involved in.

In my experience, technology can help. At Space Syntax we have deliberately designed the mapping tools we use to be highly visible, straightforward to understand and quick to process ideas. This gives people confidence in the information they’re being shown – they can interact with the models and they can see for themselves how decisions are being taken.

As well as designing systems of governance we also need to design systems of finance: how land is bought, sold or rented. How infrastructure can be paid for when it’s most needed – which is often at the beginning of highly risky, large projects, long before it’s able to generate a return on investment.

Infrastructure funding is a huge problem and, unless it’s solved we will continue to see cities being built without, for example, adequate public transport. Or we will see the stability risks that are created by economies having to carry too much debt. Again, others at this Forum can say more than me but, as an architect, I need to see proper urban infrastructure built into cities from the beginning – because it’s so much harder and much more expensive to add it in afterwards.

To close I’d like to offer three final thoughts about how we can go about creating cities from scratch:

Slide 8 – Scales

First, we need to think about cities at two simultaneous scales:

– at the macro scale, from the air, in terms of how all the pieces fit together to create city systems

– then at the micro scale of individual human interactions.

In other words we need to get the design of the city right at the level of the overall city and at the scale of the individual park bench.

Slide 9 – Landscape & context

Second, we are never really creating cities from scratch – there is always a local landscape that informs the design of the city; or an existing village network that can be integrated; and there are almost always trade routes that have brought, and will continue to bring people across the land – and nowhere more so than here in Kazakhstan.

Third, cities never exist in isolation. They have a physical context – of surrounding towns and villages that support them. There are interdependencies, for example, between the land around the city where food is produced and the city that then consumes it.

And finally, there is always a non-physical context: a digital context certainly. People are increasingly living online as well as on land. This affects their behaviours – we need to design for this. And, as well as a digital context there is a philosophical and spiritual context, which varies from culture to culture and which designers need to appreciate in order to create cities that truly address human needs.

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