1st Jun, 2021Gareth Simons

The work developed throughout the PhD seeks not to introduce any new or profound perspective on the theory of urbanism. Instead, it takes existing theories and narratives as a departure point; mainly, an awareness that reductionist and ideological perspectives of urban planning have caused untold damage because they have tended to impede the necessarily dense and complex cascades of interactions typical of walkable towns and cities. Whereas urban theory has increasingly grasped these and related themes, the shovels-in-the-ground reality of contemporary urban development remains ripe for cynicism. When probed, recent fanfare centring on Smart Cities and Digital Twins — or the Internet-Of-Things, machine-learning, and A.I. — tend to collapse into tired tropes reminiscent of modernism, that if only there were enough information and control, coupled with dutiful cooperation from city citizenry, then newfound technological prowess could subdue all manner of urban woes. A further and more fundamental conundrum presents: even if guided by well-intentioned property developers or backed by well-informed urban policies, much day-to-day urban development continues to miss the mark. What can be particularly frustrating is that the pertinent issues are already well-framed and oft-parroted by participants of planning processes: dense and granular morphologies coupled with walkable mixtures of land-uses are the fundamental components allowing vibrant and pedestrian-friendly streets and neighbourhoods to develop and flourish. However, somehow, these ingredients continue to go amiss. We observe fragmentary infrastructure prioritising cars over pedestrians and transit; far-flung shopping malls and parking lots instead of walkable high-streets; loss of granularity when new buildings take the place of old; and public spaces carved from disused tracts of land as after-thoughts instead of the integral public realm so characteristic of historically evolved cities.

None of these observations is unique or new to urbanism. There is, nevertheless, persistent difficulty in translating these theoretical ideas into tangible outcomes for new development, and it is this issue that motivates this thesis.

Firstly, how do urbanists develop robust, repeatable, and scalable urban benchmarking tools to aid design and approvals processes? These tools are implied in the sense of supporting the rapid iteration and comparison of design scenarios and the sense of bringing more accountability and transparency into planning review processes to prevent the undermining of development policies, whether intentionally so or not.

Secondly, what exactly is it that urbanists should be benchmarking? This question triggers two concerns, one practical and one theoretical, both of which this thesis considers. The practical concern is that if benchmarking tools are to make observations about fine-grained urbanism, then suitably sensitive techniques are needed for high-resolution network-based spatial analysis at the scale of pedestrians. The theoretical concern is difficult to express but essential to grasp: ever-increasing access to technologies, computational power, and the minutiae of the citizenry’s cellphone signals brings urbanists no closer to walkable cities or vibrant neighbourhoods. Treating the movements and habits of people as simplistic quantities to be optimised leads towards the red-herring of reductionism so costly to walkable urbanism and inevitably lands on the doorstep of Jane Jacobs’ emphatic argument that cities are inherently messy, inefficient, and unpredictable — and of necessity so. It is in the tradition of Jane Jacobs’ generators of diversity and Christopher Alexander’s thoughts on networks that this thesis proceeds. This logic is, in essence, concerned with how street networks, accessible land-uses, and sufficient population densities afford the potential for innumerable interactions to unfold unimpeded and how that such granular and densely interconnected urban morphologies — even if seemingly static — can afford tremendously rich and dynamic assortments of exchanges capable of continual adaptation and resilience over time. As such, the emphasis of this work is not on tracking or predicting each movement of every citizen but on developing techniques for the identification of urban substrates capable of supporting complex sets of interplay, whatever form this may ultimately take and however such patterns might evolve through the vagaries of time.

It is against this backdrop that the aim of the proceeding work is framed:

Quantitative urban analysis workflows developed from complex systems derived measures may gauge characteristic properties of urbanism in a manner that is not only consistent with qualitative interpretations but which uses these as a departure point in the tradition of arguments developed by Jane Jacobs. Further, the application of such methods to morphological analysis in a contextually precise manner at the pedestrian scale — here facilitated through the development of cityseer-api — can be combined with machine learning methods to characterise and benchmark urbanism against models trained on existing forms of urban development.