The core objective of the project is to develop an understanding of the workings of small scale, 'below the radar' economic and social sub-urban activities – such as small groups of offices, workshops or shops at the edge of the town centre. These activities play a vital role in the economic, social and environmental sustainability of urban areas but since research and policy intervention focus on regional centres and large projects, there is a lack of knowledge about these activities, and therefore a lack of policy attention to them. We have found evidence in our previous work on suburban town centres that these elements operate at multiple scales – for example, that local centres emerge through time as an outcome of both local travel to work patterns and long distance movements. In particular, these activities are not sufficiently understood in the context of local planning and economic decisions. By integrating theories and methods from architecture, anthropology, history and geography, we will create the tools to handle large data sets on street-level activity within and around town centres and provide the knowledge and understanding to interpret the spatially related social/economic data in order to address key questions about the future of the UK urban environment.
We will develop an integrated theory of how town centres evolve by developing knowledge on urban sustainability, patterns of social and economic behaviour and how places adapt and change over time. This will provide a framework to develop the ability for ethnography to generalise from the particular and in parallel an opportunity for the spatial sciences to reveal perspectives that might otherwise be overlooked in a strictly quantitative framework with the added benefit for insight into how a robust historical framework can assist in understanding how places change and adapt through time.
The integrated methodologies will enable us to improve our understanding of the relationship between individual actions, small and large-scale spatial order and change and emergent morphological changes. We aim to understand how multiple small-scale spatial interventions have an impact on large-scale infrastructure, such as concreting over front gardens leading to lack of absorption of ground water. This integration of scales will enable discussions with local authorities on how small scale interventions and decisions can be analysed at the macro scale. The individual can be understood, but we need to understand the problem statistically too.
Patterns of settlement at the urban fringe, patterns of segregation, economic patterns and housing stock are primarily suburban, yet there is no formal theoretical understanding of the contribution of these to the overall economic sustainability of our cities. For example, businesses and services are located in, provide footfall for and themselves engage with the town centre. Our spatial model will take account of how many people are living and working in the study areas, what their networks of supply, consumption, communication and exchange are. We need to understand places as not fixed in time or space and will therefore build a longitudinal model of the full extents of non-residential activities at four key points in time over the last two centuries. Since social sustainability is a multi-faceted concept, we will use small area census statistics to build in measures of social equity, deprivation, healthy outcomes, all in relation to the transformation of network accessibility over time.