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Towards Successful Suburban Town Centres

Within the next 20 years, most of the growth in housing development in England and Wales is predicted to occur in suburban settlements.

At the same time, this development is expected to be sustainable economically and environmentally, which means that the suburb is required to provide local economic activities in order to minimise travel and to support cohesive and vibrant communities.

One of the main problems that urban planners and designers face when they try to materialise this vision is the lack of knowledge on the factors that make the suburban town centre and its surroundings successful and vibrant. The Towards Successful Suburban Town Centres project addressed this issue by developing tools and techniques to assist in the development of existing and new urban areas.

Overview

The Towards Successful Suburban Centres project ran for three years. Its research involved conducting spatial analysis of social and economic activities at street block level using space syntax tools integrated into a geographical information system. The research focused on twenty-six case studies drawn from the Greater London area with a detailed study of three of these.

In most policy research there is no unified analytical framework; urban designers focus on the street layout, while social-scientists are concerned with the social and economic aspects of town centre planning. The team developed an integrated methodology that allowed the visualisation and analysis of the structure of streets and the layout of buildings in combination with economic and social information about the people who live and work in the same area.

They developed new techniques for the analysis of the suburban town centre and it surroundings. Using a Geographical Information System (GIS), we developed a method that enables the adjustment of historical maps to the latest detailed digital data from the Ordnance Survey.

An algorithm was developed for automated capture of street address data to the street block 'objects'. The project also used GIS to integrate the street address data and to conduct spatial analysis on socio-economic development of town centres through time. The team also developed ethnographic methods to study patterns of movement and space use, including an innovative use of video for this purpose.

Team Members

Laura Vaughan
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Muki Haklay
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Sam Griffiths
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Kate Jones

Research Objectives

The team's working hypothesis was that successful suburban town centres are characterised by an ability to integrate different populations and generate an 'urban buzz' through sustaining a multi-faceted range of activities which can serve as a hub for community interaction and help to minimise social exclusion.

They understood 'sustainability' in terms of self-generating town-centre activity rather than as a specifically ecological ideal - though they suggested that these two different aspects may be closely related.

The team approached the complex relationship of spatiality and sociability in successful suburbs from a variety of analytical perspectives including demographic and social deprivation but also examining the historical development of a suburban town centre and its relation to the rhythms of everyday life that distinguish the identities of different places.

The team's aim was that our research should inform and support the planning process to facilitate the sustainable development of successful suburbs, bringing improvement in the quality of life of their inhabitants.

The project provided a robust method for the integrated analysis of the physical layout of a living environment with socio-economic information. This method could contribute to other studies in urban planning, geography, architecture, sociology and a range of other disciplines. The lessons learnt from the use of historical maps can contribute to studies in engineering, social science and the humanities.

The method for geo-referencing and integrating the maps into a coherent database will be published as part of this research.

Methodology

The team initially studied ten suburban areas in the Greater London area between the north and south circular road and the M25 in order to fix on a range of suburban types. The next stage was to select four of these suburban centres for detailed case studies. The selection of settlements was based on computerised geographical analysis of existing governmental datasets, literature review and mapping studies. The four cases covered a range of suburban centres considered to be 'successful' but which have different strengths and weaknesses.

Each of the four cases was analysed in detail: the team used historical maps, recently released for academic research, in a GIS environment to analyse the evolution of suburban form over the last 100 years. This was followed-up by an in-depth analysis of change over the last decade, based on census data, recent maps and a range of governmental datasets including economic activity.

The project assessed the success of the centres through measures of economic performance, physical accessibility, walkablity and diversity of activities.

The team also ran local workshops to contribute to this assessment and to get information on future priorities from the perspective of local stakeholders. Finally, the data was integrated and we will deliver a comprehensive dataset and set of guidelines for the systematic analysis and future planning of suburban town centres.

They developed new techniques for the analysis of the suburban town centre and its surroundings using Geographical Information Systems (GIS), Spatial Analysis and Space Syntax Methodology (SSM). In GIS they developed a method that enables the adjustment of historical maps to the latest detailed digital data by the Ordnance Survey. The team used GIS to integrate the suburbs data and to conduct spatial analysis on the relationship between socio-economic development. Space Syntax and GIS techniques were both used to analyse the way in which suburban space is being utilised by people and to integrate the social and economic data with information about urban form.

Case Studies

Ashford, Middlesex  (Spelthorne)
Barnet  (Barnet)
Bexleyheath  (Bexley)
Chadwell Heath  (Barking and Dagenham, Redbridge)
Chingford  (Waltham Forest)
Coulsdon  (Croydon)
Enfield  (Enfield)
Loughton  (Epping Forest)
Orpington  (Bromley)
Purley  (Croydon)
Raynes Park  (Merton)
Rickmansworth  (Watford)
South Harrow  (Harrow)
South Norwood  (Croydon)
Surbiton  (Kingston upon Thames)
Wallington  (Sutton)
Wealdstone  (Harrow)
Weybridge  (Elmbridge)
Whetstone  (Barnet)
Worcester Park  (Sutton)

Outputs and Publications

The Towards Successful Suburban Centres project has contributed to the policy debate on the future of suburbs, developed methods to assist urban planners in making development decisions, innovated in the use of historical maps and explored possibilities for integrating socio-economic data with information about the layout of urban areas.

The team produced over a dozen publications. These appeared in leading conferences and journals, including Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers.

Impact

The project provided consultancy to the 'City-Suburbs Project' for Barnet Council in partnership with the Centre for Local Government Leadership. It also provided data and knowledge on some of London’s larger town centres to the North London Strategic Alliance and West London Alliance on 'Town Centres and the Economy'.

The team presented our research to the Outer London Commission and at several public workshops, including the June 2009 'Densifying our Suburbs' seminar. The project was also approached by Kingston Borough Council to advise on the plan for Surbiton town centre and we were involved with a knowledge transfer project 'The intangible value of urban layout'. The latter project integrated and cross referenced valuations of social, security and environmental aspects of urban layouts in order to inform the planning and design process in London. This was part of a HEFCE-funded £5m initiative: UrbanBuzz: Building Sustainable Communities.

A profiling tool online was created in which spatial, social and economic data were made available to planners, designers and the general public. The profiler is a geo-visualisation tool that allows the non-GIS expert to explore cartographic representations of different social, economic and spatial (space syntax) themes across the 20 randomly sampled suburban town centres - alongside a control group of 6 larger suburban centres. The tool allows the user to explore a variety of map themes at consistent scales, enabling local knowledge about the suburban environment to be compiled using a comparative method of transitions to discover patterns within and between centres.

Profiler