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Urban morphology & building adaptation - area comparison

I wrote about the changeability of London’s suburban high streets in 2017, together with Associate Professor Sam Griffiths and Professor Laura Vaughan from UCL. The ticking reader count and citations of our article indicate it has been useful not only for myself.

The observation that sparked the research was a perceivable difference in street life in two town centres in London. Both South Norwood and Surbiton are 19th-century railway suburbs in South London. Despite their extrinsic similarities, the high street in Surbiton has a vibrant character with a mix of businesses new and old, while in contrast, South Norwood’s high street appears to have been left behind: pubs are closed and fast food restaurants dominate. Insights into this phenomenon seemed to reveal something of long-term urban viability and resilience. That knowledge could contribute to urban design practice: it might help see beyond fixed city plans; understanding how a place continues to change after plans have been implemented. My research looked at the effect of urban form on the demolition, modification and use changes of the buildings in and around the suburban high streets. It was published in Urban Morphology in 2017 (you can also see it on my Researchgate account).

What I learned

In the research, I gained insight into what sustains vibrant street life amidst social changes and urban growth. I am more acutely aware of the complexity of this issue which is often regarded in a simple and superficial way, especially in design competitions (their format drives simplification and inflated optimism, of course). There is no universal design formula for lively suburban streets, although suitable centrality within the broader street network seems essential. It affects the change and continuity of shops and other ground floor uses. That is not a linear correspondence, however. Too much centrality attracts disturbing through-traffic, especially in suburban locations. Local thoroughfares between arterial roads, well connected to the surroundings, seem potential. Furthermore, the structure of a town block may allow or limit adaptation, such as expansion and conversion, which nurtures a variety of old and new uses. That is to say, while local attractions indeed play a role, possibilities of liveliness depend much on a particular relation to the broader context and other factors of the ability to change with society – changeability. I have now a better sensibility to see such challenges and potentials of the urban context. This knowledge was useful e.g. in the work I did for the City of Helsinki.

How others referred to it

Today, the article has been cited 19 times in a book chapter, journal articles and conference papers. Primarily it has been my co-authors and other colleagues studying urban form using the theory and methods of space syntax. The sophistication of space syntax methodology makes it challenging to digest for researchers outside the field. While space syntax is in principle powerfully simple and demonstrative – it studies how spaces relate to each other and this relates to their social character – it entails a theory, concepts and terms that require effort to familiarize with.

Colleagues from the UCL space syntax laboratory have referred to the article in the context of urban heritage to understand adaptation as a historic character of streets that can be projected to the future; to explain mixed-use architecture; to broaden the study of urban adaptability with a case of low-rise mass housing; to argue for better consideration of minority ethnic businesses in urban design. Moreover, the article has been referred to in a history of urban design theories that have influenced the urban morphology of Montreal.