How does the layout of a city affect its economic success?

A scale model of Beijing, 2007. Image: Getty.

How does the layout of a city affect its performance? And what are the opportunities and challenges of spatial evidence in policy? Centre for Cities discussed these issues at a recent roundtable with urban planning consultancy Space Syntax.

Space Syntax studies the impact that the physical layout of cities has on the social, organisational and economic performance of urban areas. Developed by researchers at The Bartlett (University College London’s global faculty of the built environment), this theory is used to give streets an ‘accessibility’ score, denoting how well a street is linked to the wider layout of a city: for example, if it is a dead end, its score would be low. Streets are then plotted on a map using different colours for different levels of accessibility – with red meaning more accessible streets and cold colours like blue representing less accessible ones.

The physical fabric of a place has an impact on its performance. One of the examples discussed on the day was the comparison between Ashford, Kent, which has grown over a number of centuries, and the new town of Skelmersdale in West Lancashire.

The two cities have different layouts and this has consequences in terms of city centre accessibility and land use. In Ashford, most streets are interlinked with one another, creating an accessible town centre:

Streets Accessiblity in Ashford.

By contrast, the centre of Skelmersdale is characterized by fragmented streets with many more dead ends. These separated movements make the city centre inaccessible.

Streets accessibility in Skelmersdale.

The accessibility of streets affects land use. Ashford town centre is more accessible, and has a combination of retail and catering businesses, commercial activities and offices, houses and services, all in close proximity.

Land use in Ashford town-centre. 

By contrast, land use in Skelmersdale town centre is much more fragmented (figure 4). The Concourse Shopping Centre dominates the town centre while offices, houses and services are broadly segregated in three different parts.

Land use in Skelmersdale town-centre.

The wider body of research shows that the layout of a city has an impact on a wide range of issues such as crime, social inclusion, poverty, and health. Understanding that impact – and better communicating the implications to policy-makers – has the potential to bring about positive change to the everyday lives of the people who live and work in urban areas.

In conjunction with the researchers at UCL, we will be doing more work in the coming months on the implications of spatial design for policy makers at the local and national level.

Elena Magrini is a researcher at the Centre for Cities, on whose website this article originally appeared.


 

 
 
 
 

Is Britain’s housing crisis a myth?

Council housing in Lambeth, south London. Image: Getty.

I’ve been banging on about the need for Britain to build more houses for so long that I can no longer remember how or when it started. But at some point over the last few years, the need to build more homes has become My Thing. People ask me to speak at housing events, or @ me into arguments they’re having on Twitter on a Sunday morning in the hope I’ll help them out. You can even buy a me-inspired “Build More Bloody Houses” t-shirt.

It’s thus with trepidation about the damage I’m about to do to my #personal #brand that I ask:

Does Britain actually have enough houses? Is it possible I’ve been wrong all this time?

This question has been niggling away at me for some time. As far back as 2015, certain right-wing economists were publishing blogs claiming that the housing crisis was actually a myth. Generally the people who wrote those have taken similarly reality-resistant positions on all sorts of other things, so I wasn’t too worried.

But then, similar arguments started to appear from more credible sources. And today, the Financial Times published an excellent essay on the subject under the headline: “Hammond’s housebuilding budget fix will not repair market”.

All these articles draw on the data to make similar arguments: that the number of new homes built has consistently been larger than the number of new households; that focusing on new home numbers alone is misleading, and we should look at net supply; and that the real villain of the piece is the financialisation of housing, in which the old and rich have poured capital into housing for investment reasons, thus bidding up prices.

In other words, the data seems to suggest we don’t need to build vast numbers of houses at all. Have I been living a lie?

Well, the people who’ve been making this argument are by and large very clever economists trawling through the data, whereas I, by contrast, am a jumped-up internet troll with a blog. And I’m not dismissing the argument that the housing crisis is not entirely about supply of homes, but also about supply of money: it feels pretty clear to me that financialisation is a big factor in getting us into this mess.

Nonetheless, for three reasons, I stand by my belief that there is housing crisis, that it is in large part one of supply, and consequently that building more houses is still a big part of the solution.

Firstly I’m not sold on some of the data – or rather, on the interpretation of it. “There is no housing crisis!” takes tend to go big on household formation figures, and the fact they’ve consistently run behind dwelling numbers. Well, they would, wouldn’t they? By definition you can’t form a household if you don’t have a house.

So “a household” is not a useful measure. It doesn’t tell you if everyone can afford their own space, or whether they are being forced to bunk up with friends or family. In the latter situation, there is still a housing crisis, whatever the household formation figures say. And there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that’s the one we’re living in.

In the same way I’m not quite convinced that average rents is a useful number. Sure, it’s reassuring – and surprising – to know they have grown slower than general prices (although not in London). But all that figure tells you is the price being paid: it doesn’t tell you what is being purchased for that payment. A world in which renters each have their own property may have higher rents than one in which everyone gets one room in an over-crowded shared flat. It’s still the latter which better fits the label “housing crisis”.

Secondly, I’m entirely prepared to believe we’ve been building enough homes in this country to meet housing demand in the aggregate: there are parts of the country where housing is still strikingly affordable.

But that’s no use, because we don’t live in an aggregate UK: we live and work in specific places. Housing demand from one city can be met by building in another, because commuting is a thing – but that’s not always great for quality of life, and more to the point there are limits on how far we can realistically take it. It’s little comfort that Barnsley is building more than enough homes, when the shortage is most acute in Oxford.

So: perhaps there is no national housing crisis. That doesn’t mean there is not a housing crisis, in the sense that large numbers of people cannot access affordable housing in a place convenient for their place of work. National targets are not always helpful.


Thirdly, at risk of going all “anecdote trumps data”, the argument that there is no housing crisis – that, even if young people are priced out of buying by low interest rates, we have enough homes, and rents are reasonable – just doesn’t seem to fit with the lived experience reported by basically every millennial I’ve ever met. Witness the gentrification of previously unfashionable areas, or the gradual takeover of council estates by private renters in their 20s. 

A growing share of the population aren’t just whining about being priced out of ownership: they actively feel that housing costs are crushing them. Perhaps that’s because rents have risen relative to wages; perhaps it’s because there’s something that the data isn’t capturing. But either way, that, to me, sounds like a housing crisis.

To come back to our original question – will building more houses make this better?

Well, it depends where. National targets met by building vast numbers of homes in cities that don’t need them probably won’t make a dent in the places where the crisis is felt. But I still struggle to see how building more homes in, say, Oxford wouldn’t improve the lot of those at the sharp end there: either bringing rents down, or meaning you get more for your money.

There is a housing crisis. It is not a myth. Building more houses may not be sufficient to solve it – but that doesn’t meant it isn’t necessary.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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