Cities are complex systems. We should analyse them as such

They don't get more complex than this: Lower Manhattan. Image: Getty.

The way we design our cities needs a serious rethink. After thousands of years of progress in urban development, we plateaued some 60 years ago. Cities are not safer, healthier, more efficient, or more equitable. They are getting worse on these measures. The Conversation

The statistics on chronic disease, rising road tolls and congestion in our urban environments paint a bleak future. The clues to why lie in how we think about and design our cities.

Cities are highly complex, yet we are not thinking about them that way. We argue cities are complex and sociotechnical in nature. This means that, stripped back, they comprise people and communities interacting with one another and with objects (such as roads, buildings and parks) within a range of urban settings or contexts.

Complex sociotechnical systems (urban, transportation or warfare) are difficult to analyse. However, ergonomics and human factors methods such as cognitive work analysis allow an understanding of the whole system rather than the parts.

Cognitive work analysis was originally developed to support the analysis and design of complex engineered systems. We are using it to analyse and design cities.

The quest for better cities

Theoretical and practical efforts to create better cities have a long history. Before Walter Christaller’s “central place theory” and Charles Lindblom’s exploration of the “science of muddling through”, there was Ebenezer Howard’s utopian “garden city movement”, the enduring “concentric zone model” of Ernest Burgess, and the “multiple nuclei model” of Chauncy Harris and Edward Ullman.

More recent approaches provide guidance on good city structures relating to quality of life, infrastructure efficiency and city futures. The Congress for the New Urbanism advocates for quality of life through “walkable” urban neighbourhoods. Transit-orientated developments seek to have commercial, residential and community facilities close to public transport.

In the 21st century we recognise and conceive “creative”, “smart” and “knowledge” cities. These focus on the use of human resources, social capital, education, innovation, communication and digital technologies.

We argue that the limitation of these approaches is their reliance on sets of standards and guidelines. They provide reductionist principles for how cities “should” be designed and developed.

While useful for articulating the goals and values we would like for cities, their consequences within the broader city system are not well considered.

Cities as complex sociotechnical systems

The priority of sociological and technological systems is to optimise the interactions between people, technology and environments.

Cognitive work analysis is concerned with constraints rather than goals. It is based on the notion that by making constraints explicit, and exploiting them, we enhance system performance. It comprises interrelated phases including work domain analysis.

This approach allows us to model the city system across five hierarchical levels. This detailed model describes and links the purposes, values and priorities, the activities that are performed, right through to the physical objects that make up the city and the functions they serve.

Work domain analysis in action – tracing how public art contributes to a footpath design.

The findings are compelling. For example, we can show that public art on a footpath has the function of both a landmark and a form of communication, in the same way signage does. This is then linked to improved way-finding, legibility and social interaction in the street. And that, in turn, results in greater levels of perceived and actual safety, user comfort and a sense of community.

Ultimately, this supports both the technical intention of a footpath, as a pedestrian right of way, and its urban design contribution, as an important social place. As it is now possible to understand the system-wide implications of including or excluding key elements, we can start to design better cities.

Additional analyses have focused on: the design of active transport corridors; public space; main streets; school zones; playgrounds; and urban design and CCTV. The findings demonstrate the complexity in these environments and show how existing design approaches may not be fit for purpose.


Exploring a new approach

In a rapidly changing world in which smart cities are desired and urban megacities are a reality, we need to explore new knowledge and new approaches. Current descriptive and disparate approaches to the review, analysis and design of our cities need to be challenged.

The profession and politics of the built environment continue to operate within discipline silos. Planning, architecture, engineering, transport, water, power, commercial and retail development, urban design, community services and more are all dealt with in relative isolation. The links between them are only examined as necessary, or as legislatively required.

As a result, our cities are a legacy of incremental solutions, fragmented decision-making and competing urban priorities.

Managing complexity in city design is challenging. There are very few ways to examine all of the parts of urban development. We contend that ergonomics, human factors and sociotechnical systems methods offer a way forward.

While it may seem far-reaching to apply the methods used to design work, transportation and warfare systems to urban development, it has been shown to have significant value.

Our approach allows decision-makers, designers and the community to understand the complex nature of humans, technology and their environments. It is possible to create cities that cope with complexity rather than collapse under the weight of it.

Nicholas Stevens is senior lecturer & researcher in urban design, and Paul Salmon is professor of human factors, at the University of the Sunshine Coast.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

What do new business rates pilots tell us about government’s appetite for devolution?

Sheffield Town Hall, 1897. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty.

There have been big question marks about any future devolution of business rates ever since the last general election stopped the legislation in its tracks.

Not only did it not make its way to the statute book before the pre-election cut off, it was nowhere to be seen in the Queen’s Speech, suggesting the Government had gone cold on the idea. (This scenario was complicated further recently by the introduction of a private members’ bill on business rates by Conservative MP Peter Bone, details of which remain scarce.)

However, regardless of the situation with legislation, the government’s announcement in recent days of a pilot phase of reforms suggests that business rates devolution will go ahead after all. DCLG has invited local authorities to take part in a pilot scheme which will allow volunteer authorities to retain 100 per cent of the business rates growth they generate locally. (It also notes that a further three pilots are currently in operation as they were set up under the last government.)

There are two interesting things in this announcement that give some insight on how the government would like to push the reform forward.

The first is that only authorities that come forward with their neighbours with a proposal to pool all business rates raised into one pot across a wider geography will be considered. This suggests that pooling is likely to be strongly encouraged under the new system, even more considering that the initial position was to give power to the Secretary of State to form pools unilaterally.

The second is that pooled authorities are given free rein to propose their own local arrangements. This includes determining, where applicable, a tier split (i.e. rates distribution between districts and counties), a plan for distributing additional growth across the pool, and how this will be managed between authorities.

It’s the second which is most interesting. Although current pools already have the ability to decide for some of their arrangements, it’s fair to say that the Theresa May-led government has been much less bullish on devolution than George Osborne in particular was, with policies having a much greater ‘top down’ feel to them (for example, the Industrial Strategy) rather than a move towards giving places the tools they need to support economic growth in their areas. So the decision to allow local authorities to come up with proposed arrangements feels like a change in approach from the centre.


Of course, the point of a pilot is to test different arrangements, and the outcomes of this experiment will be used to shape any future reform of the business rates system. Given the complexity of the system and the multitude of options for reform, this seems like a sensible approach to take. But it remains to be seen whether the complex reform of a national system can be led from the bottom up. In effect, making sure this local governance is driven by common growth objectives, rather than individual authorities’ interests, will be essential.

Nonetheless, the government’s reaffirmation of its commitment to business rates to devolution and its willingness to test new approaches is welcome. Given that the UK is one of the most centralised countries in the western world, moves to allow local authorities to keep at least some of the tax revenue that is generated in their area is a step forward in giving places more autonomy over how they spend their money. That interest in changing this appears to have been whetted once more is encouraging.

There are, however, a number of other issues with the current business rates system which need to be ironed out. Centre for Cities is currently working on a briefing of the business rates system, building on our previous work in this area, and we’ll be making suggestions as to how the system can be improved.

Hugo Bessis is a researcher for the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article originally appeared.

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