What are the factors that give a place value?

Little Green Street, Kentish Town, London: probably quite valuable. Image: Getty.

The value of place is simultaneously the most discussed and the least understood of all things. House prices used to be the leitmotiv of a million clichéd dinner parties – no more, I think – but what we mean by the value of an actual neighbourhood and what drives that value is not only little discussed. It has, until recently, barely even been studied.

Create Street’s new report, Beyond Location, tries to answer this question. We have taken advantage of new techniques for analysing values as well as the big data revolution. We have conducted a uniquely wide, data-rich analysis of every 2016 property sale in six English cities (London, Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool and Newcastle).

This has used open datasets to compute basic urban characteristics, such as street network connectivity, population density, amount of greenery, availability of different transport modes. The point of the analysis was not to investigate them separately, but together – and to permit city-wide conclusions and inter-city comparisons.

The findings – part predictable, part surprising – tell us much about the state of our cities. One thing they do show is that urban form really does matter in understanding value. Our models for urban form can predict up to 74 per cent of the official UK poverty index – the Index of Multiple Deprivation – and up to 54 per cent of sales values.

How do specific characteristics affect the value of a London property?

Our key findings include that more greenery is not always a good thing. The immediate presence of attractive greenery or high-quality parks can add huge value in many situations. However, at the city-wide level, the presence of more greenery can be associated with lower as well as higher value. What it is and how it is managed really matters. For example, in London, a home closer than average to a high-quality park costs, on average, 11 per cent (or £51,000) more than one that is not, holding everything else equal. However, in Liverpool, a home located closer than average to a high-quality park is worth, on average, 7 per cent (or £7,760) less. 

Land use and form also matters. We found significant relationships across the six cities between urban form and deprivation and value. Areas of high population and high areas of unbuilt land – for example, high-rise estates with lots of wide-open space – are less valuable and often associated with more deprived communities. This might be partly due to the history of post-war building but, after thirty years of right to buy, most people who can afford to choose continue to avoid this type of urban pattern

Population density and deprivation in London. Click to expand.

The heritage premium is more important than the new build premium. In every city studied, proximity to a listed building was associated with more additional value than the premium associated with a newly built home. A home closer than average to a listed building in London is worth 10.3 per cent (or £49,770) more than one that isn’t, holding everything else equal. The equivalent new build premium is only £8,795.

The findings also highlight a clear difference between London and the other British cities. Accessible income is driving an urban renaissance in London out of all proportion to that visible elsewhere in the UK. Walkable street-based networks or older properties have a value premium over other neighbourhoods which far exceeds that yet visible in other cities. Proximity to a listed building is associated with nearly seven times as much value premium in London as in the other cities studied.

Finally, diversity is valuable. Areas with more diversity of house types suffer from less deprivation. Areas with a more diverse offering of transport and amenities are normally worth more, other things being equal. Above average amenity diversity is associated with additional value in all cities studied.

Property value and connectivity in Newcastle. Click to expand.

Value is a fraught term. Extra value is not always a good thing – certainly not for everyone. In globally successful cities, spiralling house prices are forcing out existing communities. There are ‘sorting effects’, where the better off out-compete the less well-off for the best places.


The ultimate aim of this study therefore is to help developers to build and planners to permit more good places by understanding human preferences more richly.

One thing is for certain though. When it comes to understanding, and predicting, economic and social value, urban form and design really matters.

Alessandro Venerandi is a researcher and urban designer at Create Streets. He has recently completed his doctorate in urban sustainability and resilience at UCL. Beyond Location is available here.

 
 
 
 

In many ways, smart cities are really very dumb

Rio de Janeiro’s control centre. Image: Getty.

It’s not news that anything and everything is increasingly being prefaced with “smart”: phones, watches, homes, fridges, and even water (yes, smartwater exists). And it’s not unintentional either. 

Marketeers know that we, the public, are often stupid enough to believe that thanks to their technology, life is better now than it was way back in, say, the primitive Nineties. Imagine having to, like a Neanderthal, remember how to spell words without an autocorrecting algorithm, or open the fridge door to check if you’d run out of milk, or, worse still, interact with actual people.

So it’s hardly surprising that we’re now also witnessing the rise of the so-called “smart cities”; a concept which presupposes that cities that are not technologically  “smart” are dumb, which, as anyone interested in the millennia-old history of cities — from the crypto-currency grain storage algorythms of ancient Mesopotamia to the complex waste infrastructure of ancient Rome, to London’s public transport infrastructure — will know, is not true.

Deployed in these smart cities are cameras and other networked information-gathering devices, load cells and other “sensing devices” detecting passing pedestrians and vehicles, audio surveillance devices listening for gunshots – and even vending machines equipped with biometric sensors to recognise your face. This is not to mention beacon technology — tiny anonymous looking black boxes hidden in trees and on lampposts — which transmits advertising, offers and other information directly to smart phones in the vicinity. 

If that doesn’t seem sinister enough, take, for example, Rio de Janeiro, where, in 2014, the International Business Machines Corporation designed a mammoth “control centre” that integrates data from 30 agencies for the city’s police. 

Described by the Guardian as having “the functionality of a Bond villian’s techno lair”, the then local mayor, Eduardo Paes, claimed the centre was making the city safer while using technology to deploy its “special” police unit to carry out the state’s “pacification programme”. Launched in 2008, the programme, which aims to push out drug gangs from Rio’s favelas, has been criticised by Amnesty International: “in January and February 2017 in Rio de Janeiro alone, at least 182 people were killed during police operations in marginalized neighbourhoods (favelas) – a 78 per cent increase in comparison to the same period in 2016”.

Sinister or not, as smart cities grow, they create new problems. For example, as urbanist Adam Greenfield writes in Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life, neither the algorithms nor their designers are subject to the ordinary processes of democratic accountability – a problem that international academics are currently attempting to tackle.  


“We need to understand that the authorship of an algorithm intended to guide the distribution of civic resources is itself an inherently political act,” writes Greenfield. “The architects of the smart city have utterly failed to reckon with the reality of power.”

The Real Smart Cities project, founded by Dr Gerald Moore, Dr Noel Fitzpatrick and Professor Bernard Stiegler, is investigating the ways in which so-called “smart city” technologies present a threat to democracy and citizenship, and how digital tools might be used create new forms of community participation.

Fitzpatrick is critical of current discourses around smart cities, which he says “tend to be technical fixes, where technology is presented as a means to solve the problems of the city.” The philosophy underpinning the project is “that technologies function as forms of pharmacology”, he adds, meaning that they can be both positive and negative. “The addictive negative effects are being felt at an individual and collective level.” 

An example of this lies in the way that many of these smart cities replace human workers with disembodied voices — “Alexa we need more toilet roll” — like those used to control the Amazon Echo listening device — the high priestess of smart home. These disembodied voices travel at the speed of light to cavernous, so-called “fulfilment centres”, where an invisible workforce are called into action by our buy-it-now, one-click impulse commands; moving robotically down seemingly endless aisles of algorithmically organised products arranged according to purchase preferences the like of which we never knew we had — someone who buys a crime novel might be more likely to go on and buy cat food, a wireless router, a teapot and a screwdriver. 

Oh to be the archeologists of the future who while digging through mounds of silicon dust happen upon these vast repositories of disembodies voices. That the digital is inherently material and the binary of virtual/real does not hold — there is no cyberspace, just space. Space that is being increasingly populated by technologies that want to watch you, listen to you, get to know you and sense your presence.

One project looking to solve some of the problems of smart cities is that of the development of a “clinic of contribution” within Pleine Commune in greater Paris (an area where one in three live in poverty).This attempts to deal with issues of communication between parents and children where the widespread use of smartphones as parental devices from infancy is having effects on the attention of young children and on the communicative abilities between parents and children. 

This in turn forms part of a wider project in the area that Stiegler describes as “installing a true urban intelligence”, which moves beyond what he sees as the bankrupt idea of smart cities. The aim is to create a “contributory income” in the area that responds to the loss of salaried jobs due to automation and the growth and spread of digitisation. 

The idea being that an income could be paid to residents, on the condition that they perform a service to society. This, if you are unemployed, living in poverty and urban deprivation, sounds like quite a simple and smart idea to try and solve some of the dumb effcts of the digital technology that's implemented in cities under the ideology of being “smart”.