The Planner’s Eye

Heath Town Estate, Wolverhampton, by Smileyface on the Skyscraper City website. Click the pic for a link to some truly frightening pictures of the estate at its worst. Heath Town Estate, Wolverhampton, by Smileyface on the Skyscraper City website. Click the pic for a link to some truly frightening pictures of the estate at its worst.

Multi- and inter-disciplinary research is a major part of academia these days, and the benefits it can bring are clearly profound – to see something anew, in a completely different light is… well, enlightening. It has its pitfalls too, though, particularly epistemological ones: researchers from one discipline can often think the prevailing way of acquiring knowledge in another discipline is just plain wrong. At times, it’s even deeper, an ontological impasse.

As a geographer studying for a history PhD I’m straddling two worlds. I think it can be done without too much faff, because there’s actually far more overlap – both in subject matter and methodology – than most geographers or historians realise. In fact, historians already have quite the range of social scientific tools at their disposal, be they statistical analyses of populations or oral histories, just like geographers have learnt from historians’ critical use of source material. There have been linguistic and cultural turns in geography as there have been in history, drawing from the same critical theories and philosophies.

However. I’ve been reading up on spatial analytical techniques of late, and one of those that grabbed my attention is Laura Vaughan’s use of “space syntax” to study poverty in Victorian London. Space syntax is a mathematical tool devised by planners at UCL in the 70s to link the physical and human sides of space, and seems to be essentially to do with the interconnectivity of spaces, particularly streets, highlighting movement and accessibility. Streets are described by intersecting lines which can then be colour-coded to show their degrees of connectedness, or their visibility from certain points. From this it’s possible to make calculations about the choices people make, how they choose get to their destination for instance. This can inform urban planning particularly – ‘failing’ estates for instance can be demonstrated to lack connectivity and accessibility, which can be avoided in future planning.

Heath Town Estate, Wolverhampton (© Crown Copyright and Landmark Information Group Limited 2015. All rights reserved. 1974)
Heath Town Estate, Wolverhampton
(© Crown Copyright and Landmark Information Group Limited 2015. All rights reserved. 1974)

So far, so good. It’s not a stretch to look at an estate with a troubled history (Heath Town for instance, or Broadwater Farm) and see how its separation from thoroughfares, traditional locations of movement and interaction, could contribute to its lack of social success. These two make particularly helpful examples – Heath Town’s notorious walkways attempted to lift the entire community out of the rest of the world (you get the same feeling walking canals or old railway lines, with their limited on/off points and different elevations). Broadwater Farm’s walkways were deemed to be one of the causes behind the 1985 riots and were taken down shortly afterwards. Plans are in place for the same thing in Heath Town. Alice Coleman’s famous Utopia On Trial saw the environment as the determinant in a failing community as well, using the Farm as an example; there’s a good, more recent breakdown here.

Charles Booth's map of East End poverty, superimposed with coded lines of connectivity, from research by Laura Vaughan.
Charles Booth’s map of East End poverty, superimposed with coded lines of connectivity, from research by Laura Vaughan.

And herein lies the problem, as Anne Power notes in that Guardian link. To be a planner, you must take a top-down view of the world – for all the research into what works and what doesn’t, the experiences of residents etc., planning something yet to be built makes it impossible to write about the specificity of experience. It is the planner’s vocation to be the expert, the authority, to wield all available tools in the pursuit of civilisation. It’s a mindset older than the profession – you could trace back to Chadwick that intent to civilise the poor, whether they live on a 1960s estate or in a sewerless, typhus-riddled court. Chris Otter is excellent on this, the technologies of civic improvement as a form of middle-class governmentality. Vaughan’s research into Charles Booth’s East End attempts to superimpose these theories of integration and segregation onto the poverty of Victorian London. Her findings are interesting: initially “the poorest classes were in the most inaccessible parts of the area”; slum clearances affected areas around them spatially, in terms of accessibility.

My problem with this is less in the outcomes but in the dehumanised methodology. A historian would balk at using Booth’s maps without extensive critique of late Victorian attitudes to poverty, of Booth himself, of the categories he assigns. After all, one of his ostensibly objective descriptions of human beings is “vicious”. My inner urban historian also blinks involuntarily at the inaccuracies in Vaughan’s account (the Cross Act did not lead to the development of model dwellings companies constructing for profit, it’s way more complicated than that). There’s little of this historian-think in Vaughan’s research – perhaps this demonstrates the ontological and epistemological differences between disciplines that hinders truly interdisciplinary work. As a geographer I can see the value in such a planning tool; as a historian I can see its limits. As a burgeoning theorist, I can see the gaps in such an approach which serve to highlight the perceptiveness of Lefebvre’s approach to space: space syntax can document spatial practice well (and I’m certainly not discounting using it as part of a triangulated approach); and it gives some insight into conceptions of space from those outside and above. But it tells me almost nothing of the lived space, the human experience of everyday life, the reality beyond the quantifiable; and that’s what I want to know – life, from the bottom up.

PS – I am no way an expert in planning theory or space syntax, and would love to be corrected on this. As methodologies go its a fascinating one, and I’d love to justify including it in my research, so please get in touch.

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