One of the best examples of a pedestrian city is Venice. The street layout of this Italian city is very complex. The main thoroughfares are crowded with tourists, few of whom venture into the meandering back streets.
This may be mainly because the small streets are too complicated, with too many changes of direction. In general, the more complicated an urban street design is, the less accessible it becomes, and the more it creates social exclusion.
On Oxford Street in London, by contrast, pedestrians have a clear view along the street and along the many routes connecting into Oxford Street such as Bond Street, Regent Street, and Tottenham Court Road. Hence this urban environment has an easily understood accessibility.
On average it takes 9.8 changes of direction to move from Oxford Street to any location in London, which is why it is the city's main shopping center. Analysis shows that retailers set up in Oxford Street not only because there are other shops already there, making it, therefore, a catchment of people. They also set up there because it has the best access — part of why the shops are there in the first place.
Turning Theory into Evaluation
The concept of sight line analysis has been so successful that an independent company, Space Syntax, was set up to operate as a consultancy on behalf of UCL to promote the research service.
Established in London in 1989, the multidisciplinary company offers consulting services to public and private agencies in a wide range of fields including urban regeneration, workplace interaction, residential planning, store location, and retail design. The name has now become synonymous with pedestrian-friendly spatial planning.
Tim Stonor, managing director of Space Syntax, himself an architect, explains: "The general rule is derived from the link between layout and movement. The majority of pedestrians will always veer toward the simplest route. It is surprising how many designers do not appreciate this. Many of us have been taught the opposite — that complexity creates interest. Unfortunately that isn't strictly true."
Space Syntax's work is internationally recognized, having been involved on projects throughout the world including the development of an urban design strategy for Seoul, Korea's Borough of Songpa and urban development plans in Stockholm, Mecca, Dublin, Vienna, Frankfurt, Barcelona, Shanghai, and Warsaw. Current work includes the South Bank Centre in London with Rick Mather Architects.
Other recent work includes a layout design for the Harrods department store in London and the 1960s inner-city estate, the Barbican, in central London. The Barbican is notorious for its labyrinth of complex pedestrian ways and is inevitably difficult to navigate for the casual user.
Software at Work in Trafalgar Square
Normally Space Syntax's involvement is at the earliest stage of a project to help define the strategic design of a scheme. This was the case with their pedestrian impact assessment study of Trafalgar Square in the center of London for Foster & Partners.
Part of the square's redesign was to introduce a new access point on its northern side. Space Syntax needed to provide data on how to overcome the level change from the National Gallery to Trafalgar Square and turn what are currently two separate spaces into a single, two-level space.
The study included several design iterations regarding the width of the proposed opening at the top of the square. Too large would have compromised the integrity of the historic monument; too narrow would have discouraged pedestrian flow into the central opening.
Through the use of the Space Syntax software the resultant observation study helped define the optimum width of a new staircase at the northern end, which will encourage pedestrians to use the center of the square as a thoroughfare.
The Flavors of Software
The Space Syntax research laboratory has developed several software packages, which are used to help illustrate the configurational analysis of space at all scales of the built environment. They help to predict patterns of pedestrian movement in anything from a house to a city.
The software is designed to explain why location matters, why design makes a difference, and, most importantly, why space and movement are the fundamental "building blocks" of the urban landscape.
The main application is Axman, which presents an analysis of sight lines for single buildings or entire cities. It presents the sight lines graphically, overlaid on top on a plan or map.
A similar application is Pesh, which is used mainly for the interiors of complex buildings. The package can provide graphical representations of pedestrian movement and facade analysis.
SpaceBox is used primarily for the detailed analysis of small urban areas such as public squares and transport terminals. The graphical representation shows the lines of the manually researched pedestrian movement overlaid on a detailed map of the area.
Both NewWave and OrangeBox are processing engines without graphic capabilities. They enable the rapid processing of large data files and produce information rather than graphical representations.
Depthmap allows a user to import a 2D layout of a building in drawing exchange format (DXF), and to fill the open spaces of this layout with a grid of visible connections and circulation flows. All software runs on the Apple Macintosh, except for DepthMap, which runs on PCs.
Space Syntax uses the software for its own research and several hundred academic researchers, in many universities throughout the world, also use it. The software is not available commercially, but the company is forming partnerships with architects, urban designers, and academics to bring this knowledge to the design table.
With a growing international reputation — the company now has offices in Sydney, Seoul, Paris, Brussels, Stockholm, and Athens — the evidence-based design and planning concept appears ready to become a standard for major urban regeneration projects throughout the world.
Don Barker is a freelance writer and photographer in London, UK, who has lived and worked in Europe, Australia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Hong Kong, and Singapore.