Solving Severance: Start with the people affected

Finding effective ways to address how roads, railways, and other infrastructure slice through communities first requires analysis of where and how those barriers actually affect people’s lives.

Two field trips, part of FoL’s Solving Severance programme and organised for Future London Leaders and Leaders Plus candidates, offered different approaches to analysing the urban environment and overcoming barriers. This Spotlight showcases lessons from the member boroughs of Tower Hamlets and Croydon.

An afternoon with Space Syntax: Integrated Urban Analysis

On 28th March, FLL18 candidates spent an afternoon with Space Syntax and Jonathan Morris, Principal Growth & Infrastructure Planning Officer at LB Tower Hamlets. The goal was to understand how big data can support urban decision-making. Director Max Martinez explained that Space Syntax’s core offer is to help clients understand human behaviour and movement patterns in urban areas through observation and data modelling.

Jonathan Morris briefing candidates on severance issues in Poplar
Jonathan Morris briefing candidates on severance issues in Poplar

Ed Parham went on to explain how project Tombolo, coordinated by Space Syntax and funded by InnovateUK, finds correlations between movement, land-use, value, crime and carbon emissions; drawing data from a range of scales and sources offers a holistic understanding of the city. Eime Tobari showed how Integrated Urban Modelling of Greenwich had identified areas with limited access to quality services such as GP surgeries with good ratings, by using multiple datasets which overlapped spatial distribution of services, with their quality/popularity.

Space Syntax associate Eleri Jones closed by saying tools like Integrated Urban Modelling can be used to analyse trends and forecast how future spaces will function, which can support policy-makers make resilient decisions.

The Poplar/Isle of Dogs map clearly showed major severance impacts on Poplar: the A12, A13, DLR Depot, Aspen Way six-lane motorway, Limehouse Cut and the River Lea, which isolates areas like Aberfeldy from their surroundings. Poplar communities live next to highly polluted roads and navigate dangerous infrastructure daily. But as Tobari pointed out, there are larger issues beyond these immediate impacts; severance can also slash a community’s odds for healthy living, economic prosperity, environmental quality and happiness.

Candidates were asked to identify severance issues and propose solutions for two affected sites: South Dock in Canary Wharf and Aberfeldy Estate in Poplar. With an emphasis on spatial thinking, candidates assessed where targeted interventions could help mitigate division and reduce inequality. Proposals included a new riverboat service, footbridges, pedestrian walkways and improved green space.

‘Mapping a Journey’ in Croydon: User-Focused Design

On the 3rd April, Leaders Plus 5 spent an afternoon with LB Croydon and members of the council’s mobility forum. This interactive session on ‘Mapping a Journey’ was designed by FoL associate Anna Faherty of Strategic Content to strengthen candidates’ observational skills and to develop understanding of user-focused design in practice.

Member of the mobility forum talking to candidates in Croydon
Member of the mobility forum talking to candidates in Croydon

Candidates went out into Croydon Town Centre in small groups, led by a member of the mobility forum, to find navigation ‘trouble spots’. They observed people’s challenges and workarounds, and had the opportunity to observe the city from a new perspective. In doing so, they considered what could be improved to make the space more inclusive.

Candidates spent time in unlikely places, such as a traffic island of a busy junction. The experience offered new insight into how people adapt to available spaces to make them work. At the junction, for example, it was noted how the traffic systems favoured vehicles, leaving pedestrians and cyclists to design their own routes across the roads. One candidate spent some time talking to an older resident taking advantage of the chaos, pausing on a bench in the busy junction; she explained it was a good spot to watch the world go by.

Candidate of LP5 talking to a local resident at the busy junction
Candidate of LP5 talking to a local resident at the busy junction

Members of the mobility hub provided another depth of insight, including ‘un-met’ user needs. Damaged accessibility cones under the control box at traffic lights were a major concern as was misuse of tactile pavement. They also explained how often ‘solutions’ to severance issues failed, such as underpasses no one wants to use or routes with limited way-finding, taken only by knowledgeable locals.

Reflecting on their walk-about, candidates debated how the town centre could be more accessible and how areas of the city which seemed fine on paper were revealed to rely on people’s adaptability and resilience, rather than on the success or inclusivity of the original design.


Bringing it together

The two afternoons explored a range of data-driven and hands-on approaches to understand cities at different scales. They challenged participants to both take a step back to understand a larger context, and to zoom in, to magnify easy-to-miss details of human experience.

Smart technology is becoming more accessible, used, and powerful as a tool for analysis and design. However, as Space Syntax pointed out, a truly intelligent city employs a smart design process – where multi-disciplinary collaboration breaks down silos, particularly between practitioners and users. Data analysis delivers information in a binary yes/no manner, and requires human-scale context to make it meaningful. Recognising – and remembering – that everyone navigates the urban environment uniquely can make ‘designing for difference’ a real part of design, and make better cities.