Global Urban Constellations


Geographers have long grappled with the complex and ever changing configurations of global urbanism. Many terms have been coined to describe new 20th and 21st century urban forms: conurbations (Geddes, 1915), multi-nuclei cities (Harris & Ultman, 1945), megalopolis (Gottman, 1961), world cities (Hall, 1966), desakota (McGee, 1991),  fractal cities (Batty & Longley, 1994), network cities (Batten, 1995), postmetropolis (Soja, 2000), splintering urbanism (Graham & Marvin, 2001), polycentric mega-city regions (Hall & Pain, 2006)…

These concepts are diverse, coming from different perspectives with different methods and archetypal case studies. But there are shared themes: a focus on more diffuse and polycentric urban forms; recognition of city connections across multiple scales; and the rise of ever larger urban regions embedded in thicker global networks.

Representing and exploring the diversity of contemporary global urban forms is a challenge for cartographers. We often focus on mapping the amazing richness and diversity of dominant global cities like London and New York. Yet this is clearly a very biased lens from which to frame the vast majority of the globe, as researchers have noted. Postcolonial critiques like Robinson’s ordinary cities (2006) argue for a much more representative and cosmopolitan comparative urbanism. From a different angle, provocative research like Brenner’s (2014) ‘planetary urbanism‘ has critiqued the contentions of a universal urban age, arguing that urban/rural distinctions are no longer meaningful where capitalist networks reach to every corner of the globe.

I recently released an interactive map of the new Global Human Settlement Layer (GHSL) produced by the European Commission JRC. This dataset makes several advances towards an improved cartography of the diversity of global urbanism. Firstly it is truly global, representing all the world’s landmass  and settlements at a higher level of detail, down to 250m. Secondly the population density and built-up layers are continuous: there are no inherent city boundaries or urban/rural definitions (the GHSL includes an additional layer with urban centres defined, but the user can ignore these and create their own boundaries from the underlying layers). Thirdly the dataset is a time-series, including 1975, 1990, 2000 and 2015. Finally the data layers and the methods used to create them are fully open.

Diversity and Structure of Global Urban Constellations
The complexity and scale of the GHSL data is both beautiful and beguiling. In China and India there are continuous landscapes of connected urban settlements with hundreds of millions of people, scattered across many thousands of square kilometres. The cartographic appearance of these regions is like constellations of stars coalescing in vast nebulae of diffuse population. Densities of South and South-East Asian towns and small settlements in semi-rural regions exceed many major cities in Europe and North America. These are complex evolving landscapes at a scale and extent unprecedented in the history of urbanism.



Similarly there are unique trends in other major regions of urbanisation such as Latin America. Here major centres are very high density, but the extent of diffuse rural populations is far less prevalent. As a result countries like Colombia and Brazil have some of the highest urban population densities in the world.


The recognition of this global diversity does not mean abandoning global theories of urbanism. Even amongst such complexity and diversity, we can still observe shared spatial patterns and connections. Clearly we are observing landscapes heavily influenced by our current era of intense globalisation, as well as retaining inherited patterns from previous eras. Spatial logics of globalisation are apparent across the globe, though differentiated between regions, economies and societies.

The pull of coastal areas for global trade is an obvious spatial pattern. The importance of port cities is also applicable to historic periods of ancient civilisations, and indeed to globalisation in the 18th and 19th centuries. But the difference in the 20th and 21st centuries appears to be the more intensive links between major ports and global megaregions of production and manufacturing. We can observe this in the huge megaregions of China: the Pearl River Delta and Yangtze Delta (both with around 50m population depending on where the boundary is drawn), which are China’s leading manufacturing centres.


It also applies to Europe, with the higher density spine of the ‘blue banana’ linking low country ports to manufacturing centres in western Germany and north-eastern France, and more loosely to south-east England and northern Italy. As well as the manufacturing roles, it is clear that most major global financial centres are closely linked to megaregions, either at their core (e.g. Shanghai, New York, Tokyo) or within a couple of hours travel (e.g. Hong Kong, London, Paris). These centres provide the capital and business services that embed megaregions in global networks.


The importance of ports is also evident in South Asia. Port cities in South Asia are amongst the fastest growing in the world, such as Dhaka, Mumbai, Karachi, Kolkata and Chennai. But megaregions here appear as yet to be less extensive and well connected. Latin American cities are even more spatially separated and precisely defined in density terms, though there are signs of increasing connections between for example the two great Brazilian metropolises, Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, and in the north between Venezuelan and Colombian port cities.


Another fascinating pattern relates to large previously rural areas of population in developing countries that are urbanising in more diffuse and bottom-up patterns. McGee used the term desakota (village-city) to describe patterns of disperse rural development in Java Indonesia. There appear to be similar patterns emerging across regions of China and India, including many areas of the vast Ganges plain, and along the great rivers of China. One of most striking features in China is the concentration of semi-rural and urban populations radiating south-west from Beijing towards Shijiazhuang and then south towards Zhengzhou (this follows one of China’s oldest rail routes, built 1903 and is nearly 600km long).


There are several areas of sub-Saharan Africa where desakota-like patterns seem to be apparent. The west coast around Nigeria and Ghana is one such area. Another is the many developments around Lake Victoria in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania. Clearly the cultural and geographical diversity is very high in these regions, and my own knowledge of these countries is very limited. But the similar density patterns is still of interest.


Population and Density Statistics
The World Population Density map includes density statistics at national and city scales, with population totals classified into density groups (turn on the Interactive Statistics button at the top left). These help to identify differences in patterns of settlement, and how city densities relate to national distributions.

If we view the world’s highest density cities, we can see the clear links to the above discussion of urbanisation in South Asia and East Asia, and major global port cities. Note however there are many issues with defining and measuring density, which need to be borne in mind when interpreting such statistics. These are measures of residential density, and results will likely be affected by the scale and accuracy of the underlying census data. It would also be better statistically to measure peaks as the 95th or 99th percentile to prevent a single square km cell skewing the results, as there are some outliers in the results.

Highest peak density cities GHSL 2015 1km scale-

City Name Country Peak Density (000s pp/km2) Mean Density (000s pp/km2) Population (millions)
Xiamen-Longhai China 330.5 6.3 4.75
Peshawar Pakistan 228.9 3.3 7.54
Dhaka Bangladesh 197.8 9.1 24.83
Daegu South Korea 189.4 8.5 2.58
Maunath Bhanjan India 177 38.4 0.77
Cairo Egypt 175.5 5.1 37.84
Kolkata India 173.5 5.8 26.87
Baharampur India 166.1 38 1.25
Bahawalpur Pakistan 136.9 29.6 1.06
Xi’an China 135.4 7.1 6.04
Kabul Afghanistan 132.7 18 4.36
Nanjing China 130.1 6.7 6.6
Guangzhou-Shenzhen China 128.3 5.6 46.04
Hangzhou-Shaoxing China 127.6 4.4 7.81
Manila Philippines 127 9.9 22.45

We can also consider the highest population city-regions based on the GHSL urban centre boundaries. These are defined as continuous built-up areas, with polycentric regions linked into single cities. This leads to quite different results for world’s largest cities, with the Pearl River Delta measured as the world’s biggest urban agglomeration at 46 million (and that’s not including Hong Kong or Macao). It is interesting to compare this to results from the UN World Urbanisation Prospects data, which keeps these regions as separate cities and identifies Tokyo as the world’s largest city-region.

Highest population urban centres GHSL 2015 1km scale-

City Name Country Peak Density (000s pp/km2) Mean Density (000s pp/km2) Population (millions)
Guangzhou-Shenzhen China 128.3 5.6 46.04
Cairo Egypt 175.5 5.1 37.84
Jakarta Indonesia 20.4 6.1 36.4
Tokyo Japan 23 6.2 33.74
Delhi India 68 11.1 27.63
Kolkata India 173.5 5.8 26.87
Dhaka Bangladesh 197.8 9.1 24.83
Shanghai China 104.4 7.5 24.67
Mumbai India 49.5 13.9 23.41
Manila Philippines 127 9.9 22.45
Seoul South Korea 103.1 8.8 22.13
Mexico City Mexico 42 8.2 20.09
São Paulo Brazil 38.7 8.9 20.02
Beijing China 84.8 6.6 19.9
Osaka Japan 13.4 5 16.53


Future Cartography of Global Urbanism
Population density is clearly a very useful base from which to understand urbanisation and patterns of settlement. But we can also see its limitations too in the World Density Map if urbanisation is viewed only in terms of density. Many US city-regions are very low density, much lower than semi-rural parts of Asia and Africa, but these US cities are amongst the most affluent and highly urbanised areas of the globe.

Clearly a more comprehensive cartography of global urbanism would combine population density with measurements of development and economic activity, and the flows of people, goods, energy and information that describe the dynamics of how cities and networks function. The development of open global datasets like the GHSL will greatly help in these endeavours.

Another important issue is improving the sophistication of spatial statistics to include multiple urban boundaries and limit Modifiable Areal Unit effects. This would be possible with the GHSL dataset, and I have tried including national and city statistics, but clearly MAUP effects remain when using fixed city boundaries. Something along the lines of my colleagues’ research testing statistics for multiple boundaries simultaneously and showing their influence would be a good avenue to explore.





World Population Density Interactive Map


A brilliant new dataset produced by the European Commission was recently released- the Global Human Settlement Layer (GHSL). This is the first time that detailed and comprehensive population density and built-up area for the world has been available as open data. As usual, my first thought was to make an interactive map, now online at-

The World Population Density map is exploratory, as the dataset is very rich and new, and I am also testing out new methods for navigating statistics at both national and city scales on this site. There are clearly many applications of this data in understanding urban geographies at different scales, urban development, sustainability and change over time. A few highlights are included here and I will post in more detail later when I have explored the dataset more fully.


The GHSL is great for exploring megaregions. Above is the northeastern seaboard of the USA, with urban settlements stretching from Washington to Boston, famously discussed by Gottman in the 1960s as a meglopolis.


Europe’s version of a megaregion is looser, but you can clearly see the corridor of higher population density stretching through the industrial heartland of the low countries and Rhine-Ruhr towards Switzerland and northern Italy, sometimes called the ‘blue banana’.


The megaregions of China are spectacularly highlighted, above the Pearl River Delta including Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Hong Kong amongst many other large cities, giving a total population of around 50 million.


The Yangtze Delta is also home to another gigantic polycentric megaregion, with Shanghai as the focus. Population estimates range from 50-70 million depending on where you draw the boundary.


The form of Beijing’s wider region is quite different, with a huge lower density corridor to the South West of mixed industry and agriculture which looks like the Chinese version of desakota (“village-city”) forms. This emerging megaregion, including Tianjin, is sometimes termed Jingjinji.


The term desakota was originally coined by McGee in relation to Java in Indonesia, which has an incredible density of settlement as shown above. There are around 147 million people living on Java.


The intense settlement of Cairo and the Nile Delta is in complete contrast to the arid and empty Sahara.


Huge rural populations surround the delta lands of West Bengal and Bangladesh, focused around the megacities of Kolkata and Dhaka.


There is a massive concentration of population along the coast in South India. This reflects rich agriculture and prospering cities, but like many urban regions is vulnerable to sea level changes.

The comprehensive nature of the GHSL data means it can be analysed and applied in many ways, including as a time series as data is available for 1975, 1990, 2000 and 2015. So far I have only visualised 2015, but have calculated statistics for all the years (turn the interactive statistics on at the top left of the website- I’ll post more about these statistics later). Change over time animations would definitely be an interesting approach to explore in the future. Also see some nice work by Alasdair Rae who has produced some excellent 3D visualisations using GHSL.


Open Source Public Transport Accessibility Modelling


The RGS-IBG annual conference has been on this week, and I presented as part of a series of geocomputation sessions arranged in advance of the 21st anniversary Geocomputation conference in Leeds next year. The topic was current CASA research from the RESOLUTION project, looking at developing fast and consistent methods of measuring public transport accessibility between different cities.

For this task I have been testing the OpenTripPlanner software with encouraging results. PDF of the slides are here.

The data used for the London analysis comes from the Traveline public transport timetable data. The image below shows an example accessibility measure of jobs accessible within 1 hour’s travel time leaving at 8am.


Tate Modern Switch House: a New Perspective on London


High rise developments are often exclusive private spaces, as attested by the current glut of luxury flats, hotels and offices rising across Inner London. Even recent developments advertising their public space credentials have come up short, with for example the Shard’s fantastic views costing £25 entry fee, or the Walkie-Talkie’s ‘skygarden’ amounting to an expensive restaurant and some pot plants.

It’s wonderfully refreshing therefore that London’s newest tower is dedicated to public space. Tate Modern’s Switch House extension includes free galleries, spaces for contemplation and discussion, and one of the most spectacular 360 degree viewing locations in London. It all adds up to a big improvement to what was already a very successful gallery.

The Switch House exterior sits right next to brightly coloured flats and office developments. Architects Herzog and de Meuron have opted for a bold angular form that holds its own in this contested space, while still complementing the original Bankside power station through the use of a brickwork lattice.


The gallery floors are spacious, with the exhibits focusing less on blockbuster artists, and more on international voices, sculpture and performance. For example the Living Cities gallery features works from the Middle East and Africa. The winding nature of the tower staircases also creates many intimate and relaxing spaces, which contrasts nicely with the busier open galleries next to the turbine hall.


The viewing gallery presents a superb panorama over the City, St Paul’s, East and South London. It’s an amazing perspective, and quite unique compared to other skyline views, particularly with Bankside tower looming just in front, and no glass barriers present. Thew view westwards is more obscured from developments around Blackfriars, but is still fascinating.


Here’s how the the new tower links with the existing galleries in the internal plan. There’s even a bridge across the turbine hall. High-res versions of these photos are on flickr.


Fracturing Britain: the end of the United Kingdom?


Last year’s 2015 general election revealed a Britain that was increasingly fractured between nations, between the north and south of England, and between more prosperous metropolitan and deprived areas. But GE2015 has now proved to be only a staging post in the UK’s splintering. The momentous vote for Brexit in last week’s EU referendum threatens economic and political turmoil, and it may effectively split the United Kingdom.

The results show stark geographical divisions. Outside of London and its affluent hinterland, as well as inner cities such as Manchester, Liverpool and Bristol, England has voted for Brexit with a majority of 1.9 million (53% to 47%) voting to leave. Wales also voted for leaving the EU (despite being by far the highest UK beneficiary of EU funding) by 52.5% to 47.5%. Northern Ireland voted to remain by 56% to 44%, but is split between unionist and nationalist areas. Meanwhile Scotland has a strong majority to remain overall (62% to 48%), and a local majority to remain in every single local authority. The case for Scottish independence to prevent its undemocratic removal from the EU is inescapable, unless some kind of ‘reverse Greenland‘ compromise can be reached.

Data from Electoral Commission. Shapefile comiled by Robin Edwards (@geotheory) and Alan McConchie (@mappingmashups).


Underlying the geographical divisions are a host of socioeconomic factors, including education levels, income, unemployment and deprivation: in other words populations that have been cut off from the unequal benefits of globalisation have overwhelmingly voted out. The demographics of this outcome have been reviewed in detail in the Financial Times, or try the excellent John Harris reporting the UK’s inequalities. One of the saddest divisions in the referendum is age, with 75% of votes under 25 and 58% of voters aged 25-34 voting to stay in the EU. Young Brits are now set to have the opportunities of freely living, working, studying and cheaply travelling in the EU made much more difficult due to older generations.

The referendum came about as a Conservative manifesto commitment to address deep internal party divisions and appeal to right wing voters. This gamble has spectacularly backfired, forcing the prime minister to resign. However another critical factor in the result has been the Labour leadership’s mixed attitudes to remaining in the EU. Traditional Labour areas in England, including the North East (58% leave), Yorkshire and the Humber (58% leave) and West Midlands (59% leave) voted decisively to leave the EU. Labour’s uncharismatic leader Jeremy Corbyn has failed to make an impact during months of civil war by the Tory government, and ran a lacklustre campaign for remaining in the EU, despite the economic impacts of Brexit (currency devaluation, inflation, higher prices, more austerity…) set to hit poorest families hardest.

Another way to look at this is if we select local authorities that coincide with Labour won seats in the 2015 general election. We can see that there are a majority of Labour heartland areas that voted to leave the EU (51% of voters in the map below). Indeed if we discount London, the majority for leaving is 55%. This highlights the degree of disconnect between the remain campaign and Labour heartlands.


While the short term economic and political impacts of Brexit are already underway, the full implications will not be known for years both within the UK and beyond. During the referendum, the negative predictions of a Brexit were dismissed as scaremongering. We will now find out if this is the case, with jobs, the union, and the future of the UK and the EU on the line.

Get the data on the EU ref results- Electoral Commission, GIS File (thanks to @geotheory and @mappingmashups).


AAG 2016 in San Francisco


Last week I attended the American Association of Geographers annual conference in San Francisco. This was my first AAG and first time visiting the Bay Area, so made for a fascinating trip.

The tech boom and economic resurgence of the Bay Area is a topic of much interest to geographers, and I really enjoyed the Author Meets the Critics session on Michael Storper et al.’s new book The Rise and Fall of Urban Economies. The book compares San Francisco to Los Angeles over the last 40 years, and how SF has more successfully developed new knowledge economy industries, including through government interventions like the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART). It was great to see influential economic geographers like Michael Storper and Allen Scott debating city evolution and path dependence, as I’ve been following their work for a long time.

CASA and UCL were well represented at the conference. Martin Zaltz Austwick presented on how the Olympic regeneration in London is affecting artistic creativity in Hackney Wick. Continuing the artistic theme, Miki Beavis presented her PhD research into the dynamics of live music performances and venues in Camden. Agent-based modelling was a big conference theme, and Kostas Cheliotis presented his work modelling pedestrian behaviour in Hyde Park using the Unity game engine. I also enjoyed Kurtis Garbutt’s work using ABM for flood relief modelling in the UK.

Continuing the pedestrian theme, Panos Mavros presented his PhD work on measuring psychological responses to the built-environment using mobile EEG readers, based on pedestrian navigation experiments in Fitzrovia London. I had participated in the experiment that was presented six months previously, and it was interesting to see the academic analysis on the psychological experience of navigating through urban space. Quick takeaway was the high diversity of route choice and psychological response amongst participants, even within a controlled experimental context of a small area of London.

My own presentation reviewed methods for creating online thematic mapping platforms for researchers, based on a recent open access review paper. The session included Jesse Piburn from Oak Ridge lab, presenting innovative recent work integrating global spatio-temporal data (World STAMP project).

As well as the academic work, their was some leisure time for enjoying the city. Spring is well underway in California, with lots of wildlife and colour. I visited Muir Woods, one of the few last reserves of the giant coastal redwoods, named after the Scottish naturalist John Muir who had a key role in founding Yosemite National Park.

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The city has many affluent picture postcard neighbourhoods famous from movies that are great to explore. But there are urban challenges too. One can’t help be struck by the extent of homelessness in downtown, where large city districts have hundreds of people sleeping rough. The story of low income households being left out of a huge real-estate boom is all too familiar. With homelessness on the rise in London, and government policy making things worse, we are heading for a similar situation.

P1090367 P1090371


Mapping the Densification of Cities in England & Wales using the 2011 Census


UK cities have been undergoing significant change over the last decade, and the 2011 census data provides a great basis for tracking current urban structure. I’ve mapped population and employment density for all of England and Wales in 2011, using a 1km2 grid scale approach-


The main themes that emerge are the dramatic intensification of London, high densities in some medium sized cities such as Leicester and Brighton, and the regeneration of the major northern conurbations, with Manchester and Birmingham as the largest employment hubs outside of London.

Mapping all of England and Wales together is a useful basis for considering city-regions and their connections (note Scotland has not yet published census 2011 employment data and is not mapped). Certainly this is a major theme in current policy debates grappling with the north-south divide and proposed high-speed rail links. I’ll be looking at densities in relation to network connections in future posts as this topic is part of ongoing research at CASA as part of the MECHANICITY project.

It is also possible to directly map changes in density between using the same visualisation approach (note the grid height describes density in 2011, while colour describes change in density between 2001-2011)-

Population Density Change 2001-2011

The change map really highlights the pattern of city centre intensification combined with static or marginally declining suburbs in England and Wales. This trend was discussed in a previous post. The two statistics of peak and average densities reinforce the city centre versus suburbs divide, with peak density measurements growing much more than average densities. But the peak density statistic is somewhat unreliable (such as in the case of Birmingham/West Midlands) and we will be doing further work at CASA to define inner cities and produce more robust statistics of these trends.


Notes on the Analysis Method-

The density values were calculated from the smallest available units- Output Area population and Workplace Zone employment data from the 2011 census. This data was transformed to a 1km2 grid geography using a proportional spatial join approach, with the intention of standardising zone size to aid comparability of density measurements between cities. The transformation inevitably results in some MAUP errors. These are however minimised by the very fine scale resolution of the original data, which is much smaller than the grid geography in urban areas.

The workplace zone data is a very positive new addition by the Office for National Statistics for the 2011 census. There is a lot of new interesting information on workplace geography- have a look at my colleague Robin Edward’s blog, where he has been mapping this new data.

Defining city regions is another boundary issue for these statistics. I’ve used a simple approach of amalgamating local authorities, as shown below-




London’s High Rise Debate


Last week New London Architecture, centre for built-environment debate and communication, launched a new exhibition on London high rises and high buildings policy. As well as including many spectacular models of present and future buildings, the exhibition presents results from NLA research into London’s current generation of high building proposals.  The most eye-catching finding is that there are over 230 towers of 20 storeys or more proposed or under construction in London, potentially resulting in a dramatic change in London’s urban environment. A high profile campaign has been launched by the Guardian and Architects’ Journal calling for for more discussion and a ‘Skyline Commission’ to assess the impacts of these many developments. The NLA exhibition itself takes a more neutral tone in the debate, and highlights are summarised below.

NLA “London’s Growing Up” Exhibition, with Leadenhall Building Model

It’s clear from the NLA map below that the majority of proposals are strongly clustered spatially, with many adjacent to existing high rise districts of Canary Wharf and in the City around Bishopsgate and Liverpool Street. There are however many new clusters set to be created, principally Vauxhall-Nine Elms; Waterloo; Blackfriars Bridge; City Road (Islington); Aldgate; Stratford and North Greenwich. Demand for high rises is a result of acute pressures for more housing, and the prioritising of development at public transport nodes, such as Canary Wharf, Vauxhall and Blackfriars. In heritage terms a number of these clusters are controversial, particularly those along the South Bank that affect London’s river views, and those proposals in the vicinity of the world heritage sites of Westminster and the Tower of London.

NLA Insight Study map of current high building proposals

The main critique from campaigners is that there is a lack of vision from planners regarding high buildings policy, and that current developments are being driven by schemes for luxury residential flats along the river that maximise developer profits. The map above lends support to this view, particularly along the South Bank and at Vauxhall. There are already many medium rise luxury flat developments along the Thames of often limited design quality, and its debatable whether the current batch of taller developments will be any better. Policy restrictions in London are strongly geared towards protecting views of St Pauls Cathedral, effectively preventing new schemes in West Central London. Protection elsewhere is more limited and dependent on borough level interpretations of policy. Westminster has prioritised conservation and prevented new high rises (except at the Paddington Station development) while neighbouring boroughs of Lambeth and Southwark are more inclined to accept proposals, and use the much needed revenue for further housing development.

As well as covering the current planning debate, the exhibition includes many beautiful architectural models of existing and future high building proposals. There are some really unique designs, such as the fountain pen-shaped ‘Pinnacle’ that is back under development in the main City of London cluster.

Overall the exhibition is well worth a visit, and whether you are a fan or a critic of high buildings in London, there is clearly a need for greater awareness and discussion of current changes and what they will mean for the urban environment. There is also a need for more public access to open models and visualisations of how new buildings will appear and change London’s physical structure. Andy Hudson-Smith (@digitalurban) argued for this a few years back in CASA’s Virtual London project, and it appears that trends are currently moving in this direction.






Rio de Janeiro: a City in Transformation

Photograph by Tuca Viera for LSE Cities

The 2013 Urban Age conference took place in Rio de Janeiro on the 24th-25th October. The LSE Cities research team have spent recent months learning about Rio and the fascinating changes this city is undergoing. It’s a city right in the eye of the storm of current debates in urban studies, relating to poverty, urban regeneration, mega-events and informal housing. I summarise some of the conference research highlights in this post. For a more comprehensive picture you can download the conference newspaper here.

Photograph by Tuca Viera for LSE Cities
Rio is defined by it’s mountainous topography. Here we look east with Zona Central on the left overlooking Guanabara Bay, and wealthy Zona Sul on the Atlantic Ocean to the right. Photograph by Tuca Viera for LSE Cities.

Economic Boom and Poverty Reduction
Rio conjures up very contrasting images to the outsider. On the one hand there is the wonderful exuberant city of Copacabana beach, samba music and carnival. These inspiring images are juxtaposed with the ongoing challenges Rio faces in terms of poverty, gang violence and drugs, captured in popular culture through films like City of God. Much more recently, Brazil has been hitting the headlines because of widespread protests across the country, with citizens demanding better quality public services and the tackling of government corruption.

Brazil has in fact made admirable progress in social development in recent decades. Social welfare reforms, such as the Bolsa Familia pragramme introduced by former president Lula in 2003, have seen one of the world’s most dramatic reductions in poverty, with significant improvement in cities like Rio. Education rates have greatly increased, and the high number homicides that plagued Rio in the 1990’s has fallen significantly.


These social improvements have been aided both by progressive leadership, and by a booming economy. The State of Rio has received a huge financial injection from the extensive oil and gas fields discovered off the coast. It makes for an incongruous sight walking along Copacabana beach to see the far horizon dotted with oil platforms. Revenues from this windfall have boosted investment into the city, although supporters of the current protests would argue that it should be more fairly distributed.


Rio and the Favelas
Rio has grown rapidly into a city of 6.4 million people and 12 million in the wider metropolitan region. It is both defined and constrained by its spectacular coastal topography of steep slopes, forests and lagoons. Much of the expansion in population in the 20th century was housed informally, and 20% of Rio’s population still live in the favelas. These were built on the less accessible steep forest slopes, leading to the common distinction between the ‘morro’ and ‘asphalto’, the informal and the formal city. This is often a fine-grained division, as favelas are spread across the entire city, visible from the richest to the poorest areas.


Rather than demolish the favalas, Rio has worked to upgrade them with sanitation and electricity. Yet many remain isolated from public services and employment. The favelas have also been at the centre of drugs trade, controlled by gangs and armed militias. A high profile ‘pacification’ programme has been implemented over the last five years by the Rio government to reclaim these territories for the city. While this programme generally has public support, it involves serious use of force, with the army moving into favelas and disarming local gangs. After this initial disarming process, a network of police stations is set up and further efforts are made to made to reintegrate communities into the wider city, socially and economically.

As seen in the above map, there is a distinct geography to the pacification programme, with favelas in the city centre and around the Olympic venues given priority. Rio will host both the World Cup in 2014 and Olympic Games in 2016, and these megaevents have greatly accelerated the pacification process. It remains to be seen whether pacification will eventually reach the entire city, or if peripheral favelas will remain beyond the control of city authorities.

Complexo do Alemao is one of Rio's largest favelas. After pacification, there have been investments in new housing, and a new cable car transport system. UPP police stations are located at the cable car stops. Photograph by Tuca Viera for LSE Cities
Complexo do Alemao is one of Rio’s largest favelas. After the initial pacification phase, there have been investments in new housing, and a cable car transport system to aid accessibility. UPP police stations are located adjacent to cable car stops. Photograph by Tuca Viera for LSE Cities

Urban Integration and Mobility
Rio’s topography and sharp social contrasts make for a largely fragmented city. Wealthy residents are concentrated in Zona Sul, the coastal area to the south that includes Copacabana and Ipanema. The magnificent beaches in Zona Sul are a central attraction for wealthier residents and tourists, and this area is expanding westwards along the coast to Barra da Tijuca, defined by high rises and gated communities that resemble Miami. The rest of the city is much poorer. Residents in the periphery and isolated favelas can take hours to access services and work locations. This is exacerbated by Rio’s very limited public transport system, and the underdevelopment of the old city centre and port area.

Concious of this fragmentation and the need for better connectivity, Rio’s authorities have begun a massive investment in public transport infrastructure. The centre-piece is a city-wide bus rapid transit system, with 160km of lines covering the entire width of the city area. The challenging topography of Rio requires serious infrastructure investment in tunnels and bridges to construct this new network.


As can be seen in the above maps, the BRT routes have several aims. One is to make Barra da Tijuca a new transport hub, with the three lines converging near the location of the new Olympic Park. Another is to provide much better connections for the previously isolated western suburbs of Rio. And finally the TransCarioca line will improve links to the city centre. Arguably this latter point of better connectivity to the city centre should be a higher priority if Rio is to successfully revive its inner city. Olympic developments and real-estate interests are playing a significant role in this major public transport investment.

Find Out More
See the Urban Age Conference website for full details of the research and essays by local and international experts on urban transformation. Videos of conference presentations and discussions will also be going online soon. There’s also a good summary of the discussion on the Rio Real Blog.

An Urban Renaissance Achieved? Mapping a Decade of Densification in UK Cities


It’s been 14 years since the landmark Urban Task Force report, which set the agenda for inner-city densification and brownfield regeneration in the UK. Furthermore we’ve seen significant economic and demographic change in the last decade that’s greatly impacted urban areas. We can now use the 2011 census data, mapped here on the LuminoCity GB site, to investigate how these policies and socio-economic trends have transformed British cities in terms of population density change.

The stand-out result is that there’s a striking similarity across a wide range of cities, with overall growth achieved through high levels of inner-city densification (shown in lighter blue to cyan colours) in combination with a mix of slowly growing and moderately declining suburbs (dark purple to magenta colours).





We can see this pattern in the growing urban regions of Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds and Sheffield above. Manchester has the fastest population growth after London, with 8.1% growth in the city-region, and a massive 28% growth in the core local authority. Average densities in Manchester have gone up by 28% (+35 residents per hectare), but it’s not a uniform growth. There are new development sites at a very high 300 or 400 residents per hectare, contrasting with low density surrounds and the extensive remaining brownfield sites. There is a patchy nature to the current urban fabric of Manchester, indicating that much further development could still take place.

The West Midlands Conurbation is the third fastest growing city-region at 7.3%, with a higher 10% growth in the core city authority Birmingham. Density increases are more modest here (+13 residents per hectare) but the same general pattern remains. Similar patterns of high density inner-city growth are also clear in Leeds (5% growth) and Sheffield (8% growth).

The trend applies to medium size cities also. Those cities with the highest growth rates like Leicester (+18%), Nottingham (+14%), Cardiff (+13%) and Bristol (+12.5%) show fewer signs of suburban depopulation-

Nottingham Leicester
Cardiff Bristol

Scottish cities have a stronger tradition of high density inner-city living. With compact cores already in place, Edinburgh (+6.5%) and Aberdeen (+5%) have been expanding the inner city into Leith and Old Aberdeen-

Edinburgh Aberdeen

Meanwhile the UK’s former industrial powerhouses of Glasgow, Liverpool and Newcastle display a more problematic variation on this pattern. City centre intensification is still much in evidence, with core city authority populations growing at 8% in Newcastle, 6% in Liverpool and 4% in Glasgow. But this growth is in combination with outright decline in some surrounding towns and suburban areas, particularly around Glasgow. These patterns are linked to major programmes to overhaul poor inner-city housing stock, but are also inevitably linked to weaker economic growth in Glasgow and Liverpool. The picture is better in Tyne & Wear, where there are more positive employment signs (8% growth in workforce jobs 2001-2011).


What is driving this urban dynamic?

In addition to planning policy shifts, a series of economic and demographic changes are contributing to the pattern of central growth and struggling suburbs, as commentators have variously been observing in the UK and US (e.g. gentrification researchers, Erenhalt, Kochan). Demographic aspects include more students, immigrants, singles and childless couples. Economic aspects include city-centre friendly service and knowledge economy jobs, as well as increased costs of petrol. For these trends to occur over a wide range of demographically and economically diverse cities in the UK and beyond, clearly there are multiple factors pulling urban populations and growth in similar directions.

London Extremes


We’ve avoided the gigantic outlier of London so far. It’s a city apart in many ways- much larger (8.1 million in the GLA area) and faster growing (+14% 2001-2011). It’s also massively higher density, with average residents per hectare 50% higher (nearly 200 residents per hectare) than the next most dense city-region in GB. The biggest changes have been in Inner East London. Tower Hamlets (where Canary Wharf has boomed) is 1st on every indicator- highest population change (+28.8%), highest employment change (+50%!!), highest population density (324 residents / hectare). The pressures for growth in London are so high that there is little surburban decline in population terms (although employment has been declining significantly in Outer London).


Yet the high rate of densification in London has come nowhere near meeting housing demand. London is the midst of a massive housing shortage and crisis, with some of the world’s highest property prices. The debate is currently raging about what needs to be done to accelerate construction, with advocates of transforming more land to community ownership (e.g. Planners Network UK), relaxing planning regulations such as the green belt (e.g. LSE SERC), and implementing an array of measures simultaneously (e.g. Shelter Report). We can see London’s challenges in the maps, such as the failure thus far of the flagship housing expansion programme, the Thames Gateway, to deliver. Some high profile development sites like Stratford and Kings Cross have only recently opened for residents and so do not show in the 2011 data.

The Thames Gateway- aside from Woolwich, little housing has been delivered.

Another more surprising result is the fall in the population of Inner West London, particularly Kensington and Chelsea. While this finding does need some context- K&C is still the forth most densely populated local authority in the country- it’s still an amazing trend given the extreme population pressures in London. It is in line with arguments that the most expensive properties in London have become investments for international capital rather than homes for living. Such trends push prices up, cut supply and bring questionable benefits to the city. Addressing this issue would require tax changes, and macro economic factors like the value of the pound and yields on alternative investments are also clearly influential.

Inner London- expansion in the East and decline in Kensington & Chelsea

Summary- an Ongoing Renaissance and Suburban Challenges

Well to state the obvious GB cities are, with only a few exceptions, growing significantly. That’s not to be sniffed at given the history of widespread urban decline throughout the second half of the 20th century. And secondly the pattern of growth in density terms is clear- densifying inner cities, and fairly static or declining suburbs. The scale of London and the severe housing crisis has it’s own unique dynamics, while Glasgow and Liverpool are still dealing with significant population loss in many areas of the city region. But on the whole, the pattern is surprisingly consistent across cities in Great Britain.

Clearly this review prompts a series of further questions analysing the economic, demographic, gentrification, deprivation and property market processes inherent in this urban change, and what future city centres and suburbs will be like. Hopefully this mapping exercise should is a useful context for the ongoing research.

Launching LuminoCity GB: Urban Form and Dynamics Explorer


Our cities have been changing dramatically in recent years, with the intensification of urban centres, redevelopment of old industrial spaces, new demographic trends, and the pressures of a volatile global economy. The aim of the LuminoCity website, which launches in beta today, is to visualise urban form and dynamics to better understand how these trends are transforming cities in Great Britain. Explore the site for yourself here-

London Population Density by Built-up Area 2011
Glasgow Jobs Density by Built-up Area 2010
Manchester Population Density Change 2001-2011

The visual style developed for LuminoCity combines urban activity data with built-form. Density values are calculated by dividing fine-scale (LSOA) employment and population data by built-up area, and then mapping the results to the same building footprint data (Ordnance Survey VectorMap). The result is a novel city perspective on common demographic indicators like population and employment density, with links between density and the texture of the built-environment clearly highlighted. So for example in the London map above, we can see the patchwork pattern of recent high density developments in Docklands (along the river to the east), and high density clustering around major rail stations like Paddington.

There are three layers included in the beta version of LuminoCity-

Each layer provides a complementary angle on urban form, with Employment Density showing business agglomeration patterns, and Population Density Change highlighting where intensification is occurring and where population losses are found. Examples of these three layers for major cities are shown above. The Population Density Change is particularly interesting in light of clear patterns of city centre growth and static or declining suburbs in many British cities, such as Manchester above. There is also in London a distinct pattern of population loss in the western inner-city, likely due to international capital speculation leaving under-occupied housing (see image below). These trends will be discussed in a further post later this week.

London Population Density Change 2001-2011
London Population Density Change 2001-2011

Multi-Scale Interactive Statistics

As well as browsing the map you can also click on particular locations to get a set of core statistics and rankings of that area for the current map layer. The statistics are at three spatial levels- City Region, Local Authority and LSOA. This feature shows how typical a particular area is compared to the wider city-region and  the country as a whole. It also helps to communicate the variation in density measurements according to scale.

Location Statistics for Manchester, one of Britain's fastest growing cities
Location Statistics for Manchester, one of Britain’s fastest growing cities

Site Credits

The data used for the LuminoCity site is Crown Copyright Office for National Statistics, National Records of Scotland and Ordnance Survey. Cartography and site design by Duncan A Smith. The map layers were produced using the excellent TileMill software by MapBox.

The site concept was partly inspired by Ollie O’Brien’s ‘New Booth’ Map of Deprivation for Great Britain.

Datasets Used

The population data comes from the UK 2001 and 2011 Census, published by Office for National Statistics and National Records of Scotland. The employment data is derived from the Business Register and Employment Survey 2009-2011, also published by Office for National Statistics. The building footprint and urban area data is from the Ordnance Survey Vector District and Meridian products. These datasets have been published by the OS as Open Data, which is a fantastic recent development enabling sites like this to happen.

Spatial Analysis Method Details and Errors

All socio-economic mapping contains a degree of error, and the building footprint density approach used here introduces some issues. The Lower Super Output Area zone geography at which the population and employment data is published is fine scale but is not at the individual block level. Each LSOA zone represents groups of adjacent city blocks. The density results are therefore an average of the adjacent blocks in each zone. The results are affected by a particular version of the Modifiable Areal Unit Problem, and represent the density of fine-scale city neighbourhoods rather than of particular buildings. You can view the specific geography of the LSOA zones by turning on the ‘Admin Boundary’ layer on the LuminoCity site to see how blocks are aggregated.

Additionally the analysis does not consider building use (there are several technical and copyright challenges with this) and so population and employment density measures include all buildings rather than distinguishing residential and commercial property densities.

Finally, the ONS has not yet published census 2001 and 2011 population counts at the same LSOA geography, and a proportional spatial join method by building area was used to convert the 2001 LSOA  census data to 2011 LSOAs for the Population Density Change layer.

Feedback and Comments

If you like the site or have any feedback or comments then you can tweet me @citygeographics, or email The site is in beta at the moment, and I plan to add more layers and interactivity in future releases. I’ll be blogging here in more detail about what the visualisations reveal about the changing geography of British cities over the coming weeks.

ESRI Urban Observatory- the right model for city crowdsourcing?


This month ESRI made an interesting move into the field of global city data with the launch of Urban Observatory (TM). The site has some great interactive visualisation ideas with simultaneous mapping of three interchangeable cities, linked navigation and indicator selection. It provides an intuitive interface to explore the diverse forms of world cities-


Furthermore this ambitious project is intended to be an extensible platform. Jack Dangermond (billionaire founder of ESRI) and Richard Saul Wurman (founder of TED with a long-standing interest in city cartography) discuss in the introductory video how they want many more cities to join in, to crowdsource city data from around the world, using the ArcGIS online platform.

So is this project going to be the answer for all our global urban and smart city data needs? Well I think despite the great interface, as a city crowdsourcing model ESRI’s urban observatory is not going to work. But it’s interesting to explore why, particularly in relation to the bigger questions of whether the open city data revolution is going to be truly global and inspire a new era of urban analysis and comparative urban research.

ESRI’s site states that “information about urbanization does not exist in comparative form”. In reality comparative urban analysis is a growing trend across many sectors, from international organisations like OECD, EU and UN (including the original UN Habitat Urban Observatory); to environmental organisations like ICLEI and C40; to economically focussed organisations like the World Bank and Brookings; to global remote sensing providers like the USGS; to major commercial data producers in transport and telecoms; to the many urban academic research centres around the world (including the two London based centres I’ve worked for, CASA and LSE Cities).

Global cities data example- GaWC Network at Loughborough
Global cities data example- GaWC Network at Loughborough
CASA- deprivation in UK cities example.
CASA- deprivation in UK cities example.
Brookings MetroMonitor- comparison of US cities' economic performance
Brookings MetroMonitor- comparison of US cities’ economic performance


LSE Cities- over a decade exploring comparative urbanism
LSE Cities- over a decade exploring comparative urbanism

There’s a rich and growing field of data providers and analysis techniques to draw on for comparative urban analysis. Indeed the ability to gather and analyse urban data is absolutely central to the whole Smart City agenda. But there are clearly many challenges. What do cities gain by opening up their data? Who then owns the data and controls how it is presented? Who selects what data is included and excluded?

I believe the natural platform for civic data (and subsequently for the international comparison of urban data) will be an open platform with wiki features to encourage civic engagement. This provides the answers to the above questions- citizens gain from better access to data and institutional transparency; citizens own the data and have a say in what is included and how it’s presented. This is the model for current successful open data sites like the London Datastore, where anyone can access the data, and Londoners can request new datasets (backed by freedom of information legislation). Unfortunately the governance situation is of course much more complicated for the international comparison of cities, and this has limited progress.

As the world’s leading provider of GIS software, ESRI are in a strong position to integrate global datasets, and have clear commercial interests in amassing urban data for their clients. But it’s much harder to answer questions about who owns and controls data in their urban observatory project. Arguably this will limit the number of cities volunteering to take part, and limits the project’s ability to respond to the diverse demands of global cities and their citizens.

A further huge challenge in comparative urbanism is in developing the right analytical techniques and indicators to answer key urban questions. This will inevitably require more sophisticated analysis tools than a set of thematic maps, and needs to draw on the many research strands developing the most relevant analytical tools.

Overall there will be some exciting competition in the coming months and years in the expanding market of international urban data integration and visualisation, with different models from commercial, government and academic contexts. ESRI’s urban observatory is an innovative project, and should stimulate further advances.

Animating Global Innovation Diffusion- Public Transport



We know that knowledge networks and intensive competition within cities boosts innovation. There are also further scales to this dynamic. The networks and competition between cities at regional and global scales promotes the adoption of new ideas- as cities buy, borrow and adapt ideas from their competitors. It’s this latter global dynamic that we’re exploring in this post, investigating the spread of new ideas in a sector that’s intrinsically urban in nature- public transport. After widespread decline in the second half of the 20th century, transit has recently undergone an impressive renaissance linked to the dramatic growth of urban populations, high density forms and sustainability policies.

The spread of new ideas between cities is clustered in space and in time, as cities are strongly influenced by nearby competitors, as well as economic investment cycles. Therefore a natural way to visualise these spatial and temporal patterns is through animated cartography. This is the technique used here with the help of Processing and the MapThing library by Jon Reades (allows GIS data to be imported into Processing).

So first up we’re going to head back in time to the invention and dispersion of the underground/subway metro (data from; best viewed HD fullscreen)-

London celebrated 150 years of the Underground this year, and it was three decades after 1863 before other cities in Europe and North America had their own high-frequency high-capacity city centre networks. This delay can be linked to varied levels of industrialisation between countries, as well as the time taken to improve the metro concept with electrical power (the original Underground amazingly used steam locomotives). It’s interesting that the youthful American metropolises of Chicago and Boston were quicker off the mark to build metro systems than many European capitals.

Buenos Aires in 1913 and Tokyo in 1927 (now the world’s largest metro) were early exceptions to the European and North American monopoly on metro systems. Yet it took until the 1980’s onwards with the rise of Newly Industrialised Countries like Brazil, Russia, India, Mexico and Turkey for metro systems to become truly global. China is now in a league of its own with gigantic metros in Shanghai, Guangzhou, Beijing and Hong Kong.

Underground metros may seem like the best answer to cities’ transit demands, but they are highly expensive and disruptive to build, and are pricey to maintain also. These difficulties underlie another key innovation in the global rise of public transport- bus rapid transit. The use of segregated roads, specially designed stations and articulated buses enables BRT to have similar capacity and speed advantages of subways at a much lower cost. We can see from the animation that BRT begins as a Brazilian innovation (data from

Initially BRT adoption is highly clustered in Brazil’s major cities, with a few early adopters including Santiago de Chile, Quito, Pittsburgh and Essen in Germany. Then in the late 1990’s the dynamic changes with a burst of new systems in Central America, Canada, Australia, and mainly second-tier cities in Europe. Taipei has spearheaded the adoption of BRT into China, with many new large systems emerging. Sizeable BRTs also recently opened in Istanbul, Tehran and interestingly in Lagos where hopefully further investment in African cities will follow.

In our highly connected globalised world, new city innovations are likely to spread more quickly, and that seems to be the case with BRT. Indeed this acceleration effect is even more marked in the last innovation we’re going to investigate- the bike sharing phenomenon. Now bike share schemes are of course small investments compared to city-wide metro systems, yet they are still an interesting recent advance with similar global dispersion dynamics (data from Bike Sharing World Map and O’Brien Bike Share Map)-

The original pioneer of bike sharing is not as clean cut as the BRT and Underground examples as there have been several generations of innovation (see pdf article). In 1995 Copenhagen successfully created a reasonably sized (1,000 bikes) coin operated system with specially designed bicycles that tried to reduce theft. A small number of cities in Germany and France followed suit. The next generation began in Lyon in 2005 with a larger (4,000 bikes) system using smart card technology that greatly reduced theft. Subsequently bike sharing has exploded globally across Europe, North America, China and South Korea.

Paris has by far the largest system in Europe with 20,000 bikes. But even Paris’s Vélib’ is small compared to two huge Chinese systems in Wuhan (90,000 bikes) and Hangzhou (70,000 bikes). China’s strong cycling tradition has recently been in decline with rising car ownership, and hopefully the Bike Share boom will reverse this trend.

So to conclude, we are experiencing an age of truly global transit adoption with innovations spreading more rapidly through global city networks. While innovation has traditionally arisen in Western European and North American contexts, by far the greatest urban growth is in Newly Industrialised Countries, increasing demand for innovations like BRT. The rapid rise of bike share systems shows that relatively modest innovations can have a global impact when the innovation is popular and effectively implemented.




The ridership and scheme size data relates to current passenger levels rather than the size of the system at the time of construction. Would be great to do this visualisation with time-series ridership data, but this is not to my knowledge currently available.

The definition of metro and BRT systems used here comes from the database providers, and there is some ambiguity, e.g. in defining when a regional urban rail system can be classed as a metro (see







World City Living and Working Densities: Poles Apart?


One of the most recognisable visualisation techniques used by LSE Cities in the Urban Age publications is the 3D density map- an intuitive and engaging way to represent built form, and enable comparison of very different city environments across the globe. I’ve been producing 3D density maps in my own research for around five years now, and so it was a nice challenge to produce the 3D density maps for this year’s Urban Age conference, the Electric City in London. In this post I focus on the contrasting densities in three leading world cities- London, New York and Hong Kong- with the added twist that both residential and employment densities are mapped for comparison.

Higher urban densities can facilitate more sustainable travel patterns, improve service delivery efficiency, reduce building energy use and promote urban vitality. These advantages depend of course on good urban planning to minimise congestion and pollution problems. High density mixed-use development is central to the compact city planning movement, and remains a foundation of sustainable planning policy today. Here we map the number of residents in each square kilometre of a 100 by 100 kilometre region for London, New York and Hong Kong. Lower urban densities apply to suburban-like neighbourhoods, while high densities generally represent medium or high rise buildings clustered on a tight urban grid.

The city that stands out in the mapping is Hong Kong, with its extremely high residential densities exceeding 110,000 people per km2. Here planners have responded to scarce land availability with very tall (over 30 storeys) high-density development. Scarce land has also influenced the development of New York City, where Manhattan densities peak at 59,000 people per km2. London in comparison is much lower density. The heritage of suburban housing and generous greenspace has created a residential culture at half the density of New York and a quarter the density of Hong Kong. Despite current intensification in London, residential densities remain a world away from other global cities.

Where people live is not however the only perspective needed to understand urban density. We can also examine employment densities for an important point of comparison (both residential and employment maps are at the same scale). Taller spikes in the employment maps represent higher numbers of jobs concentrated in business centres. London, New York and Hong Kong feature very intensive central employment clusters. The highest peak of over 150,000 jobs per km2 is in Midtown Manhattan. London is surprisingly close behind at over 140,000 jobs per km2, concentrated in the City of London and the West End. Hong Kong peaks at 120,000 jobs per km2 in Central (note the Hong Kong survey data is less comprehensive and may underestimate peak densities). These intense spikes represent very strong agglomeration economies, where financial and business services and creative industries cluster together to access labour markets, share fast-changing information and engage in face-to-face interaction with clients, customers and partners. Despite living in an age of instant telecommunication, proximity is still critical for many world city business activities.

The extreme employment density peaks are indicative of economic success in these world cities. Demand for office space is so stong that developers get sufficient returns to build high and businesses use their space more intensively. Central employment clustering also means these cities are dominated by public transport rather than car travel (particularly Hong Kong). On the other hand the divergence of living and working densities can signify a lack of integration between living and working locations. London is very polarised between its low density living and high density working environments. This contributes to the long distance and long duration commuting travel for many Londoners (recent surveys find an average one-way commute times for Londoners of 38 minutes). New York has a better integration of living and working locations (average commutes are around 31 minutes). Hong Kong appears to have the closest integration of living and working spaces, though unfortunately commuting time survey data is not available to test this.

The analysis here supports the medium-rise inner-city residential intensification that the London Plan prescribes to improve the balance of urban functions, and increase accessibility for residents and businesses. The gap in residential densities between London and many world cities is so large that modest intensification can be achieved while keeping London’s distinct character, providing development is on the much remaining brownfield land rather than London’s treasured greenspaces.

Another interesting thought is whether the highly concentrated office clusters we see in London and New York will continue to be the way most businesses operate in the future. Greg Lindsay gave a good talk last week on how businesses are changing the way they use work space towards more shared and flexible environments that will likely be less space demanding.

To see more detailed analysis of sustainability trends in many more world cities from the Urban Age conference see the Electric City conference newspaper.

Sparks of Inspiration at the Electric City Conference

Michael Kimmelman, Bjarke Ingels, Ricky Burdett and Alejandro Zaera-Polo debate urban design

You know you’ve attended a good conference when the discussion leaves your head buzzing with new ideas and possibilities, and the debate continues long after the event closes. This was certainly the case at the Urban Age Electric City conference last week, where politicians, academics, designers and technologists met to share, discuss and argue urban policy and the future of cities.

Ostensibly the conference theme was smart cities and urban technology, and there were several tech business speakers extolling the virtues of electric cars, smart grids and so on. There was however widespread cynicism of techno-fixes on many fronts. Adam Greenfield used the very definitions of the smart city provided by corporate promoters to show the vacuous techno-utopian branding of what is often simply an extension of the real-estate industry. Richard Sennett articulated the ambiguous and complex nature of traditional street-based urban form, and by extension how archetypal smart-city examples from Masdar and Songdu failed to create similar spaces of social interaction that support innovation.

Yet it must be said that the urban technology debate is itself far more diverse than the strawman examples of Masdar and Songdu. Certainly the Shoreditch digital economy cluster that surrounds the conference venue illustrates thriving tech businesses in a traditional urban setting. Many of the counterexamples to smart-city utopia presented during the conference themselves involved aspects of technology, particularly in relation to communication and participation.

Urban equity, or lack of, was a key theme for many speakers. Enrique Peñalosa, former mayor of Bogotá, passionately argued for tackling social inequality as a central element of improving urban sustainability- an argument he has helped translate into reality through reforming Bogotá’s public transport networks. The politics of inequality also underlie the social movements and protests that have rocked the world, from Occupy to the Arab Spring and the London riots. In these cases social networking technology presents a highly dynamic and unpredictable force that city governments, both rich and poor, are struggling to engage with.

On the design front, the talk that best integrated the conference themes was from Alejandro Zaera-Polo, who sought to articulate the evolution of architectural style and practice in response to digital communication. Citing modular and self-build architecture examples, he described a new aesthetic of incompleteness, and used slum developments as the model of how complex functional urban form emerges from simple building blocks. He also pointed to crowdsourcing as an increasingly key funding mechanism for development in the austerity age, requiring a new entrepreneurialism from architects to generate public support and money for ambitious projects. This spirit of architectural daring and entrepreneurialism was certainly on show from Bjarke Ingels, whose mad and wonderful “hedonistic sustainability” examples were a joy to see.

Alejandro Zaera-Polo- "architects must create belief"
Alejandro Zaera-Polo- “architects must create belief”

Yet as much the designers inspired, presentations tackling the global environment highlighted the gaping chasm between urban sustainability aspirations and reality. “Cities dream of Barcelona and build Los Angeles” was Greg Clark’s quick-fire summary of Joan Clos’s conclusions from the UN Human Settlements Programme. “The compact city plus global lives do not equal sustainability” correctly argued Maartin Hajer.

Intellectual heavyweight Anthony Giddens grappled with the grave implications of the 4+ degrees warming path we are set on for this century, and the high-risk high-opportunity civilisation we have created. When asked somewhat glibly by the chair whether he was an “optimist or a pessimist” he replied quite rightly that the question was irrelevant and that climate change requires scientific realism, a perspective that is currently beyond much of the public. It’s certainly appeared beyond the UK politicians on show, who enthusiastically banged the drum for sustainable London while conveniently forgetting that much of the globe’s fossil fuel industry in headquartered in London and funded by City banks.

Anthony Giddens tackles the implications of global climate change
Anthony Giddens tackles the implications of global climate change

There were also some rays of hope for a deeper understanding of urban sustainability. The former mayor of Stockholm, Carl Cederschiöld, described how sustainability progress had been achieved in his city, pointing to the vital role of both strong national support and public understanding as well as city government. Dimitri Zenghelis put forward the economic growth case for an urban green transformation. Mark Swilling presented a methodology of understanding urban sustainability through social and resource flows- exactly the kind of approach needed for considering sustainability in an age of global connectivity. Maartin Hajer described the need for forging “coalitions of the willing” in tackling global sustainability where international governance has been so ineffective.

And that’s what the Urban Age conference surely is in the end, one big coalition of the willing… or willing to discuss and debate at any rate. Thanks to all those who took part and contributed to a very engaging event. If you missed it, conference video highlights will be appearing on the website over the coming days, and you can read essays by many of these speakers in the conference newspaper.

Urban Age Electric City Conference



I recently began a new job at LSE Cities and have been working for the last month on materials for the Electric City conference in London, taking place on the 6th and 7th December this week. The conference will be exploring smart cities and disruptive urban tech from a sociological slant, and includes talks from famous urbanists such as Ed Glaeser, Saskia Sassen and Deyan Sudjic. You can get a flavour of the debate from Richard Sennett’s provocative article on “Stupefying Smart Cities”.

The whole event will be live streamed on the conference website.

My role, alongside the LSE Cities Research Team, has been in producing comparative urban visualisations and analysis around the theme of sustainable urbanism. These visuals and articles are now online in the conference newspaper.

Copenhagen and Hong Kong: Mapping Global Leaders in Green Transport


Cities that achieve social and economic success without high car use generally have three things in common: high densities, good urban design, and successful planning frameworks that integrate land-use with public transport, walking and cycling networks. I’ve been working on an LSE Cities project that investigated two leading global cities in green transport- Copenhagen and Hong Kong- to better understand how their leading positions were reached. You can read the final Going Green report here.

The project required visualising the level of integration between public transport and urban density in these cities. We developed a technique where the rail network is shown as a transect through a 3D population density surface. This shows how the density of jobs and residents in these cities is clustered around major public transport nodes.


Copenhagen has a classic radial pattern, based on the famous ‘Finger Plan‘ developed over 60 years ago, where linear urban features are separated by thin green wedges. This is quite distinct to the UK greenbelt approach. Current expansion is focussed to the south of the city centre along the Orestad corridor served by the more recently developed metro links. This area sites the airport and transport links to Sweden, continuing the cross-border integration between Copenhagen and Malmö.

Hong Kong makes a very interesting comparison. It is on average 8 times(!) higher density than Copenhagen, and peak densities are around four times higher at nearly 150,000 jobs & residents per square kilometre. This is due firstly to the natural boundaries and country park designations that prevent suburban development, and secondly to the unique ‘Rail plus Property’ planning model run by the government and MTR, where extremely high development densities are pursued at rail station sites, and land value gains captured to fund public transport. The result is a polycentric pattern of jagged nodal development.


Another way to consider this relationship is to measure typical distances to rail & metro stations for these cities. As can be seen below, Copenhagen and Hong Kong compare favourably to other leading global cities like London and New York.

It would be interesting to pursue this analysis further for London. You can see that London scores relatively lower for the population within 500 metres of stations. Intensification policies at public transport nodes are a recent policy change for London. Accessibility figures are likely to change over time with several major intensification projects under way at rail stations in Inner London.

(Above figure based on metropolitan regions. Defined as Outer Met Area for London and 100 km by 100 km square centred on Manhattan for NYC).