Friday, December 14, 2012

How to compare cities, using digital methods

 I am writing from the city of Leeds in Yorkshire, where a very nice conference on comparative urbanism just finished up. This is a quick post about the session, and maybe I will write something in more detail at a later time. The session was called “ACUMEN: Assembly for Comparative Urbanism and the Material Environment." with the subtitle: “Digital methodologies for social research for processes of urban landscape development.” The conference was the brainchild of Benjamin Vis, an archaeologist who is now in the Ph.D. program in Geography at the University of Leeds. It was held at Haley’s Hotel in Leeds, a comfortable place to talk about urbanism with a bunch of fascinating people (although they aren't going to win any awards for their internet service - I may or may not get this thing posted before I leave town!). There is some information at the pre-conference website.

The ACUMEN conference brought together people working on various approaches to comparative urbanism and using various current methods, in particular historical/archaeological GIS analysis. There were geographers, historians, archaeologists, architects, and some folks difficult to classify. In addition to presentations by established scholars, the conference include a “PechaKucha,” an event that was new to me. A group of people, mostly students, gave very brief presentations of their research, limited to 20 slides and six minutes.

I gave the opening talk, and a summing-up at the end. Benjamin called me the conference “Ambassador,” but I am still not sure what that meant. It was fascinating to hear about a bunch of creative and important urban research projects. My approach to comparative urbanism, which should be clear if you have followed this blog, has been to start with a theme that cuts across many periods and regions, especially ancient and modern cities. Themes I’ve written about (here and in articles) include informal settlements, urban sustainability, urban sprawl, neighborhoods, and gated communities. So far, my comparisons have not been done in great detail, except perhaps for the theme of neighborhoods.

Most of the participants in the ACUMEN conference used one or both of two alternative approaches to analysis and comparison. The first is methodological. GIS analysis is rapidly becoming the standard method in research on urban form (and other topics) in archaeology, geography, and history. We heard about some great urban-GIS analyses, particularly the historical mapping of Paris by Eric Grasso and colleagues, and studies of medieval British towns by Keith Lilley (I apologize for this hasty posting, without links; I will try to get them done, but it may have to wait till I am back in Arizona). GIS is a method to provide a standardization of data for comparing cities.

The second method to comparison discussed at this conference is theory- or approach-driven. The two main examples here were space syntax and urban morphology. Space syntax, a method of analyzing the uses of and access to spaces in buildings and cities, has become increasingly popular in some archaeological traditions. It is not a universal method, because its applications rely on complex room arrangements within buildings, or street patterns in cities. In my own case, Aztec houses have one room and Aztec cities do not have streets. But for the western urban tradition (plus a few examples from other traditions), space syntax is very useful. Sam Griffiths, a space syntax expert at the University College London (center of the space syntax movement), gave an interesting talk on the methods, its uses, and its limitations. A number of the other participants are using, or have used, space syntax previously. (links will be provided……).

Urban morphology is more of a method or approach than a theory. See the journal Urban Morphology for examples. This approach fits well with GIS (as in Keith Lilley’s work) and with space syntax. While only a couple of the participants work within the urban morphology approach, most of the work featured at the conference focused on urban morphology or form in a broader sense.

This was a great session, and we all left with new ideas and inspiration to try to keep the cross-disciplinary dialogue going somehow. Benjamin Vis will probably be setting up a website for ACUMEN before long, and I will talk more about this in the future.

I also got to spend part of a day in York, looking at Roman, Viking, and medieval remains. And it was great sampling the local ales.

1 comment:

  1. I feel compelled to briefly explain how it came about to devise your role as 'ambassador', but I think even if it wasn't clear this blog post already demonstrates you are very much embodying and performing that role! (Thank you very much by the way! We will most definitely be setting up a webpage. I already made a Listserv, but still need to figure out how to manage it.) The 'ambassador' role conveys that you were not merely a keynote, but a major contributor to the initial idea, and although not directly part of the organisation of this event, representing much of the research aims ACUMEN supports. Moreover you are representing (ancient) comparative urbanism beyond your own original discipline, making you an ambassador for such research already. This is also why I asked you to both open and close the workshop and I believe that has worked! I hope your travels back weren't too arduous!