Can London become a centre of experimental urbanism?

Written by Ben Rogers |

Over the last decade or so, we have seen a surge of interest in the city as a laboratory – a place for civic innovation and policy experimentation. Ben Rogers explores what it could mean for joint working between academics and urban policymakers like the London Research and Policy Partnership (LRaPP). 

Can London become a centre of experimental urbanism?

Written by Ben Rogers |

Over the last decade or so, we have seen a surge of interest in the city as a laboratory – a place for civic innovation and policy experimentation. Ben Rogers explores what it could mean for joint working between academics and urban policymakers like the London Research and Policy Partnership (LRaPP). 

Almost all students of public health learn the story of John Snow and the Broad Street pump – how in 1854, Snow, a pioneering doctor, created a survey of victims of a deathly outbreak of cholera in London’s Soho. This enabled him to trace the source to a pump supplying contaminated water, and then suppress the outbreak by removing the handle to the pump, demonstrating decisively that cholera was spread not by air (‘miasma’) but water.  

Over the last decade or so, we have seen a surge of interest in the city as a field of experimental investigation. A simple Google search of ‘experimental urbanism’ brings up pages of links to books, articles, conferences and videos devoted to the subject (there is even an Instagram account!). Snow’s experiment reminds us that there is little entirely new under the sun. Nevertheless, experimental urbanism tends to present itself, not unreasonably, as a fresh departure from older, more orthodox approaches, which see research and policymaking as happening in two somewhat separate worlds.  Research, according to this conventional way of thinking, is the job of researchers, whether working in a laboratory or (more typical of the social sciences) collecting and examining data in the ‘field’, with their findings then fed into a distinct policymaking process. ‘Survey, analyse, plan’ in the highly influential formulation of Sir Patrick Geddes, one of the founders of modern urban planning. 

I worked for a short time in the Civil Service and recall the team of officials in the Research and Analysis Directorate – mainly statisticians – installed on the 4th floor of the Department. They had a professional career structure and governance arrangements that set them apart from the rest of us on the other floors. As far as I could tell, they saw their main job as supplying us with evidence and stopping us – especially the politicians - using it improperly. Ensuring policy is informed by evidence is, of course, of the utmost importance, but it did not feel like a particularly creative relationship. 

 Experimental urbanism, as it is described by its champions, has a number of hallmarks:

  • Against a background of a pressing ecological emergency and grave social challenges, it aims at rapid, creative and practical innovations, with potentially scalable results;
  • It’s challenge-orientated: it’s less interested in understanding how the world works and more in solving critical problems;
  • It’s iterative: it allows for the testing, discarding and revising of successive trials and prototypes;
  • It’s ‘co-created’ by people with a wide array of skills and experiences - researchers, designers, users, policymakers, and businesses – so helping ensure its innovations are robust and durable;
  • It’s bespoke:  it’s designed and fitted for a particular place
  • It’s democratic – because its field of experimentation is the city, it’s open to public view and challenge. And, at its best, it’s got citizens and service-users, especially those from underrepresented and marginalised groups, at its centre. 

Understood as outlined above, city experiments can be conducted at the level of the whole city, and some innovations are best trialled at that level. It’s hard to test a new charge on polluting vehicles, a change to the rules of the road, a hike in a minimum wage or the liberalisation of drug laws one neighbourhood at a time. But experimental urbanism, and its close cousin, tactical urbanism – the latter focusing exclusively on transport and the public realm - feels particularly well suited to relatively small-scale, neighbourhood and local innovation.  

The rise of the experimental city movement has gone hand in hand with the rise of ‘urban labs’ – that is organisations and initiatives dedicated to promoting urban innovation. The European Network of Living Labs (ENOLL) reports it has more than 480 members worldwide – though only a proportion will be city-focused.  Simon Marvin and Johnathan Silver recently surveyed over 70 urban labs in the UK and internationally. These labs come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Some belong to universities, some are set up by city governments, some are funded by businesses and some established by charitable foundations, with their focus and mode of operation varying accordingly.   

In addition, we can find urban experimentation being pursued outside of urban labs. Some of the best-known examples of city innovation of recent years relate to transport and public space. Examples include trials of car free days and rapid bus lanes in Bogota, the use of tactical, temporary or ‘pop-up’ interventions to reclaim public space in New York’s Times Square, the reallocation of road space to cycle lanes and pedestrians in Barcelona, Paris and countless other cities, the spread, during Covid, of shops and restaurants into roads, streets and parks or London’s recent trialling of Low Traffic Neighbourhoods. Most of these were influenced, to a lesser or greater degree, by ‘experimental city’ thinking but I don’t believe any were generated by urban labs. 

So what might all this mean for an initiative like the London Research and Policy Partnership?  To what extent and how should it embrace experimental urbanism?

It is clear that there is no simple tried and tested model of urban experimentation that the LRaPP can simply adopt. Experimental urbanism is as much an attitude, an ethos, ‘a vibe’, as it is a method or a discipline. Instead of ‘Survey, analyse, plan’, we have something like ‘Workshop, prototype, redesign – and in a way that is as open and inclusive as possible’.

This feels like rich, productive territory for a research-policy partnership like the LRaPP. Yes, we want to connect policymakers to researchers with the aim of promoting evidence-based policy. Yet we also want to get into the business of experimentation and innovation, not least because academics can bring much to this. Their institutions are well placed to bring together different disciplines and vantage points involved in successful urban experimentation. They have experience and know-how when it comes to ‘translating’ research into practical innovation: most universities have long had enterprise teams, spaces and funding to supported entrepreneurial activity, even if this has often been focused on commercial rather than public or policy innovation. The authority that universities bring with them as objective, professional, research-led organisations, can help manage some of the risks and inevitable controversy that often comes with experimentation.  

It would be nice to think that as a London organisation, LRaPP might build, in a modest way, on John Snow’s city-as-a-lab legacy. But it will require quite of lot of work with policymakers, researchers and other partners before we can determine how the Partnership can best support urban experimentation or direct it to meeting the capital’s critical challenges.  

If you are interested in exploring how the LRaPP should approach urban experimentation, please do get in touch.
 

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