Designing a liveable compact city: Physical forms of city and social life in urban neighbourhoods

Raman, S.

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Raman, S. (2010). Designing a liveable compact city: Physical forms of city and social life in urban neighbourhoods. Built Environment, 36(1), 63–80.

This paper reports findings from recent research examining the relationship between urban design and layout and aspects of social and communal life in urban neighbourhoods. To address this, six UK neighbourhoods of varying densities and layouts were selected for detailed investigation. Data on social interactions, social activities and social networks along with perceptions of the built and social environment of the neighbourhoods were collected through observations, questionnaire surveys and secondary data sources. Neighbourhood design and layout were analysed using spatial network and visibility graph analysis methods. Correlation and multiple regression tests were conducted to test the claimed associations. Findings indicate differences between socializing patterns and structure of social networks in high- and low-density areas. Low-density areas were associated with widely spread social networks and activities with very few strong relationships. In high-density neighbourhoods, respondents had small networks but stronger ties were found. Detailed investigation shows that much of this can be attributed to, among other physical factors: the location of public spaces, visibility from and to these spaces, visual links between neighbourhoods', typology and physical form of development rather than density alone. This indicates that some of the negative social impacts found within high-density urban development might be rectified with better design of neighbourhoods. It is clear that to deliver sustainable development, the 'compact city' will have to be designed with specific spatial and built environment characteristics.

Main finding
The author finds that building form and layout of public space affect social networks and interaction. Residents on the upper levels of apartment towers were more segregated, which was exacerbated when towers sat on podium blocks with complex internal structures. Well connected communal spaces in high density neighborhoods had a high number of social activities, and visual linkages between houses were associated with increased social networks. Spaces that were well connected to pedestrian routes and other spaces had higher levels of social interactions, except when their visual connection was overexposed and privacy compromised. Low density neighborhoods had wider social networks with weaker ties, while high density neighborhoods had small social networks with stronger ties. Overall, centrality, accessibility, and the right mix of privacy were found to significantly affect social networks and social interactions. The author concludes with the suggestion that layout and spatial configuration affect social cohesion more than density.

Description of method used in the article
The author conducted surveys to map social networks and measure community cohesion, well-being, and perception of neighborhoods (n = 207); observations of social activity; visual analysis of built environment features; and spatial network analyses, including visibility graph analysis and axial maps to measure integration and connectivity.

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Organising categories

Field Observations Spatial Methods Survey
Urban Design
Physical types
Geographic locations