Operational Research Scientists, Architects, Town Planners and Democracy

A couple of years ago, I wrote a blog "I am not an architect" following an editorial in the UK OR Newsletter by the OR Society's then president, drawing parallels between the profession of OR and the profession of architecture.  I was not convinced by those parallels, for a number of reasons.

Recently, I have changed my mind - but not much.  A review led me to the book "Happy City" by Charles Montgomery (CM), which looks at the effect of urban design on the general well-being of the people who live and work in towns and cities across the world.  CM is a passionate writer urging his readers to consider the built environment of their homes and offices.  He draws together strands from many disciplines in his proposals; health, safety on the roads, transport links, general well-being such as knowing ones neighbours, the design of houses and schools and offices.  One chapter is titled "Everything is Connected to Everything Else", and it argues that our towns and cities are complex systems, where changes in one part of the system affect many other parts.  So, building a shop with its own car park affects the number of people who use cars in the vicinity, which changes the safety of the roads there, and influences the use of other forms of transport.

Within OR, recognising that our work affects a system is a general principle.  Because it is not possible to model an entire system, we simplify, but remain aware of the wider ramifications of what we do.  One of the reasons that I took issue with the parallel with the profession of architecture was that the public face of architecture is such that the effect on a wider system is ignored or minimised.

Most of the examples in the book come from outside the UK; CM is from Vancouver in Canada, and writes about that city and others in Canada and the USA, though he has travelled widely in South America, Europe and South Africa.  But it is easy to see how his experiences and ideas can be paralleled in the UK. 

By the time that I had finished the book (it is a long one) I was convinced that the best architects could work to reflect beneficially on the system where their projects were being planned and built.  In so doing, they would move on from being architects to town planners.  (So I am prepared to be associated with the most visionary architects who do look at the system as a whole.)  And then, CM argues, they come across the blockage known as democracy.  Towns and cities are democratic organisations - up to a point.  City officials have rules to follow, some of which are sensible, and some of which have never been examined to see if they are appropriate in the 21st century.  So, CM says, there are constraints (another OR term) on what can be done to an urban system to make it better.  Some of those constraints shackle the town planner.  In other cases, those with power and influence and money can dictate what happens.  Throughout, there are many conflicting objectives - another OR term.

CM argues that urban development is inevitable;  but if the people who control it make sensible decisions about the whole system, with models drawn from transport, health and well-being, and even the concept of measured happiness, then that development will  lead to better places for citizens to live and work.

And what about my home city?  Part of my immediate neighbourhood is purely residential, because the land was sold for housing a hundred years ago, with restrictions that no building be used for trade.  So there are no shops, no offices, no workshops.  And as a result, there are gaps in the system.  To shop, most people get into their cars (OK, I walk or cycle when I can).  To go to work, people move out of the neighbourhood, as there are few jobs here (schools, care homes) and then major employers on the fringe of the area drawing in people from a wide radius.  The road layout was laid out in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and is not ideal for today's mix of road vehicles, pedestrians and cyclists.  We have neighbours who we never see except through their car windows, because that is the only way that they can access work, leisure facilities, commerce.  And the economy of the houses in the area is being forced by the taxation involved on moving home, so it is easier and cheaper to extend or remodel one's home than to move.  Hence there are fewer newcomers to the area, and the social mix is changing - larger, extended houses, are only affordable by the affluent.

Oh dear, Charles Montgomery has convinced me - the urban system is not optimal - it can be improved!


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