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Pioneering The Science of Cities

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Architect and planner Professor Mike Batty explains how a UCL admission mix-up didn’t deter him from developing The Bartlett Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis.

Pioneering The Science of Cities

These two images reveal shifts in traffic if all bridges across the River Thames in London are inoperable. This image shows existing traffic.

Credit: CASA

Pioneering The Science of Cities

This image reveals new patterns of traffic after the bridges are closed.

Credit: CASA

“I can tell you the gory details,” says Professor Mike Batty. “I arrived here in 1995, having sold my house in the US, and found they had no record of me in the college – all I had was a letter from the Provost, Sir Derek Roberts, saying, ‘come to UCL, set up a centre, call it what you like, do you what like, and just get on with it’.”

From that inauspicious start, the interdisciplinary group (comprising geomatic engineering, planning, archaeology, geography and transport) that Batty set up to advance UCL’s work on geographic information systems (GIS) has grown to become The Bartlett Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis (CASA), a pioneer in the science of cities.

An architect and planner by background, Batty has been at the forefront of this field for the past few decades. On his arrival at UCL, from the State University of New York, he set about applying for research grants and a few months later, money started flowing in, research assistants were hired and the centre began to grow.

Over the next 10 years, CASA remained independent of any UCL faculty, carrying out influential pieces of research and publishing a book Advanced Spatial Analysis: The CASA Book of GIS in 2003, before becoming part of The Bartlett in 2005.

Developing a niche

The Bartlett is a good fit, as the centre’s interest has always been in exploring the application of GIS to cities. One of its early pieces of research looked at the decline and regeneration of town centres, a hot topic even today. “Most GIS is applied on a much biggest scale – climate models for the earth or models for regions and whole cities,” Batty says. “Applying it on this smaller scale was a niche we developed.”

CASA was also a crucial player in the development of agent-based GIS models, in which every moving object in an environment is included, and in applying physics to cities, to analyse how information, activities and traffic flow. The centre has also long been interested in giving visual form to often technical research, through maps, pictures, diagrams, virtual reality and 3D models. “When we started doing that, it was pretty rare,” Batty says.

Pioneering The Science of Cities

Flows on the London Underground at 8am (top), mid-morning (centre) and at evening peak (bottom), mapped using Transport for London Oyster travelcard data.

Credit: CASA

In 2010, Batty moved to the role of Bartlett Emeritus Professor of Planning. CASA also launched a master’s course in 2014: the MSc in Smart Cities and Urban Analytics, ending its almost exclusive focus on research. Much has changed, too, in the field of spatial analysis since its inception. “One of the biggest things is the shift in focus from the low-frequency city, in which change is measured over years, decades, even centuries, to the high frequency cities, where we are interested in change over seconds, minutes, hours and days,” Batty says.

This move is the result of computers becoming increasingly embedded into cities, allowing us to generate big datasets. “We’ve done a big project about London’s Oyster travelcard, for example, which shows you detailed movements on a second-by-second basis – we couldn’t have done that 25 years ago.”

At present, Batty is an adviser to Prospective, a company that was spun out of CASA and initially funded by Innovate UK, to create software and offer consultancy in spatial modelling and simulation to the public and private sectors – for example, using data and analytics to help bus transport services become more efficient and responsive. The centre is also looking further afield, seeking to collaborate with Chinese universities on applying some of its insights to the Hong-Kong-Guangzhou Greater Bay Area.

Despite all this groundbreaking work, Batty says CASA remains in many ways a very traditional academic unit: “We believe in writing high-profile papers, as well as producing software. That’s something we’ve always done and continue to do.”

The Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis is an interdisciplinary research institute focusing on the science of cities, applying it to city planning, policy and architecture in the pursuit of making our cities better places to live in. It is part of The Bartlett, UCL's Faculty of the Built Environment. Find out more: https://ucl.ac.uk/bartlett/casa

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