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Professor Marion Roberts
University of Westminster
Emeritus Fellowship
2020

Urban design and the urban night

Marion Roberts will examine findings from research into the ‘urban night’, interpreting them for the field of urban design, paying particular attention to contemporary proposals for sustainable settlements

Photograph by Julian Simpson on Unsplash.

How many of us have found that a walk which we enjoy during daylight hours becomes oppressive, even threatening during the hours of darkness? That shady green space or picturesque alleyway suddenly appears full of hidden dangers and phantasmagorical shapes once the sun goes down. On the other hand, a street that seemed banal during the daytime can come alive at night, once it is full of people moving around, made convivial with noise and light. The shifting nature of spaces at night, their energy and atmosphere has recently caught the attention of a wide range of scholars from different disciplines, most particularly human geography and cultural studies. This study comes from another area of scholarship and practice, urban design. 

Urban design as a practical activity can be loosely described as three-dimensional town planning. Urban designers set out the framework for the spatial development of urban places, at scales ranging from a whole town down to an urban square. This ‘specialist-generalist’ activity covers a complex assembly of agendas, as it tries to accommodate buildings, hard and soft landscaping, transport and movement systems and of course, people in all their diversity. Contemporary urban design theory and practice has largely avoided the night as a time-space. 

This project brings the findings from the studies of the ‘night’ into the theory and practice of urban design. It will use three approaches to interrogate the ideas that inform the design manuals and reports designers rely on. The first focuses on functional analyses of place, such as the size and shape of streets and for example, crowd behaviour. The second category lies in the social and cultural realm. Here issues such as the exclusion of certain groups of people are relevant. This discussion interacts with the third approach, which is about atmosphere and ‘affect’.

To test the findings and simulate a real-life context, the study will turn to five case studies of small to medium size towns in the UK: Bicester, Harlow, Didcot, Croydon and Preston. These have been chosen either for their inclusion in the Government’s Garden Town programme or because their regeneration proposals include substantial remodelling. Many of the studies of the night have concentrated on the disbenefits of the night time economy in major cities. The final results of this research will broaden and expand understanding and, I hope, inform future policy and practice.



Thumbnail photograph by Gunnar Ridderström on Unsplash.

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