When Anthropology meets Urban Design

There is a long anthropological tradition of studying the relationship between place, space, landscape and culture; although much of this does not focus on urban areas. At a talk held by the Urban Design Group last week, Joseph Heathcott and Claire Melhuish made the case for Anthropology and Urban Design to become more interconnected through their common concern for the city.

Following in the footsteps of William Foote Whyte, who was one of the first anthropologists to study urban street ethnography in the Street Corner Society (1943), both speakers used examples of area based studies in Iran and New York. Through their in depth observations they showed how the use of anthropological research methods can give a particularly nuanced understanding of a city, which can then inform the design of urban spaces. Joseph argued that anthropology needs to be incorporated more into urban research however disciplinary silos tend to restrict this integration. At the New School in New York he has been exploring this idea through the development of a ‘trans-disciplinary’ programme where students from diverse fields are brought together through a shared exploration of the city. In Britain there is already a growing number of academic institutions such as, UCL, LSE and Goldsmith’s that already provide Degrees in this field. The Urban Buzz initiative is one such example of research that has been produced from UCL’s Urban Lab (click here to see presentations from a seminar held at the Young Foundation by Urban Buzz about community mapping).

But how easy is it to take this theoretical pairing and implement in into practical urban strategies and commercial research approaches? In the UK there are various examples of urban practitioners that bring design, social science and humanities together. For example the architects DSDHA came to the Young Foundation last year to discuss the importance of creative quantitative and qualitative mapping in the design process (click here to view the presentation). Also the strategy and design practice 00:// is an example of how research into the social and economic factors affecting the built environment can be used to inform urban practice (click here to view a previous post by Joost). Similarly there are examples of organisations that bridge the gap between academic anthropological research and commercial market research such as the ESRO. During a previous seminar Will Norman of the Young Foundation talked about his work on a project in Belfast with the ESRO on ethnography and urban design (click here to view the presentation).

Although these examples are encouraging, it is important that more anthropological research into urban communities is incorporated into commercial research approaches because an enhanced understanding of the complexity of cities will help to create better places for people to live in.

Posted by Lucia Caistor-Arendar.