The spatial signature of suburban town centres

Laura Vaughan, Catherine Emma Jones, Sam Griffiths, Mordechai (Muki) Haklay


The concept of the ‘live centre’ is central to Hillier's theory of Centrality as a Process, which states that patterns of pedestrian movement are influenced by the urban grid, leading to the emergence of networks of linked centres containing retail and other movement-driven activities. Planners and geographers, coming from a different perspective, have also traditionally prioritised retail as the key measure of urban vitality and determinant of a centre’s position in the urban hierarchy.

Our research into the suburban town centres of Greater London challenges the prevailing retail-centric view by proposing that the sources of vitality in local places stem from the diverse socio-economic and cultural activities that take place beyond the main retail hub; we refer to this extended area as the ‘active centre’. Our evidence indicates that active suburban town centres are sustained by local industry and the provision of a wide range of professional and community services in addition to office and retail employment. Such centres are enlivened by activities occurring at overlapping scales, the outcome of journeys of different lengths, which are most likely to be repeated where network accessibility is most effective.

In this article we present a study of twenty-six outer London suburban town centres using an algorithm developed in a GIS that allows mapped land use data to be analysed in relation to space syntax measures of network accessibility. We combine this data-driven analysis with the results of an ethnographic study of three suburban town centres in which patterns of movement to and through the centres were analysed to provide a more detailed description of the type, range and scale of journeys that define the effective area of an active centre. We conclude that the spatial signature of suburban town centres is bound up in how they have been shaped to take advantage of differing scales of movement and encounter over time.


Space Syntax, GIS, Centrality, live centre, active centre, suburban town centres

Full Text: JOSS_2010_p77-91.pdf