What is the Urban Transformations portfolio?
Urban Transformations (UT) is an ESRC network, coordinated between 2015 and 2020 by Professor Michael Keith from the University of Oxford, showcasing research on cities. An overview of the programme from its inception is available here.
The UT portfolio included over 120 research projects that engaged with the challenges and opportunities of an increasingly urban world. Have a look at the criteria we used to select the projects: What distinguishes the projects in the UT portfolio?
All projects in the portfolio have been funded by:
Why are cities important now?
The profile of the city as a focus of public debate, an object of study and a subject for policy intervention has risen significantly in recent years. There are many reasons for this, including:
- The city, urban life and demographic concentration: The fact that the majority of the global population now live in cities has become a cliché of our time. But the dominant narratives of urban growth have also evolved. The changing geographies of urban studies reflect the reordering of the global economy: the sheer scale of urbanisation in the global south, tiger economy maturity in Asia and the growth of the BRICs undermines a conventional urban studies narrative that focuses on the metropolitan experiences of the global north. In relative terms, urbanisation will be most pronounced globally and proportionately in Africa in the next three decades. The scale of urban change demands massive investment in the built environment and new infrastructures. Simultaneously, the movement to the cities of China, India and Africa challenge urban researchers to think about the nature of arrival and migration in the contemporary metropolis.
- The city, governance and the nation state: As patterns of global connectivity intensify and economic restructuring accelerates, scales of governance pluralise. The limited capacity of the nation state to manage discrepant patterns of urban growth and decline lead to political demands to decentralise power. Local governments foreground the importance of cities being in charge of their own economic destiny. From neighbourhood participation to city regional logics, this focus on the metropolitan also generates a multi-scalar focus of urban scholarship.
- The city as crucible of socio-cultural change: Since the industrial era the city has been a source of innovation and novelty. Churning demographics generate spaces and places of political, ethical and artistic invention. As culture becomes a driver of urban economic change, as well as a medium of inclusion and exclusion, the creative city reflects a propensity for city economies to reinvent. Meanwhile, in the global north as much as the global south, the metropolis is both the container and the facilitator of dissent and protest, signaling major social change.
- The city as complex combination: The push for growth sits alongside the economic, social and ecological drivers of the long-term future of the flexible city. The focus on all three of these pillars of sustainability foregrounds the complex dynamics of the city. New forms of collecting, sensing and measuring big data promise innovative tools for analysing and then intervening in the urban fabric. The mixing of human nature with the material urban environment reinvents conventional divisions of the sciences and the arts. Infrastructure shapes culture and technological change is culturally mediated.
The art of place making becomes central to the dilemma of how old cities reinvent themselves and the new metropolis develops in a fashion that recognises the end of conventional models of zoning and land use planning, but still demands the rational accommodation of demographic changes of both growth and decline.
What distinguished the projects in the Urban Transformations portfolio?
From smart data to infrastructure, participatory design to migration, the UT projects shared a multidisciplinary focus and a forward-looking vision of how our urban future could be shaped to achieve better outcomes for communities, businesses and local authorities. Together, they established a foundation of original research and best practice in the UK, Europe and internationally.
Drawing on the expertise of some of the leading British, European and international academic institutions, working in partnership with NGOs, government bodies and corporations, the portfolio built up a body of research and best practice through a variety of collaborative projects. Though these cover a wide range of subject areas, they share a number of common principles. All of the projects aimed to be some or all of the following:
- Cross-disciplinary: by partnering specialists from different sectors, such as social policy, statistics, and planning, the Urban Transformations portfolio served as a bridge for more holistic and integrated research. This enabled experts to benefit from other fields of knowledge while creating effective and original solutions to today’s urban challenges.
- Multi-scalar: while much attention is directed towards the larger forms of urban development, urban life is frequently experienced on a smaller scale. The projects in the portfolio therefore encompassed a breadth of urban forms, from the neighbourhood to the megacity, and looked at the distinct ways these affect communities, businesses and other stakeholders.
- Future-oriented: given the rapidly changing nature of urbanization, research must look forward to anticipate emerging social and economic trends. The UT portfolio encompassed a number of programmes that sought to develop cutting-edge methodologies, ICT tools and other knowledge products with the potential to significantly influence our future understanding of cities.
- Internationally comparative: while many of the UT projects focused on particular cities or regions, the research had broader implications for urban areas elsewhere and was aligned with many of the most pressing priorities facing British, European and international policy makers. The collective outputs of the portfolio therefore have global relevance and have together enriched current urban knowledge.
These common themes connect a wide collection of projects that engaged in a range of fields across the world, with a particular focus on Brazil, India, China and South Africa.
The UT programme aimed to address a wide range of stakeholders with a professional, public or political interest in cities, including members of the general public wishing to learn more about current academic debates on urban development worldwide. We provided a bridge between the academic community and decision makers, businesses, local governments and communities to support knowledge exchange and cross-sectoral collaboration.
Though the UT programme has now ended, it leaves a rich legacy of urban knowledge and collaborations within the UK and internationally with partners from countries across Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas. The learning developed over its duration will continue to shape and inform future research and investments in cities in the years to come. A range of new projects, including the innovative PEAK Urban programme, also coordinated by Professor Michael Keith from the University of Oxford, are already building on the lessons that have come out of the experiences and achievements of the portfolio.