About Us

What is the Urban Transformations portfolio?

Why are cities important now?

What distinguishes the projects in the Urban Transformations portfolio?

What does Urban Transformations seek to achieve?

What is Urban Living and why are Urban Living projects included in UT?


What is the Urban Transformations portfolio?

Urban Transformations (UT) is an ESRC network, coordinated from the University of Oxford, showcasing research on cities.

UT is co-ordinated by Professor Michael Keith (who is Director of the Centre on Migration, Policy and Society) is run by a small team of staff seconded to run the website, events and knowledge exchange activities. This also includes liaison with the Future of Cities Catapult via the joint appointment of Paul Cowie, ESRC/Future Cities Catapult Research Fellow. Please visit our people pages to find out more about the team.

The UT portfolio represents over 80 research projects that engage with the challenges and opportunities of an increasingly urban world. Have a look at the criteria we used to select the project: 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 distinguishes the projects in the Urban Transformations portfolio?

From smart data to infrastructure, participatory design to migration, the Urban Transformations projects share a multidisciplinary focus and a forward-looking vision of how our urban future can be shaped to achieve better outcomes for communities, businesses and local authorities. Together, they establish 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 aims to build 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 aim 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 serves as a bridge for more holistic and integrated research. This enables 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 encompass a breadth of urban forms, from the neighbourhood to the megacity, and look 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 Urban Transformations portfolio encompasses a number of programmes that aim 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 Urban Transformations projects focus on particular cities or regions, the research has broader implications for urban areas elsewhere and is 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 will together enrich current urban knowledge.

These common themes connect a wide and growing collection of projects that engage in a range of fields across the world. As new funding calls are issued and further projects are added, the portfolio will continue to evolve to include a greater number of international programmes, with a particular focus on Brazil, India, China and South Africa.

What does Urban Transformations seek to achieve?

The Urban Transformations programme aims 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 hope to provide a bridge between the academic community and decision makers, businesses, local governments and communities to support knowledge exchange and cross-sectoral collaboration. Among other activities, our website will compile an expanding selection of British, European and global organizations working in various capacities, such as research, industry and policy, to serve as a platform for partnerships, resource sharing and other opportunities.

We will also be commissioning a series of think pieces on key urban issues to address academics with a research interest in the city or who are interested in contemporary urban research. These will be accompanied by a number of responses from other practitioners to create an original body of discussion that will bring together key researchers in conversation and offer a window into some of the major talking points.

Besides signposting events, funding calls and other opportunities, Urban Transformations will also provide an important platform to showcase some of the remarkable studies on cities underway across the world and the real benefits that have been achieved through ESRC-funded research.

The online materials include project profiles, links to outputs such as publications and guest blogs by project researchers on the impact of their work.



What is Urban Living and Why are urban Living projects included in ut?

Phase one of the Urban Living Partnership, a first-of-its-kind investment by the seven UK Research Councils and the government’s innovation agency, Innovate UK, brings citizens together with university researchers, local authorities and over 70 partners from business and the third sector in five multidisciplinary pilot initiatives aimed at rewriting the blueprint for the evolution of our city living.

People living in the cities of Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, Newcastle & Gateshead and York will benefit from a new research and innovation initiative that puts them in the driving seat to help improve their cities’ health, wellbeing and prosperity as they face up to challenges of modern urban living. Taking a ‘whole city’ approach the initiative brings together a unique body of expertise cutting across over 20 disciplines including civil engineering, computer science, planning, psychology, management, arts and humanities, the creative industries and health sciences.

Partners to the £3.9 million first phase of the initiative are contributing over £1.9 million and include: IBM UK Ltd, Arup, Atkins Global, The Environment Agency, Natural England and the Future Cities Catapult.

While each project faces distinct challenges, they also share common goals – such as empowering citizens to co-design their future cities, and finding ways to turn grand challenges into mutually beneficial business opportunities, leading to greater health, wellbeing and prosperity.

A key feature of these projects is their diversity, spanning disciplines and sectors. The Newcastle partnership, for example, includes among its partners Newcastle City Council; The Royal Society for Arts North East; Tyne and Wear Urban Traffic Management Centre; TechCity; the Federation of Small Businesses; the Newcastle Schools Forum; Northumbrian Water; and IBM Europe’s Intelligent Operations and Resilience programme – which provides data visualisation and deep analytics to help city agencies enhance their efficiency and planning.5 Urban Living Pilot projects sit within the UT portfolio:

York City Environment Observatory: Diagnostic Phase

Newcastle and Gateshead City Region

Leeds: Transformational Routemapping for Urban Environments (TRUE)

The Bristol Urban Area Diagnostics Pilot

Birmingham – From Citizen to Co-innovator, from City Council to Facilitator: Integrating Urban Systems to Provide Better Outcomes for People (BOP)

– See more at: https://www.urbantransformations.ox.ac.uk/about/the-urban-living-partnerships/#sthash.D06yikZU.dpuf

The support of the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is gratefully acknowledged.