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We’d never design public realm without a site survey in the past. In city-shaping design for the future, I can’t see a new project starting without this kind of deep dive from Place Intelligence. It’s rich information that has to be part of any design process now. Without it, designers risk more blind spots.

– Angus Bruce, Principal & Head of Design at Hassell

In partnership with our global community, Place Intelligence is building a shared practice for evidence-based design and place-based decision making by leveraging good data for real work impact.

The extraordinary people we work with combine a love of data with valuable skills, knowledge and sector expertise. We call them our Data Heroes – practitioners who are embracing data to show real leadership in evidence based design and decision making.

Here we talk with Angus Bruce, Principal & Head of Design at Hassell

BONNIE: Hello. I’m Bonnie Shaw, Co-founder and Chief Strategy & Impact Officer at Place Intelligence, and today I’m talking with Angus Bruce, Principal and Head of Design at international design practice, Hassell – one of our regular collaborators. Hello and welcome, Angus.

ANGUS: Hi Bonnie. Thanks for inviting me to talk about data’s role in design. It’s something I believe is critical to our success on projects now and in the future, including the landscape architecture and public realm work that’s been a focus and passion my whole career.

BONNIE: Can you share some examples of projects you’ve worked on with us at Place Intelligence – and tell us about the impact and outcomes?

ANGUS: Sure. The first project that jumps to mind is Darling Harbour, one of the most significant, large-scale public realm improvement projects ever in Sydney. The original design and public realm work there was really rewarding, but there are so many more great opportunities to learn through this project.

We wanted to assess how people were using the space – to understand whether it was working the way our designers intended. It’s a large, multi-layered project, so it made perfect sense to put our heads together with Place Intelligence to look for those answers. In fact, it was vital. 

Place Intelligence gave us the granular detail we wanted to see about how people interacted with and moved through the site – everything from their dwell time to their movement patterns all times of the day and year.

We were then able to overlay that information with the design – and design intent – of key parts of the site. That revealed which pockets were intended to be slow or fast spaces, or meant for intense or active use or for more passive activities.

Next, we used data to test how people were using the site. That’s powerful information we can go back to share with our clients, clearly demonstrating how our design work is backed by evidence and proper analytics.

When we test a site’s use and performance it also allows us to post-rationalise a design to make sure it’s really delivering the way it should. That kind of intelligence is valuable to share with asset managers and property estate caretakers. It can give them a chance to push ahead with design or programming tweaks to improve operations or manage the intensity of conflicting events, just to point out a couple examples.

We’ve really climbed the learning curve, and we’re the better for it.  It’s opened the door to the vast potential of evidence-based design of public spaces – both before design starts and post occupancy.

BONNIE: Did you learn anything surprising from the data – something you wouldn’t have anticipated about the site?

ANGUS: One of the most interesting – and useful – things we learned was about safety. What happens with staff moving from buildings at 2:00am on a Sunday morning? How do they leave the site, and do they use the safe, well-lit routes we’d planned for?

Lots of university and hospital campuses and large city precincts are ideally planned, with safe routes allowing people to easily move through and around them at all hours. And it’s incredibly helpful to understand if people are following those patterns or creating new ones. It’s so important to have that insight, that proof.

On this site, we designed lighting and safety points throughout the precinct. It was gratifying for us to see that these areas were where people actually wanted to travel. We felt the same about findings about the key desire and functional lines through the site.

But there were also small things that made an impression on us. Data that illuminated subtle behaviours or patterns. Every building or space has their little corner hideaway where people huddle together to smoke, for example. Little things like that actually tell us about what kind of amenity we’re providing, and how those patterns of use affect other small things, like the use of front or side entrances.

We really need to understand where people cluster so we can interpret why they’re there at three-hourly intervals and so forth. It shows the site as a living, changing space – and that teaches designers so much and makes us better at creating the kinds of spaces people need and want.

In the old days, evaluating a site might have been done by a dozen students with clipboards, trying to count people manually. But they’re certainly not going to stand around doing that at 2am on a Sunday morning! This process allowed us to get a great depth and coverage in a more efficient way.

BONNIE: So now that you’ve got this wealth of insight and intelligence about the site, how would you apply that to design in a new project?

ANGUS: There’s so much potential with this analysis, to draw from it when we’re undertaking other work at Hassell.

Our first introduction to Place Intelligence was through data and analytics as a post evaluation tool. But we see a great future for using analysis from a range of similar sites when we talk to clients about the success or failure of an equivalent public realm, a similar campus or comparable station or transport precinct.

As designers, we’re really empowered when we can say, “this is how the site currently works” or “these are the audience demographics and their movement patterns”. It helps us inform or even challenge a brief, or lean into a certain design solution. It’s about holding up the brief, as written by the client, against the evidence that shows what user groups are actually doing on the site. It provides confidence that we’re starting with the right basic information.

We’d never design public realm without a site survey in the past. In city-shaping design for the future, I can’t see a new project starting without this kind of deep dive from Place Intelligence. It’s rich information that has to be part of any design process now. Without it, designers risk more blind spots.

BONNIE: Would you say that this kind of data analysis – and the integration of those insights – is a new set of skills designers need to develop? Or is it already built into the design process?

ANGUS: I think it’s inherent to the process since most designers are trained to think about these layers of information. But collaborations like this give a richer, more thorough result – more information to dig into.

At the moment we’re working with a university in Ireland, and they’ve told us they know students are coming from Point A (a postcode) to Point B (the university). So the start and finish are clear. But it’s an error to assume they’re travelling in a straight line – and not using side lanes or stopping by cafe precincts before they get to university.

These are important nuances to make a place rich, and to make it work well for people. There’s magic in that middle space – the space between the start and finish. Old school techniques were blind to that.

We’ve all been trained to use data, but it’s now a richer, more factual base. I don’t think it’s a challenge to embrace it. The learning curve is probably just about appreciating that it actually exists, and that it’s an invaluable tool for our use.

BONNIE: How do you think using this data will change how people design?

ANGUS: Data can clearly underpin and empower evidence-based design. A real, rich base allows us to validate or prove a flaw in a design direction. It provides a different fulcrum for decision making that’s not the traditional design medium of presentation graphics or Instagram moments.

This is actual data – raw evidence – that enhances the human side of decision making, instead of an aspirational or visionary drive to a design outcome. I think that’s one of the biggest positive changes – access evidence that tells us, objectively, why something is or isn’t the right decision. When design is based on facts, it becomes less emotive in some ways, less driven by the passion of a lead designer.

We also get great value from being able to test assumptions about other projects a client might be referencing or wanting to mimic or replicate. Accurate data about how those places function and perform gives you a chance to step back, unpacking what actually makes it tick. It takes you beyond an emotional connection to a place or the way it looks, and it ultimately frees you up to be even more creative with confidence.

BONNIE: How do clients respond when you bring this evidence to a project?

ANGUS: For the people in charge of understanding how a land asset functions and breathes – place, asset or property managers, for example – this data reveals missing information, showing them things like what goes on between buildings and around the streets. They see the huge value in knowing more they know about their place – and they all jump on board really quickly.

Some clients have valid concerns about privacy, but only until they understand that this work is really not invasive. Once they see how seriously Place Intelligence takes the ethics of privacy and security – with built-in practises to uphold both – the concerns and anxieties disappear. Clients then quickly move into excitement about the wealth of information that is available, knowing it will help them get great outcomes.

Often people are particularly interested in how the information shows that their project or brief isn’t unique. In other words, it’s helpful for them to see that others struggle with the same challenges , and data can reveal proven pathways to success.

BONNIE: What do you think are some of the big challenges facing cities and urban areas, campuses today?

ANGUS: COVID-19 has obviously been a huge challenge, particularly when looking at people’s expectations around access to amenities that’s directly related to their location.

Places like Edinburgh talk about a 20-minute neighbourhood, while other cities around Europe refer to a 15-minute city – something Hassell looked at in-depth recently. There’s even a current study coming out of Sweden for the one-minute city. It’s about looking at what’s in your immediate vicinity. What do you have access to – what should you have access to?

As COVID lockdowns restricted movements, it shifted the way people used their corner park, for example, or what they did with adjacent land next to the local church, turning it into a community vegetable garden. Because these spaces were in the vicinity of a community, they were all about hyper-localised use and engagement during that period.

I can see similar things all across London. Now, how we spill out into spaces around bars and restaurants has changed. It used to be a simple matter or stay inside or go outside. If you don’t take a glass, you can have beer in a plastic cup. Now everyone’s all spilled out and blended, borrowing the street. It’s a really interesting, dynamic shift in the way that we live and behave in our cities – not just in London but around the world.

When it comes to campuses today, we’re seeing that people might linger longer because they’re already there. They’re thinking, “What else can I do while I’m here? What other events can I be part of?” That’s ideal. It’s this evolution of a permeable edge. It’s a little bit less about moving from point A to B, getting home as quickly as possible, and more about appreciating being out and interacting with the city.

Across the UK and Europe, there’s been a recalibration of what people need to be near. That’s resulting in sea and tree changes – but people are also asking themselves if they should move jobs to be nearer to where I have key facilities, knowing that that proximity means they don’t really have to travel so much.

But that’s the luxury of compact urban spaces and the urban context. That dynamic doesn’t exist for large parts of Australia, for example. They have many areas that aren’t anywhere close to becoming 20 minute neighbourhoods.

In this part of the world (Europe), the uptake of bikes has been phenomenal. Pedestrians and cyclists are sharing space, roads are being reclaimed because public transport was shut down in many cities due to proximity restrictions.

Sales of bikes, electric bikes and micro-mobility transport went through the roof, and you can’t see that really going backwards. If you can easily put two kids in a Dutch style box at the front of your bike, and it’s got a small electric battery, then you can also load it up with shopping and everything else as well. It just works so well in some cities, and the enormous uptake is changing the shape of the streets.

BONNIE: Thinking about those big shifts, how do you see good data supporting, challenging or potentially accelerating change?

ANGUS: Looking at data to understand what’s happening over time is really powerful. What’s happening today might be different next week and then the week after that.

We can now overlay a comparative timescale and say this is what your city/campus/precinct/development was doing based on data two years ago, and this is what it’s doing now outside of COVID.

Depending on where you are in the world, you can reveal the comparative changes and shifts in what people are doing, where they’re coming from, how they’re engaging, or whether they’re cycling or using public transport.  It tells us – and our clients – how a destination has evolved and continues to evolve. The data goes beyond gut instincts or emotional bias, because it’s real evidence.

We’re learning this at Hassell on university campus projects at the moment, particularly in light of the impacts of COVID. We can show what campus activity was like before the pandemic, when universities still had lots of international students, as well as the dynamics of student accommodation.

Now, if a university is looking to renovate they have to plan for something totally different. They’re offering much more online learning, and those students may not actually come to the campus. What does that do to your campus vibrancy and housing? There are impacts on all those things, and the data gives us finer detail.

It’s critical to understand what’s happening now to plan for what’s coming tomorrow. Data is an essential tool for that. How do talk with a client trying to setup for the future without the evidence that sits behind a decision? It can’t just be because someone had an epiphany. The evidence, the data, has to be there.

BONNIE: If you could get data and information on anything about the public realm and how cities are functioning, what would you want to know?

ANGUS: It would be great see everything happening at different scales – from the macro to the micro. To look not just at a city, but also at a block. In the future, I’d love to be able to layer ecology into the mix to understand the interplay between nature, the city and human habitation, as we already do with flooding and heat island impacts, for example. It would also be so helpful to work out how this street and that campus precinct could actually create a corridor pollinator species and the rewilding of our city.

BONNIE: We recently delivered a project assessing the impact of a landscape design after completion. The project had a mix of immature trees with some very mature ones – the limited number the budget allowed. We were able to get super granular with our analysis, looking at activity and dwell time analytics for every individual element of the design.

It conclusively showed that all the mature trees drew significantly more activity and dwell time than others around them. People were going for the shade and staying there. The magnetism of those individual trees starts to put some real justification around the investment in higher quality landscape assets from the get go.

ANGUS: This sort of thing changes from city to city. Shade and shelter are significant issues in sun-drenched Australia, yet we have access to limited amounts of sun in the northern hemisphere so it’s about play on solar access. In simple terms, we catch the sunlight as a positive in one place while in another we hide from the sun in another.

I would love to be able to push a button and say: “Right, I want to focus on Gothenburg in Sweden now. I want to look at this precinct, to see what’s happened over the last 12 months, getting all available data on the fundamentals of people moving, cycling, transport – all the things you need to know for good design. Right now, if that information exists at all, it might be sitting in a range of different studies and reports, subject to whether the local government authority has actually commissioned it at any given point. Is it in a general, dynamic format? No, it’s static. It’s still a diagram.

That’s part of the process of layering up a design for whatever scale – from a precinct to a block, from a city to a region. You’re building up all that information and it’s never in one space. You have to grab it from different reports. Some are current, and some are 10 years old. And you have to try to compile and distill whatever you can to take you forward. I suppose that’s why we have a job, because we actually have to do the stitching.

BONNIE: How would you describe your design philosophy?

ANGUS: Hassell’s approach to design is fundamentally about creating places people love. Whether it’s an interior space, a built form or a public realm, it’s about the connection of place to people.

The great thing about connecting data to our design ambition is that it proves the love.

To say you’re designing places that people love is one thing, but to be able to go back and provide evidence that clearly demonstrates that? Well, that’s another thing altogether.

I think that’s where the data is meeting Hassell’s aspirations to design those magnetic places. It’s an essential tool for us. My own design ethos and drive are aligned with that. I’m very grounded in place – the place has to be the foundation of the design, and that means its history, its geology, its water movement and its people.

We’ve only got a window of time to play with a project. We’re luckily to get invited in for a short period of time to influence and change things. But at the end of the day, it’s not a project for me or for the firm. It’s a project for whoever will be using the place, whether that’s city dwellers, students, families needing to stay overnight in a hospital. They’re at the heart of everything.

We may have been paid by an intermediary to facilitate that, but they’re entrusting us with the richness of the place. When I’m working I always ask myself, “Does this have real meaning to place? Have we done what we said it should and could do to meet the potential?” For me it’s the overlap between the physical form and the human attachment to it through emotion and enjoyment.

BONNIE: Any predictions for the next year or further in the future? Anything specific you see coming for Place Intelligence?

ANGUS: It’s all about the evidence. There’s so much second guessing in what we do. How do we retrofit? What happens if we don’t people don’t come back? What do we do with our housing if students drop off?

There’s already a trend in architecture that is very much about renovation, retrofit and refurb – making existing stock better as opposed to a brand new site or structure.

It’s about adaptability and the evidence that proves it – both economic and human data. I think they come together to give confidence to an estate manager in a university precinct or a health precinct, or a property manager who’s trying to deal with multiple landholdings on behalf of an equity fund. They might be asking themselves what do we do with their buildings? Do we shift from a commercial use to residential? Or from an adjacent property to a hospital that allows us to offload the land, so we can concentrate and consolidate instead?

On many campus precincts, there could be adjustments to extensive car parks as modes of transport – walking, cycling, public transport – change. Do we have a different asset class that allows us to do something completely new with those spaces? There are so many trends like that, though they vary from country to country, region to region.

At Hassell, we’re seeing Asia – one of our markets – going strong on ecology. They’re getting back to managing the environment and trying to improve the planet.

Australia, the US, the UK and Europe are all revealing slightly different trends. It’s quite dynamic watching all of them. One of the most notable examples: no one region attacked COVID in the same way, and they’ve all experiencing varied positives and negatives as a result.

As you say at Place Intelligence, PhDs for the next 10 years! In all seriousness, it’s a tricky business, predicting the future. I have no real, solid predictions other than that we’re not going to stand still.

Our cities and societies are changing so much faster, and we really need something to hold onto. Data is one of those essential tools that can actually do that. It gives us a better grasp when we’re trying to make essential decisions for the future.

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