Spatial Analysis Research Group

How do you measure a city’s impact on health? Or how accessible it is? Or how housing and poverty are linked?

These are the puzzles facing the School's Spatial Analysis Research Group. While Group members work on different aspects of the landscape, such as transport and housing, they all face a common problem. How do you develop techniques to analyse data about the built environment? The Group exists to share methods which can take raw information and open up new understanding of how our cities, towns and regions work.

Much of the Group’s work uses morphology – studying the shape of cities. The question is whether the shape and structure of a city affects such factors as the health of the population. Working with the School of Architecture, they are developing “space syntax” – a kind of grammar of urban layout. The aim is to quantify how elements like streets, suburbs and shopping malls connect to each other.

Mapping is also important to the Groups work, offering new ways of visualising the world. For example, maps based on population sizes rather than land area throw up startling new perspectives. Applied to Wales, the Valleys swell in size at the expense of Powys.

The Group’s methods are applied in a wide number of policy areas. A study for the Welsh Assembly Government is looking at provision of services such as shops and post offices in rural areas. Researchers are mapping patterns of accessibility and use. They are finding a marked reduction  in the level of provision over the past few years.

Two team members are investigating health data from Caerphilly, looking at how the built environment is affecting well-being. Other Group members are looking at accessibility, and more precise ways to measure it. Group leader Dr Scott Orford has studied polling stations, and found that improved accessibility can deliver a significant improvement in turn-out.

International issues, particularly in east asia, are a major strand to the Group’s work. They are studying the rapid growth of Chinese cities and such consequences as high-density, high-rise housing to accommodate the massive influx from the rural areas. Professor Chris Webster, Head of School and a Group member, is investigating the rise of closed, gated communities as a new form of housing estate in China.

Access to green space is a crucial issue in the arid cities of the Middle East. The team has been surveying populations on how important park space is to them, how far they would travel for it, whether they would pay for it. They are also investigating what happens where there is no green space and the population simply takes over other open areas for activities like markets and games.

Many other new challenges still await. Social media may tell us interesting things about who is using it and where they live.  Can the distribution of Twitter users, for example, be used in a meaningful scientific way that can inform policy?

The Group is made up of about 15 members, meeting formally three or four times a year. Most of their interaction is informal, sharing new methods, new techniques new ideas. Dr Orford added: “Collaborative research is also important. While we all have different research interests, if there is a method which we all understand, that can be a powerful tool for combined research projects.”

Who's Who (left to right)

  • Chinmoy Sarkar is a PhD research scholar from Calcutta, India. His research project is taking information from a health survey in Caerphilly and trying to develop measures of how the built environment affects health outcomes.
  • Jonathan Radcliffe is a Geographic  Information System Data Associate, working with the Wales Rural Observatory. The Observatory is an EU-funded resource, providing the Welsh Assembly Government with a range of social, economic and environmental information about rural Wales
  • Professor Fulong Wu is working on issues of poverty and neighbourhoods in different Chinese cities, including Beijing. He is using survey data to study the effects of migration from China’s rural areas into its cities.
  • Dr Yiming Wang, a lecturer in the School of Planning and Geography, models geographic patterns of housing and its link to behaviour in the residential market. He is principally studying cities on the West coast of the United States, as well as in China.
  • Dr Yi Gong arrived at Cardiff in January, joining the Sustainable Places Research Institute. Her interest is also how the built environment affects health outcomes, particularly in an ageing population. She is interested in how urban structures can be used to help make elderly citizens more active.
  • Dr Scott Orford is group leader. He is working with the WISERD research group in the School of Social Sciences on new ways of combining qualitative and quantitative spatial data about Wales, which can act as a resource for academics and policy-makers. He is also interested in vernacular geography – defining locations in terms of the everyday language that people use about them.
  • Yang Xiao, a PhD student is looking at the link between housing prices and urban lay-out in Cardiff. He is comparing the data with cities in his native China, and discovering some significant differences.