Content Managing the Urban Landscape
         

by Joseph Grima

‘There is no noun that can’t be verbed’. So goes an adage of the pre-internet era widely attributed to IBM’s marketing department, the people who gave us such malformed taglines as ‘A New Way to Office’. It might come as a surprise to the average member of the profession that the noun ‘architect’ is no exception to this rule; The New Oxford American Dictionary sanctions its transitive use in the passive voice, citing the phrase, ‘few software packages were architected with Ethernet access in mind’ as an acceptable example of its usage, particularly within the realm of computer science. What exactly makes ‘architected’ preferable to
‘designed’ remains unclear. As with the word ‘architecture’, the term’s fast-paced semantic evolution is underway. Tempting as it may be to borrow back the IT industry’s understanding of the word, it would be relatively fruitless: buildings would be ‘regulators of flows’ and cities would become ‘physical content management systems’, definitions too reductive and banal to be of much interest.

That is not to say that architects, urbanists, designers and spatial practitioners in general have not been impacted (another questionable verbed noun) by the information revolution. Over the past five years, the internet’s evolution has redefined our relationship with space to an extent that was unimaginable only a few decades ago. Mapquest, Google Earth, Google Street View and the mashups thereof have brought GIS to the YouTube generation, empowering those with even minimal computer literacy to embark on godlike, datarich surveys of the landscape. The question is not whether this abundance of information will influence
the physical and social conformations of cities and landscapes, but how. That having been said, has content management – in the true, data-driven sense of the term – ever been attempted on an urban scale?

The answer is yes. While the postal engineers who devised it in the late 1950s could not have foreseen all its implications, the UK’s postcode system constitutes an almost flawless framework for content management on a national scale. Between 1959 and 1974, the Royal Mail carved the country into a patchwork of 2,412,885 alphanumerical ‘postcodes’ explicitly conceived as a kind of spatial tagging system intended to facilitate the mechanical sorting of mail. As geographical reference systems go, the resolution of this map is staggering: the average postcode contains just 12 addresses and 15 families. By contrast, the typical five-digit American zip code is home to 3,400 people. The system was so detailed that the full address became redundant information: write a postcode and street number on a letter and it will be delivered. The content – i.e., every home in Britain – had been classified; a purpose that could capitalize on the system and deliver the content to a market remained to be invented.

It didn’t take long to appear. In 1979, California Analysis Center, Inc. (CACI), a data-analysis company that had recently set up shop in the UK, realized the potential of the postcode, as an invaluable tool for mapping and understanding the relationship between space and consumption in the UK. They embarked on an ante litteram mashup of the 2.4 million postcodes and the data derived from the most recent census. From a marketing perspective, the stakes were enormous: anyone capable of mapping and predicting, in detail and with certainty, the nuanced purchasing preferences of consumers in any given neighborhood was sitting on a goldmine.

CACI soon realized that raw statistical data, however accurate, was unsalable to the average marketing department. Richard Webber, a professor of geodemographics at University College London, was brought in to create another level of classification, using the data to describe British household types. The purpose of the system was to describe in accessible and intuitive language the values, social traits and – most importantly – the purchasing preferences of the population. It had to be detailed enough to be useful, but not so detailed as to be useless, as turned out to be the case with GIS systems which were incomprehensible to most marketing operatives. Webber opted for 57 categories divided into five groups and named the system ‘A Classification of Residential Neighborhoods’, ACORN. Cross-referenced with the 2.4 million postcodes in the Royal Mail’s database, ACORN was the first geodemographic ‘product’ to go on sale in Britain. Its success was immediate.

CACI spent the following three decades enriching its understanding of British consumption patterns. In 1985, credit card activity and county court judgments were included as sources. Over time, income levels, house prices, shareholdings, lifestyle data, insurance information, electoral records, neighborhood statistics on crime, population, health and housing were all added to the mix. The algorithms that allocated categories to postcodes became more nuanced and adapted to the emergence of new merchandise such as computers and internet-based products.

Current datasets on the geography of British consumption patterns sell for tens or even hundreds of thousands of pounds, but abbreviated ACORN information can be accessed simply by typing any UK postcode into Upmystreet.com:

MK4 2DP, a central location in the new town of Milton Keynes, near London
Type 5: Older Affluent Professionals

These people are financially astute and have the highest uptake of ISAs [of all ACORN categories]. They also invest in stocks and shares, high interest accounts and guaranteed income bonds. Their monthly credit card spend is relatively high. In their leisure time they enjoy golf, hill walking and gardening. Their social life tends to be home based, where they enjoy having a glass of wine rather than going out to restaurants. They like to spend their money on holidays. They travel abroad regularly, either to the Mediterranean or long haul for their main holiday. They also take winter sun and weekend breaks. Many are happy to research and book their holidays online.

SR8 5DY, a post-industrial suburb of Sunderland, in the northeast
Type 45: Low-Income Older People in Smaller Semis

In these areas the retired are unlikely to have any pension provision beyond that provided by the state. Working people will be in routine jobs in shops, on the factory floor or in other manual occupations. This results in low incomes. Whether due to their age or previous work, a number of people suffer from long-term illness. The housing is small, usually one or two bedrooms. It is generally rented from the council or housing association. Fewer than half of these households have a car of any sort. With so little spare money, spending is limited to a funeral plan, playing bingo and the lottery, betting and going to the pub. These people are unlikely to be frequent high street shoppers, preferring to buy from catalogues by mail order.

The executives of CACI were swift to realize a counterintuitive fact: that the exhaustiveness of the descriptions was less important to their customers than the ability to conjure up an image in the mind of the marketing team that their products could be bounced off. Would a Type 45 frequent a Starbucks? Probably not. Would a type 5 patronize a William Hill betting outlet? Unlikely. These companies are CACI’s prime customers: chains of every kind, but always chains. From the presence (or absence) of Caffè Nero coffee shops or Borders bookstores, Tesco Metro grocers or Foot Locker footwear retailers, BSM driving schools or BMI private healthcare clinics, even the amateur demographer can detect the ‘Low Income Singles in Small Rented Flats’, the ‘Affluent Greys'; or the ‘Well-Off Working Families with Mortgages’ that inhabit the neighborhood.

Today, the British landscape is a truly algorithmic entity: miniscule variations in the demographic and socioeconomic composition of a neighborhood trigger gold rushes or profit warnings, with the consequent appearance or disappearance of retail outposts. Urbanism is of the fly-by-wire variety: entire districts are carved up and allotted from an upper floor in a Canary Wharf office block. The result? Walking down the high street of a British city conjures up reminiscences of the quintessential Amazon.com experience. ‘People who bought the Grande Mochaccino you are sipping also bought denim in this Gap store…’, whispers a soft voice. The message is unambiguous: this is a city that has been architected, not designed.

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Center Square, Market Square, Walworth Way, West Street, and South Street in Sunderland (UK)
Plan of retail premises by occupant

Individual postcode boundaries in central Sunderland (UK)

England, Scotland and Wales
Postcode district boundaries

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
 
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