Themes

The Manchester Urban Institute (MUI) is home to several trans-disciplinary research agendas and themes.

These research agendas resonate with the urban challenges as identified by key funding organisations including RCUK, Innovate UK, and the European Commission.

Creative Placemaking

The relationship between culture, creativity, and urban development is both a rich site for interdisciplinary research and a source of great interest for policymakers.

Creative placemaking and culture-led urban regeneration initiatives include the branding of quarters and districts and the building of arts venues, tourism destinations, and designations.

They also involve investment in cultural programming, creative innovation, and cultural institutions that promote civic and social participation, identity, and a sense of place.

A lecture taking place in a theatre
Image credit: A. Gilmore

In this theme, researchers from various disciplinary backgrounds consider how the arts and culture, creative enterprise, heritage, and tourism are used as transformational tools in urban strategies for economic development, place marketing, and branding.

The concept of the ‘creative city’ has been a powerful discourse in urban policy for decades, not least in the city of Manchester, crowned the most ‘creative bohemian’ place in the UK in 2004, through an index of talent, technology, and tolerance, following Richard Florida’s framework.

Policy transfer and mobility have encouraged investment in creative industries innovation hubs and cultural districts worldwide with a focus on creating agglomeration and spillover effects and developing visitor economies.

However, the success and effects of such initiatives are not without critical challenges and vary between policy and place contexts.

Whilst the socio-cultural dimensions of urban life and the public realm can be enriched by creative placemaking, concerns of gentrification and displacement of indigenous and precarious creative communities join those of ‘left behind’ places that lack the capital and infrastructure to compete and attract the so-called ‘creative class’.

Furthermore, a focus on economic rationalism and instrumentalism can rival and exclude activities that support multi- and sub-cultural identities relevant to diverse creative expression.

This theme explores these concerns through research from the arts, humanities, and social sciences, to consider how placemaking through cultural investment can make creative places, civic institutions, and social infrastructure that are equitable, just, and inclusive.

In close collaboration with Creative Manchester’s themes of Creative and Civic Futures, Creative Industries and Innovation and Creativity, Health and Wellbeing, and other projects from across the University, the theme is led by Abigail Gilmore.

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Digital Urban Futures

Data science techniques within environmental and earth sciences drive studies from the molecular to the global scale.

Better understanding the history, future, and present challenges facing our planet - including our role in that evolution - requires techniques that probe fundamental hypotheses.

These can provide new insights into key drivers of change.

Aerial view of a city with virtual lines connecting technology hotspots

Environmental science is a highly multi-disciplinary field. As such, the technologies we require are both responsive to developments from specific fields, such as mathematics or computer science, and developed in response to new experimental and/or modelling facilities.

More generally these techniques bridge work from both experimental facilities and modelling facilities.

Cities have long been producers and consumers of ‘big data’ whether it be about its population, economy, transport networks, flows of people along with the impacts of climate change on the built and natural environment.

Citizens create much of this data, carrying out everyday transactions, mostly without their knowledge or informed consent.

Big data can be derived from a variety of data stores: social media, consumer sites, search engines, smartphone apps, smart utility meters, credit card transactions, CCTV, etc. and whilst big data offers many as-yet-unexploited opportunities for smart cities, the risks to individual privacy and freedom also need to be taken seriously.

Cities can benefit hugely from all of this data if they have the methods, tools, and techniques to properly interrogate, analyse and interpret this data in meaningful ways.

Manchester Urban Institute works closely with colleagues at Manchester’s Institute for Data Science and Artificial Intelligence to develop these methods to support cities in fully utilising the new opportunities that exist within data science to support cities and urban areas in understanding this emerging area.

The Digital Urban Futures theme is led by Richard Kingston.

Future-Proof Cities

Cities are the hubs and crucibles of change, both local and global.

The notion of a city is also changing – not only grey areas on the map, but many other kinds of reality – peri-urban metro-scapes, regional constellations, or multi-local-global networks.

Four drawings of the stages of a city being built

There is also a strong imperative for change and transformation, towards cities of low carbon, social justice, and liveable communities.

Such changes are generally: inter-connected (social, technical, economic, political, cultural); complex and dynamic (beyond rational governance or analysis); and controversial (different actors with different agendas).

And at a time of Pandemic-induced flux and disruption, there's a strong case for looking ahead, for exploring the dynamics of complexity and turbulence – so we look for ways to ‘future-proof the city’.

This urban transition/foresight/futures/innovation’ cross-cutting theme explores such dynamics of change: how to understand and analyse it, how to manage and plan, how to experiment and learn, how to build capacity, and how to look ahead and envision viable futures.

This theme is a networking, synergistic, inter-connecting program, which involves each of the MUI themes, others in UOM, and further afield with the EU and global community: adding value, generating insights, and exploring frontiers.

The Future-Proof Cities theme is led by Joe Ravetz.

The Future-Proof Cities theme is now the platform for a unique experiment on 'collective urban intelligence'.

An open community of co-authors is now working at the frontiers, building on ideas from the book Deeper City, with a 12-month ‘think-and-do-tank’, focused on practical outcomes.

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Green and Resilient Urban Futures

Interacting environmental, economic, and social pressures present major challenges to health and well-being and quality of life in our increasingly urbanised world.

Our towns and cities need to become more resilient to a range of stresses and vulnerabilities and we need to improve how we analyse, plan for, respond to, and recover from extreme events and longer-term stresses in urban settings.

Aerial view of roof gardens and solar panels on the top of buildings.

Over the past two decades, University of Manchester researchers have provided important insights into urban environmental characteristics, and our research has improved our understanding of fundamental urban physical geography and how this can be applied to plan for and develop green and resilient urban futures.

We must collaborate with multiple sectors and engage with communities in our efforts to meet these challenges.

We must also engage with policymakers, practitioners, and developers to support the creation of usable research outputs that can support urban resilience initiatives.

The University has a strong record in this area and will continue to deliver outputs that have an impact both within and beyond the academic sector.

The Green and Resilient Urban Futures theme is led by Jeremy Carter.

Health and Wellbeing

Urbanisation is occurring globally and the largest growth is in low and middle-income countries.

Urban health is a growing field of research internationally.

This theme explores both the impact of living in cities and how cities impact health.

Colleagues from across the disciplines of health, social sciences, and urban planning are involved and links with other Institutes e.g. MICRA, Thomas Ashton, MERI, and host the newly formed i3HS Hub are key to this research.

Aerial view of a lit-up busy city

Several issues affect the health of city-dwellers and city-workers e.g. internationalisation of metropolitan regions, ageing populations, migration and poor environmental factors.

These specific issues, combined with the wider, social and corporate determinants of health are different to non-urban areas.

Many urban areas have health policies determined at the local level.

Policymakers require data at the urban area level to inform these local policies and engage and influence national and international policy.

Key to all the research are the residents.

Our large network of professional, public and policy-maker stakeholders informs us at every stage of our urban health research journey.

This theme houses the European urban health projects (EURO-URHIS 1 and 2, Urban Health Centres), global health programmes with the World Health Organisation and UN-Habitat, local programmes (Well North, PAFA, TRU3D, PRIOR, SiPHER) and capacity building events in partnership with the International Society of Urban Health and the International Festival of Public Health.

The Health and Wellbeing theme is led by Arpana Verma.

People and Energy

Effective and sustainable energy policies require a deep understanding of people’s everyday lives, social relations, and future aspirations.

Urban energy researchers have an opportunity to give centre stage to human needs, social inequalities, and progressive politics through integrated and innovative social science-based insights into current and future urban energy transformations.

Aerial view of a lit-up busy city

Current societal challenges surrounding energy – involving issues of climate change, decarbonization, sustainability, security, and equity – are deeply implicated in the functioning of cities.

At the same time, future urban development is predicated on networks of energy supply and demand.

Our findings are based on detailed evidence from multiple sites and modes of governance, ranging from small-scale communities and neighbourhoods to transnational organisations.

Even if our work is strongly embedded in the local, national, and global policy contexts, the theme seeks to highlight alternative understandings and interpretations of energy policy – giving voice to places and people who are seldom heard in mainstream decision-making circles.

Our ability to tackle energy challenges in a multi-disciplinary manner has been aided by our extensive network of stakeholders and the diverse composition of our group, which includes researchers from more than 10 different disciplines.

The People and Energy theme is led by Stefan Bouzarovski and extends the decade-old legacy of the Collaboratory for Urban Resilience and Energy (CURE).

Project Delivery

This theme will consolidate Manchester’s current involvement in the recently awarded £1.1 million ESRC strategic investment looking at the delivery of major projects and programmes in government – known as Project X.

Project X focuses on the UK Government’s Major Project Portfolio (GMPP) of Transformation, IT, Infrastructure and Defence projects worth over £423 billion.

This includes well-known major infrastructure programmes such as Crossrail and HS2 but also transformational projects that seek to implement change in the way that the Government delivers services and interacts with citizens.

An airport terminal.

Projects are the temporary organisational form used to deliver government policy.

However, the size and complexity of many of these projects mean that delivery timescales and costs often overrun beyond planned expectations.

Yet, recent success stories at Heathrow, the London 2012 Olympics, and Thames Tideway suggest that poor performance is far from inevitable.

Project X aims to enrich academic and policymaker understanding of how policy objectives are translated into performance outcomes and why some projects perform better than others.

It was established in 2015 as a unique collaboration between a consortium of universities, industry, and the government project delivery profession led by The Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA).

The IPA is the non-ministerial department within the Cabinet Office, responsible for the oversight of major government projects and programmes.

The Project Delivery theme is led by Richard Kirkham.

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Smart and Sustainable Cities

The notion of the ‘smart city’ is increasingly being leveraged by a range of public and private stakeholders to optimise the delivery and management of collective urban services such as energy, transport, and water.

Through the rollout of comprehensive sensor networks and data collection and analysis, smart infrastructure networks promise to tame the complexities of contemporary cities and make cities more environmentally friendly and liveable.

Amsterdam waterfront

Meanwhile, the political and social aspects of the smart agenda related to privatisation, security, surveillance, and democracy remain undetermined.

Urban researchers have multiple opportunities to engage in the smart urbanism agenda through observation and critique as it rolls out, providing expertise and analysing and assessing data, and participating as partners in smart city trials.

Moreover, as cities are pressured by multiple drives of changes, the ongoing transition process not only speaks to the smart city agenda but also a variety of experiments in new governance and planning systems.

This theme houses the EU-funded Triangulum project.

The Smart and Sustainable Cities theme is led by James Evans.

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Transport and Mobilities

As a basic enabler of people’s everyday activities and the supply of goods and services, urban transport systems, their use, socio-spatial distribution and intersectionality with numerous aspects of urban development are key to the achievement of sustainable urban futures.

Aerial view of a busy street crossing at night time

Researchers from various disciplinary backgrounds are investigating how mobility and accessibility intertwine with complex issues of labour precarity, social, economic and health inequalities, and sustainability transitions in different spatial, social and cultural contexts.

Yet, there remain multiple theoretical, methodological, conceptual and practical challenges to achieve urban transport systems that meet our travel needs and demand for goods and services without a threat to our health or the environment.

The Transport and Mobilities theme brings together established and emerging researchers across the broad and fragmented diaspora of transport studies including engineering, economics, planning, urban design, physical and human geography, sociology, public health and environmental and business studies.

Our overarching aim is to form new researcher collaborations to innovatively explore the complex and multi-faceted challenges associated with sustainable urban mobility locally, nationally and globally. In doing so, it recognises that there is already a wealth of successful research being conducted at Manchester University, which is highly relevant to this topic.

The Transport and Mobilities theme is led by Karen Lucas.

Theme leads

Theme leads (MUI)

Departmental researchers

Current PhD students

External partners

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Urban Infrastructures

Infrastructure is a critical component of contemporary life, providing the often-unacknowledged backdrop upon which our collective lives are lived.

Urban infrastructures include both the circulatory systems that provide essential services such as water, energy, and digital connection to people throughout the world as well as the social institutions and networks (both digital and physical) that underpin community life and survival.

Engagements with infrastructure and infrastructural politics have played essential roles in contemporary urban geography and urban thought, and are critical to ongoing conversations about climate change, decarbonization, and urban political economy.

An orange brick building

Urban infrastructures are critical to understanding the contemporary city.

In cities around the world, infrastructure is intimately related to broader questions of justice, citizenship, and sustainability, and demands for infrastructural services on behalf of marginalized communities mark the political life of cities.

Through an understanding of the intermeshing of the political and the technical, research focused on infrastructure can highlight the lived experience of contemporary urban phenomena such as inequality, gentrification, and urban growth.

An attentiveness to urban infrastructures can call attention to the materiality and history of urban processes, highlighting the relationships between past and future in contemporary urban landscapes.

At the same time, attention to infrastructure invites considerations of how to best navigate socio-ecological transitions.

Climate change and urban infrastructures are intimately linked, and grappling with existing infrastructures is critical to imagining and developing low-carbon futures.

How existing grids can be decarbonized is a critical contemporary question, one that ties together everyday practices with the global political economy.

A related question is how to better expand low-carbon infrastructures that already exist, especially where the expansion of green initiatives can serve to gentrify neighbourhoods and exclude vulnerable residents.

At the same time, attention to infrastructure can highlight the possibilities of remaking or repairing damaged or ecologically destroyed landscapes.

The provisioning of infrastructure is inseparable from broader urban dynamics and intersects with existing politics and ecologies in profound ways.

The urban infrastructures research theme builds on the knowledge and experience of researchers based at The University of Manchester, conducting research into infrastructure at several different scales, paying attention to the local and global dimensions of infrastructural provisioning and access.

Our work understands infrastructure through a variety of research methods, ranging from ethnographic to quantitative.

We contribute to existing policy processes and critical ongoing conversations about climate change, green industrial policy, and urban politics around the world.

The Urban Infrastructures theme is led by Nate Millington.

Urban Justice, Gender, and Social Difference

The Urban Justice, Gender, and Social Difference theme at MUI draws together research into urban living, gender, and social difference, as they intersect with matters of race, class, health, disability, voice, marginalisation, and other markers of difference.

Gender inequality is one of the most enduring social and economic injustices in modern times. the United Nations notes, “all too often, women and girls are discriminated against in health, education, political representation, labour market, etc — with negative repercussions for the development of their capabilities and their freedom of choice”.

At the same time, these inequalities are intersectional and situated: gender can only be understood in context and alongside other social differences. Furthermore, these intersecting inequalities can be seen across a range of societies and cultures, globally and more locally, as research across MUI and SEED has highlighted.

Indeed, one of the core research beacons at The University of Manchester, led by Humanities, is Addressing Global Inequalities.

Putting feminist principles into practice, Urban Justice, Gender, and Social Difference is a research collective, centring an understanding of gender in context and situ.

We bring together interdisciplinary feminist reading groups, organize and support guest speakers and discussion workshops, and engage in social responsibility activities within and beyond the University.

Overall, the collective aims to be a hub for researchers of all career stages with interests in feminist approaches to cities and the urban.

The Urban Justice, Gender, and Social Difference theme is led by Tanja Bastia, Sarah Marie Hall, Caitlin Henry, and Susie Miles.

Please contact Sarah Marie Hall and Caitlin Henry for more information.

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