Urban Futures

Sustainable Regeneration - from evidence-based urban futures to implementation

A 4-year research project (May 2008- May 2012), funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council's (EPSRC) Sustainable Urban Environments 2 (SUE2) programme. The project consortium is led by the University of Birmingham and includes Lancaster University, the University of Exeter, Birmingham City University and Coventry University.

The aim of the Urban Futures project is to use future scenarios to measure the resilience of today’s urban regeneration solutions in terms of sustainability. Case studies in three UK cities (as well as in international cities) are being used to better understand whether solutions put in place now to problems will yield a positive, rather than negative, future legacy. The team from ImaginationLancaster is focussing on density and decision-making in the urban design and development process.

This project follows on from a previous EPSRC funded project Vivacity2020


Project Overview

Over 80% of the UK population lives in urban environments and this figure is increasing. This trend means making cities more sustainable is a top priority - for national Government, for city councils and for the people who live, work and visit urban areas.

The last 10 years has seen a concerted effort within the UK to develop, apply and assess sustainability solutions for the present and near future. There now exists the need to test solutions against alternative future scenarios. The team's research addresses the challenge of developing future scenarios for the year 2050 that will provide insights into the potential impacts of today's urban design decisions. If the outcomes from a proposed solution are similar, regardless of the future against which it is tested, and they deliver a positive legacy, then they can be adopted with confidence. Where there are very different outcomes depending on the future, the solutions can be modified to create an optimum outcome regardless of the future, or at the very least planning can be based on knowledge of the likely impacts if the future develops in different ways.

The team behind the project comes from a wide range of disciplines - social science, engineering, geography, computing, design, chemistry, business management, environmental science and urban studies.

The Urban Futures Project timeline has been divided into four phases:

Scenario Development - Phase 1

(0-6 months – completed October 2008)

The first six months of the project were dedicated to developing the future scenarios and a set of indicators against which the project’s eight research areas can be tested. Based on an extensive literature review, the team has decided to move ahead with four future scenarios:

Policy Reform: strong government action achieves social equity and environmental protection. 
Market Forces: competitive, open and integrated global markets drive world development.
Fortress World: in protected enclaves elites safeguard their privilege by controlling an impoverished majority and managing critical natural resources. 
New Sustainability Paradigm: a more humane and equitable global civilization.

Click here for more information about the scenarios.

A paper is in progress resulting from the project’s first 6 months’ work. This paper provides a review of the last 10 years’ scenarios work as applied to exploring urban futures.


Urban Forms Development - Phase 2

(7-18 months - underway since November 2008)

This phase requires the establishment of the very different urban characteristics that might derive from the four scenarios, with input from the complete range of discipline backgrounds encompassed within the project. The team is working closely together to produce an Urban Futures Toolkit, which includes a mix of Contextual Indicators and Sustainability Indicators which are relevant now and in the future. To test the urban characteristics, rigorous questions for each scenario will need to be framed by eachResearch Area and a pilot case study will take place in Birmingham Eastside, applying and testing the Toolkit. Optimised solutions will be recommended for each scenario. Phase 2 will see some of the initial work on developing answers to these questions, and the responses will help to shape the specifications of urban characteristics. A jointly-authored methodological paper will result from this phase of work.


Research Area-Specific Investigations - Phase 3

(19-42 months - due to begin November 2009)

This phase will predominantly consist of Research Area-specific investigations, with assessments of the four future scenario concepts deriving from Phase 2. Recommendations will be developed as to how the sustainability of the urban forms may be increased. Along with Birmingham Eastside, Lancaster and Worcester will be used as case study sites to develop and test sustainability ideas and the Urban Futures Toolkit. The application of the Urban Futures Toolkit across the four future scenarios will enable testing and refinement of the toolkit, along with derivation of internally consistent answers. The case study sites will be envisioned in each of the four different future scenarios, allowing for 'optimisation' of today's solutions in order that they remain relevant, no matter how the future develops. Eight papers will be produced in this phase of the project, each focussing upon a specific Research Area.


Scenario Testing and Development of Guidelines - Phase 4

(43-48 months)

The final phase of the project will test the dimensions of the future scenarios vis a vis their design, implementation and performance and the scenarios will be refined accordingly. Guidelines will be developed that aim to enhance the sustainability of today’s urban regeneration decisions.


Research Methods


Urban Futures builds directly upon research conducted by the team through previous projects, namely: Birmingham EastsideVivaCity2020 and Water Cycle Management for New Developments (WaND), along with research into the use of trees to diminish the effects of atmospheric pollution at the Lancaster Environment Centre (LEC).


The first six months of the project were dedicated to developing the future scenarios and a set of indicators against which eight previously identified, key sustainability areas can be tested. Thereafter the very different urban characteristics that might derive from these scenarios are to be established, with the input from the complete range of discipline backgrounds encompassed within the project.

Work then focuses upon conducting detailed research into the eight sustainability topic areas with the purpose of developing a strong evidence base against which to test the urban forms deriving from the future scenarios.

Case Studies and Testing

Birmingham Eastside, Lancaster with Morecambe and Worcester are being used as case study sites to develop and test sustainability ideas. The team is also running small-scale, topic-specific research in India, Brazil and Singapore.

The final element of the programme is testing dimensions of the future scenarios vis a vistheir design, implementation and performance and refining the scenarios accordingly.

Project Team

CooperCooper Rachel Cooper Design Management, Design Policy, Design Thinking, Urban Design, Urban Sustainability, Socially Responsible Design, Design Against Crime, Design & Manufacture
BoykoBoyko Christopher Boyko Urban Design and Behaviour, Internet of Things, Protest/Resistance, Town Planning, Urban Sustainability, Wellbeing

Partners / Funders

Project Partners

Project Funders


Article about density & design published in The Guardian

Article about density & design published in The Guardian

Misunderstanding density: Why we are building the wrong sort of cities

Dr. Christopher Boyko published an article today (29 July, 2014) in The Guardian's Housing Network pages about understanding density in cities. The article is based on empirical research undertaken with Prof. Rachel Cooper...Read full update

Density and Decision-making: Findings from an Online Survey

OutcomeJournal Paper

In many countries, policymakers have used urban densification strategies in an effort to create more sustainable cities. However, spatial density as a concept remains unclear and complex. Little information exists about how density is considered by decision makers, including the different kinds of...More information

The Little Book of Density

The Little Book of Density

Based on 4 years of research for the EPSRC-funded Urban Futures project, Rachel Cooper and Christopher Boyko (with Roger Whitham) have written a short book about density for practitioners. The book aims to support decision-makers in urban environment who deal with, and consider, spatial density in...More information

Urban Futures final event taking place in London on 18 April 2012!

Urban Futures final event taking place in London on 18 April 2012!

The Urban Futures project is ending this April and the team is giving away free copies of their Practitioner Guide to celebrate.

To mark the end of the 4-year, EPSRC-funded Urban Futures project, we are holding a final event in Church House, Westminster, London, this Wednesday, 18 April....Read full update

Get ready for The Little Book of Density!

April 2012 sees the launch of the Urban Futures publication, entitled 'The Little Book of Density'

Based on 4 years of research for the EPSRC-funded Urban Futures project, Rachel Cooper and Christopher Boyko (with Roger Whitham) have written a short book about density for practitioners. The...Read full update

Planning for Density: Density for Planning


Knowing who makes decisions about density, why they make them and what they need to make better decisions is fundamental to getting planning projects right. Christopher Boyko and Rachel Cooper (Lancaster University, UK) have been undertaking research into density and urban decision-making. Findings...More information