03 Surveying

Craft Day at Furnace Park, Sheffield

A common term in urban design, ‘surveying’ can have substantially different meanings ascribed to it. Whilst commonly associated with ‘land’ and physical properties of a site, surveying activities can vary greatly depending on approach, ethos and techniques adopted - ranging from a technical, and generally static, investigation into an area, to more creative and performative interventions aimed at constructing situated and relational knowledges about the area of intervention and its users. A creative and performative approach to surveying has the potential of opening up new lines of enquiry and new activities, by provoking actions and reactions from participants, spectators, and passers by.

In a situated approach to urban design, surveying becomes a key activity where a framework for engagement is sketched and tested and were encounters are engineered that might lead to the co-production of new knowledges and actions. Seen in this light, surveying can be understood a collective activity in which designers make the first moves. Whilst a number of aims need to be formulated in order to design those first moves, surveying will lead to a collaborative review and reformulation of those aims and to the identification of further objectives and lines of action. The act of surveying can thus reveal invisible connections, tensions and desires associated with our area of intervention and their communities, and is particularly appropriate for understanding and investigating spatial, social and economic blind spots, where issues and situations are overlooked and fall outside the focus of local authorities, planners and groups of citizens.

The surveying framework of a situated urban design project needs to be designed to allow for genuine contributions from those engaging with the process, shaping its direction and influencing its outcomes. This approach to surveying needs to be particularly mindful of the ethics underpinning it: who gains from what? Are relationships equal? Is the process truly open? Is there a risk of exploitation? Is the process fair? Are expectations of those engaging with the process managed adequately?


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Carolyn Butterworth and Sam Vardy, “Site-Seeing: Constructing the Creative Survey,” Field Journal vol. 2 no. 1 (2008): 125-138.

American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA), Ethnography Primer (New York: AIGA, 2013). Available at: www.aiga.org/ethnography-primer.

Helsinki Design Lab, Ethnography Fieldguide (Helsinki: SITRA, 2013). Available at: www.helsinkidesignlab.org/pages/ethnography-fieldguide.

Ezio Manzini, “Making Things Happen,” in Design, When Everybody Designs. An Introduction to Design for Social Innovation (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2015).