In September 2021 I began a new research position at the Institute for Environmental Science and Technology (ICTA) at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB). It has been a pleasure to meet new colleagues and get settled down in a beautiful eco-friendly building that is LEED Certified. I look forward to focusing my research agenda on Barcelona and this blog will be a platform for sharing some of the research ideas that are emerging, and become sort of the embryo for the new research team based at ICTA.
My new research group will be called City Lab Barcelona and our mission will be the generation of new knowledge that accelerates the transition to sustainable urban planning and design. To call a research team a Laboratory or Lab has become quite fashionable recently, especially in the social sciences. I welcome this analogy because there is much that we social scientists can learn from those researchers that run physical labs – of course, adapting as appropriate. In the case of City Lab Barcelona, I see four defining elements. One might think of them as criteria to determine if a project fits in our group. City Lab Barcelona will undertake research projects that entail at least one of the following elements: (1) real action or intervention in the city (2) direct observation (3) experimentation and/or (4) impact evaluation.
City Lab Barcelona prioritizes action-research. In some instances, we might want to develop the intervention and execute it ourselves, as we did with the public life study in Vancouver (Honey-Rosés & Zapata 2020, Zapata & Honey-Rosés 2019). This approach might entail some sort of tactical urbanism (never done it yet), or simply consist of a training program. In other cases, the implementation may be executed by partner organizations who are experts in developing and executing these programs. For example, I am excited about the potential to study the impact of cycling training programs for children at schools with Biciclot and Canvis en Candena. We want to work with partners who implement real projects to transformation the city. In short, our research aims to inform how real change happens on the ground. To inform that work, we need to roll up our sleeves and do some of it ourselves.
2. Direct Observation
It has become almost cliché to say that the “city is our laboratory” and yet while this is often referenced, I find a surprisingly little research that devotes time and effort to direct observation. We have become increasingly reliant on digital technologies, census data, remote sensing devices, and other gadgets. If we want to understand the city, we need to get out there and observe with our own eyes, using systematic methods for annotating what we see and what we can learn.
Together with students at UBC, we have used direct observation to study the use of public space at four sites in Poblenou (Akaltin et al 2019), we have measured the gender gap among cyclists in Barcelona, and we have measured compliance rates of cyclists at intersections (Lind et al 2020). We are also in the processes of determining the occupancy rates of bike parking spots in Barcelona. Direct observation is one of the key features of the scientific method and we will celebrate direct observation in our Lab’s work.
Experimentation is a defining feature of any laboratory. I have argued elsewhere that urban planners have untapped potential in the adoption of both formal and informal experiments (Honey-Rosés & Stevens 2019). The urgency of the climate emergency will be forcing cities to experiment and become more ambitious in their experimentation. The lab’s work will aim to expand the research agenda on urban experiments and test the limits of how, when and where we can develop field experiments in cities (Honey-Rosés 2019).
4. Impact Evaluation
Lastly, we want to understand the impacts of our actions and interventions. If our research design is solid, we should be able to learn from what we have done and disregard alternative hypothesis that might explain the observed outcomes. While this appears to have a purely positivist epistemology, I welcome alternative ways of knowing, learning and measuring impacts.