Supporter's Column: Deborah Saunt

As our cities change and adapt, spatial intelligence is needed to create spaces that respond to social, cultural and environmental challenges.

Spatial Intelligence for a Changing City


As designers working across built and natural environments, the multiple challenges we grapple with today are increasingly complex and entangled. Whether concerning local democracy and social justice, public health and wellbeing, or the climate and biodiversity emergencies, it is clear the prevailing understanding of such challenges is that they are inextricably connected. Housing, transport, infrastructure, culture, ecology, energy, governance, and more, cannot be tackled in isolation, and the meaningful deployment of spatial intelligence is one of the best tools we have to help develop new solutions.

It is for this reason that we believe in a design praxis that transcends disciplinary and sectoral silos, moving recursively between research speculation and built projects; strategy and evaluation; building and landscape; and scales from the intimate to infrastructural. Combining architecture, urban design, landscape, and studio research, we acknowledge that we tend to experience the world in one continuous journey, where inside and outside, the physical and virtual, and personal and collective, are seamless.

Our understanding of this form of practice has its roots in a 2008 public realm project in Castleford in Yorkshire, in which the transformation of a neglected pedestrian railway underpass was considered in terms of its social, economic and urban consequences, and a major land-swap, which gifted the town with a new public space, was facilitated. So too, our Christ’s College School project in Guildford which, whilst recognised as a 2010 RIBA Stirling Prize finalist, for us is critically remembered for the way we stepped outside the terms of a conventional brief, and insisted that the proposal respond to an informal desire line across the site, which connected a cul-de-sac housing estate to its local shops. Rather than work against these flows, we integrated them into the design, and ultimately persuaded the council to develop accompanying footpaths and cycle routes, to integrate the school into the place in which it is situated.

This ability to deliver what we call a spatial strategy - wide in scope, and nuanced in execution - continues to define our work. Projects should never be bound by a red line, and as research continues to become an increasingly important part of our practice, this spatial intelligence has only been heightened. Through our post-COVID19 public realm research, carried out for the Cross River Partnership, we’ve been able to explore challenges around female safety and neurodiversity; through our RIBA-funded Towards Spatial Justice research, we’ve developed our understanding of using co-design methodologies to meet head-on the intersectional issues any responsible development needs to consider today; and through our latest research project, a Policy Fellowship for Future Observatory, we’ve looked strategically at how the cultural and social dimensions of retrofit should sit alongside the necessary enquiry into carbon.

Today, this spatial intelligence impacts every project we undertake - from the recent completion of the award-winning Exchange Square, a landscape suspended over railway tracks, which blurs frames of reference across regional, local, and building-level scales, to the upcoming British Library Extension, where our role as brief-writers, designers and long-term custodians of co-designed public space has purposely reimagined the distinction between indoors and outdoors, built and natural.

As our perspective on design challenges today develops to reveal their interconnections, so the boundaries of projects become increasingly diffuse, and our identities as architects, landscapers, urban designers and researchers blur with them. We believe this form of practice, and its ongoing cycle of knowledge sharing, construction, and re-construction, leads to more meaningful relationships with our collaborators, more meaningful deployment of our spatial intelligence, and a more meaningful prioritisation of the needs of a changing city.

We believe in this form of practice because the city has always been our client, and we’re excited to be evolving along with it.

This article was written by Deborah Saunt, director at DSDHA.