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School of the Built Environment
Faculty of Technology, Design and Environment
Over the last fifty years, research into street networks has gained prominence with a rapidly growing number of studies across disparate disciplines. These studies investigate a wide range of phenomena using a wealth of data and diverse analytical techniques. Starting within the fields of transport or infrastructure engineering, street networks have commonly been treated as sets of more or less homogeneous linear elements, connecting locations and intersecting at junctions. This view is commonly represented as a graph, which provides a common and rigorous formalisation accessible across disciplines and is particularly well-suited for problems such as flow optimisation and routing. Street networks are, however, complex objects of investigation and the way we model and then represent them as graphs has fundamental effects on the outcomes of a study. Many approaches to modelling street networks have been proposed, each lending itself to different analyses and supporting insights into diverse aspects of the urban system. Yet, this plurality and the relation between different models remains relatively obscure and unexplored. The motivations for adopting a given model of the network are also not always clear and often seem to follow disciplinary traditions. This paper provides an overview of key street network models and the prima facie merits of pertinent alternative approaches. It suggests greater attention to consistent use of terms and concepts, of graph representations and practical applications, and concludes with suggestions for possible ways forward.
A detailed critical analysis of the definitions of built form as used in urban morphology is reported. The overarching aim of the analysis was to establish a common reference point for examination of the different aspects of urban form in a given case and comparative study of cases from different times and places. Seminal works are examined in detail, in particular those of M. R. G. Conzen, Gianfranco Caniggia and Gian Luigi Maffei. The starting point is the common conception of a hierarchical relationship between buildings, plots and streets and the overlapping of aspects and elements. Different types of ambiguity inherent in the generic structure of built form are identified. Incorporation of these into a rigorous conception of the hierarchy that allows for the richness of overlapping sets reconciles earlier conceptions and accommodates a wide range of specific forms.
There has been a long-running debate within urban morphology around the ‘description-prescription’ problem. The central question is whether we can derive prescriptions for new development based on descriptions of existing and historic development. The debate is sharpened when we seek to make the descriptions provided by urban morphology more objective and scientific with the expectation that an objective, scientific description should not, in principle, be normative. This chapter continues the debate by taking up the idea of normative science as introduced by CS Peirce and extended by JJ Liszka. In brief, Peirce’s notion focuses on the relationship between human purposes and the performance of our constructions in seeking to achieve those purposes. In exploring how the idea of normative science might help build the bridge between urban morphology and planning and urban design practice, the chapter points to the importance of teaching and asks, do we necessarily operate within the realm of ethics?
There are many reasons why we might want to deepen our understanding of urban environments, from the often quoted fact that over half the global population now lives in cities to the seemingly inexorable spread of common building types across the globe and the attendant loss of diversity. Or still, there is the spectre of moribund town centres and stagnating suburbs. The field of urban morphology has made significant contributions to our understanding of cities and has great potential to deepen it further. That contribution has been possible—and continues to be—in large part, because urban morphology provides a rigorous approach to the study of urban form. As argued in this chapter, the rigour of urban morphology derives to a significant degree from the active use of comparison as a core part of its methodology. The suggestion is that comparison is used not just in explicit ‘comparative studies’ but in a thoroughgoing way at a number of different levels. This suggestion is pursued through the lens of the work of Professor Jeremy Whitehand. Over his long career, Whitehand has made a significant contribution to the rigour of urban morphology through his clarity of language and terminology, consistent reference to testable general principles and his high standards of scholarship. In particular, the chapter will take Whitehand’s work on plan analysis, the fringe-belt and cross-cultural studies as topics to explore the different uses of comparison. The paper concludes by taking lessons from Whitehand’s work that point to ways in which urban morphology can consolidate and extend its contribution to our understanding of cities.