In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Urban Morphology

  • Introduction
  • Pioneering Works
  • General Overviews
  • The Elements of Urban Form
  • The Agents and Processes of Urban Transformation
  • Cities in History
  • Classics in Urban Studies
  • The Historico-Geographical Approach
  • The Process-Typological Approach
  • Space Syntax
  • Spatial Analysis
  • From Theory to Practice
  • Relationships with Other Fields of Knowledge

Urban Studies Urban Morphology
Vítor Oliveira
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 April 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 October 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190922481-0004


Urban morphology is the study of urban forms and of the agents and processes responsible for their transformation over time. Urban form refers to the main physical elements that structure and shape the city including streets, squares (the public space), street blocks, plots, and buildings, to name the most important. The word “morphology” was first proposed by Goethe, the German writer and thinker, who devoted part of his work to biology. Goethe used the word “morphology” to designate the science that deals with the essence of forms. Although it was proposed as a branch of biology, the general and abstract nature of morphology enabled its application in many different fields, and at the end of the 19th century in central Europe, it started to be used in the study of cities. Urban morphology had a golden age in the first three decades of the 20th century, and then it lost importance, as urban functions and urban structures become the major concerns of urban geographers. In the second half of the 20th century, there were again innovative contributions to the study of urban form, stimulated by the activities of geographers and architects. Some of these individual contributions led to the development of schools of thought, fed by an increasing number of researchers in different parts of the world. Nowadays, four dominant schools of thought in urban morphology can be identified, with their own theories, concepts, and methods to address the physical form of cities and, as such, their impact on the social, economic, and environmental aspects of life in cities. The article is divided into thirteen sections. After this brief introduction and the presentation of some pioneer texts and general overviews on this field of knowledge, it moves to the presentation of works on the elements of urban form, on agents and processes of transformation, and then to the identification of some key works on the history of urban form. The article then shifts the focus from the “object” (the city) to the “researcher,” addressing classics in urban studies and four dominant approaches in urban morphology: historico-geographical, process-typological, space syntax, and spatial analysis. After addressing books and papers on the main theories, concepts, and methods proposed by these approaches, the article focuses on works on how these are applied in professional practice and on their relationship with wider environmental, social, and economic dimensions of cities.

Pioneering Works

At the end of the 19th century in central Europe, a number of works on the physical form of cities were published. Fritz 1894 offers a comparative study of German cities based on their plan, and Schlüter 1989 develops Fritz’s line of research, offering both macro and micro scales of analysis. While the study of urban form continued strong in central Europe over the first three decades of the 20th century, it also spread to other parts of Europe and elsewhere. Rooted in this German intellectual tradition but based in the United States, Leighly 1928 offers a morphological reading of Swedish towns. In Italy, Giovannoni 1931 focuses on the relation between new buildings and the old city. These pioneer works would be fundamental for the emergence of the historico-geographical and the process-typological approaches in the mid-20th century (see also the sections on the Historico-Geographical Approach and Process-Typological Approach).

  • Fritz, Johannes. Deutsche Stadtanlangen. Beilage zum Programm 520 des Lyzeums Strassburg. Strassburg, 1894.

    The key innovation of this study on more than three hundred German cities is the use of the town plan and of cartography as a primary source of information for urban history. One of the findings of the study is the proposal of a classification of cities based on the type of plan.

  • Giovannoni, Gustavo. Vecchie città ed edilizia nuova. Torino, Italy: Unione Tipografico-Editrici Torinese, 1931.

    Offers a theoretical and methodological framework for the integration of new buildings within the old city and for the relation between the new peripheral areas that were being created in the interwar period and the historical center.

  • Leighly, John. The Towns of Mälardalen in Sweden: A Study in Urban Morphology. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1928.

    Probably the first work of urban morphology written in the English language. It analyzes a set of ten Swedish towns, offering a comparative reading of the set and insights on each city based on its plan.

  • Schlüter, Otto. “Über den Grundriss der Städte.” Zeitschrift der Gesellshaft fur Erdkunde zu Berlin 34 (1989): 446–462.

    Develops Fritz’s line of research by addressing both the wider territory surrounding the city and the different parts that constitute its center. It is a pioneer of what would be designated, years later, as the morphogenetic approach.

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