A Configurational Approach to Analytical Urban Design

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A configurational approach to analytical urban design:

‘Space syntax’ methodology

Kayvan Karimi


aThe Bartlett School of Graduate Studies, Central House, 14 Upper Woburn Place,

London WC1H 0NN, UK. E-mail: k.karimi@ucl.ac.uk

bSpace Syntax, 21 Brownlow Mews, London, WC1N 2LG, UK.


Urban design has always been a challenging task and will remain one because of its inherent complexities and the diversity of the issues that are associated with it. A competent, experienced urban designer can use intuitive methods to deal with these complexities and still achieve a good design, but when projects become more complicated and multifaceted the intuition of the designer is not always adequate to ensure a successful design. This article argues that urban design process can be enhanced effectively by analytical methods that are applied at the specific stages of a design process. These methods can impact the inception of the design ideas, evaluate objectively the design outputs at different stages, assist the further development of the design solutions and reduce the risk of failure during the design process or project implementation. The article argues that for these methods to engage with the design process they have to be spatial in nature, as urban design is eventually manifested in a spatial entity. It is further argued that the analysis of space could bridge between space and the ultimate users of the design – or the people – if space is understood through an analysis of its ‘configurational’ properties. Finally, a configurational approach to analytical urban design is introduced, which is based on the theoretical foundations, analytical methods and modelling techniques of space syntax. The application of the methods, their role in urban design process and their contribution to urban design projects are all discussed through the review of a selected number of real-life projects.

URBAN DESIGN International (2012) 17, 297–318. doi:10.1057/udi.2012.19; published online 26 September 2012

Keywords:urban design process; analytical methods; spatial configuration; space syntax


Urban design is normally perceived as a twentieth-century discipline, but it is evidently much older, perhaps as old as the earliest form of architectural design. Full-scale, designed cities were created more than five millennia ago in Indus Valley and Mesopotamia (Golany, 1995). Even in the simplest forms of settlements, some degrees of urban design can be identified in the spaces that are shaped consciously or uncon-sciously to serve the needs of people. The nature of urban design as an independent discipline, however, is not easily understood despite such a precedence and embeddedness in human socie-ties. The close affinity of urban design with archi-tecture and other disciplines that are predominantly

led by design, on the one hand, and the relevance of urban design to other disciplines, such as engineering, transport and infrastructure, which are science or technology led by nature, create an ambiguity about the true characteristics of urban design. Is it a purely intuitive undertaking, as seen in some innovative design activities, or is it a predominantly knowledge-based, logical pro-cess, as observed in other disciplines? A central aim of this article is to determine whether urban design could in principle take an analy-tical approach; and if it could, what kinds of analytical methods are required for such an undertaking.

The key step in this debate is the understanding of design itself. Design is a concept that is used diversely in many different contexts and its


interpretation is subject to vast variations (Johnson, 2009). These definitions are helpful in unveiling different facets of design, but finding an all-inclusive definition that could be accepted by everyone is almost an impossible task. To avoid the difficulty of dealing with design on a general level, this article will try to focus primarily on the specific case of urban design, which involves shaping and transforming the urban environment as a large composition of buildings, public spaces, roads and other natural or artificial elements. It is also worth emphasising that, unlike some other types of design activities, what is commonly meant by the term design in the field of urban design is not necessarily an object, or a physical product; it is rather what is involved in creating, or the act of generating the programmes or plans for such an artefact through a complex procedure (Moughtin et al, 1999).

Even within the more confined area of urban design, still a myriad of different definitions for urban design can be found (Sitte, 1945; Arnheim, 1969; Jones, 1984; Krier, 1993; Barnett, 2009; Krieger and Saunders, 2009; Kasprisin, 2011, pp. 10–19). Generating yet another definition, or even adopting one that would suit our argument most closely, is not the objective of this work. Instead, it will try to construct an understanding of urban design by identifying the tangible and commonly accepted aspects of it. In this construct, the article will rely on the theoretical studies that exist in the field, but at the same time it will adopt a heuristic discourse guided by common sense and collective understandings of the theoreticians and practitioners alike.

Challenges of Using Analytical Methods in

Urban Design

The challenge of using analytical methods in urban design begins with questions such as what type of analysis should be used, or how they should be applied. The use of analytical methods in urban design is relatively new and begins predominantly in the second half of the twentieth century, but even in the beginning of the past century there were theoreticians and thinkers, such as Camilo Sitte (Sitte, 1945; Collins et al, 2006) and Patrick Geddes (Welter and Whyte, 2003; Geddes, 2008), who proposed methods of study that could be considered analytical.

The use of analytical methods becomes more evident in the second half of the twentieth

century, when new urban ideas emerge and urbanists try to use quantitative methods and urban models. There is a wide range of these approaches. Conzen as an analytical urban geo-grapher tries to push the extent of urban geography towards developing tangible methods of analysing urban form based on the plan shape of its components: streets, plots, buildings (Conzen and Conzen, 2004). Kevin Lynch attempts to analyse the city based on the perception of main urban components – paths, edges, districts, nodes and landmarks (Lynch, 1960). Christopher Alexander’s analysis of urban grid, which involves graph representation and graph analysis (Alexander, 1968), gives rise to more systematic thinking about design. In the 1960s, the scientific methods or design methods became a predomi-nant feature of the design discussions, imme-diately followed by major criticism of these methods in 1970s for not recognising the complex-ities of design as ‘wicked problems’ (Rittel, 1972). More recently, Mike Batty uses the mathematics of fractal geometry to demonstrate that cities could be analysed and explained by principles of self-similarity, hierarchy and randomness (Batty and Longley, 1994).

Apart from the attempts to create an analytical understanding of the city based on mathematical models and quantitative methods, there have been various analytical tools and models, such as transport models (Lee and Boyce, 2004), economic models (Fujita et al, 2001) and planning models (Hall and Tewdwr-Jones, 2010; Weber and Landis, 2012), which have not been developed specifically for urban design, but have been used in the disciplines that are associated with urban design. More recently, with the advancement of computer programmes, new techniques of rendering and 3D modelling have emerged that are mainly used in representation of design, but sometimes are also used to analyse specific aspect of the design (Morello et al, 2010). The most recent appearance of these approaches is Parametric Design, which enables designers to change the design parameters and visualise the results dynamically (Motta,

1999).1 Finally, among the most technical

deve-lopments in this field, perhaps the invention of Geographical Information Systems (GIS) has had the most direct influence on analytical approaches in urban planning and transportation (Birkin, 1996; Nyerges, 2004). The capability of overlaying layers upon layers of geo-referenced data and the ability to analyse these layers quantitatively has turned GIS into a powerful tool in urban planning.


Most of the above-mentioned applications of analytical methods and tools have a major difficulty: they do not easily become an integral part of the urban design process; and even if they do, they cannot provide a reliable evaluation system lead the design process by bringing together creativity and research into one single framework. There are several reasons for this deficiency, but perhaps prime amongst them is the lack of an urban theory that could link physi-cal aspects of the urban system with its functional, social and behavioural aspects, directly and seamlessly (Hillier, 2008; Penn, 2008; Sailer et al, 2008). This theoretical shortfall creates a gap between the analysis of things and how their manipulation in design could impact people. Furthermore, these approaches normally separate analysis and design from each other and rarely produce tangible analytical tools, or methods, which could be integrated into the design process. These methods are rarely multi-disciplinary and multi-scalar, which restrict their application to only particular areas of urban design or planning with no or very minor connections with other disciplines, such as transportation, engineering or socio-economics, or to various scales of an urban system, such as regional, district, neighbourhood or public space scales. Furthermore, analytical models that could deal with large urban systems, such as transport models, are usually time-consuming, data-intensive and rather expensive to build (Weber and Landis, 2012). The large amount of data, time and resources that are required to create and run the models make their use in design difficult and impractical.

What Do We Mean By (Urban) Design:

Some Heuristic Propositions

To begin the argument on analytical urban design, it is essential to clarify some fundamental issues first. In order to avoid a big diversion in this article, a series of simple and hard-to-reject propositions are used to construct the argument. In other words, it is intended here to guide the discussion with the characteristics of urban de-sign that are hard to reject, rather than the ones that give rise to disagreements.

The first and foremost proposition to begin with is that design is inherently a procedural entity, or a process. The concept of a process is widely present in various literature and design manuals, which attempt to produce a definition

for design in general or urban design in partic-ular (RIBA, 1980; Luckman, 1984; Rowe, 1987; Moughtin et al, 1999; Roberts and Greed, 2001; Lang, 2005; Cama, 2009). In fact, the concept of process is the core element of all these definitions. A process, which is normally considered as a continuous action, operation or series of changes that take place in a continuous manner, seems to be very relevant to any design activity (Jones, 1992; Lawson, 2005).

The second proposition is that the design process starts with an initiation phase and ends up with an outcome. The initiation phase of the design process is normally a project brief, a request, a demand or even some sort of an undefined need, put in place by a client, a community, a group or the designers themselves. Normally, some sort of an output – a plan, an object or a system – could also be identified, which is normally considered as the result of this process (Levin, 1984; Moughtin et al, 1999; Lang, 2005). In other words, design is a purposeful process that starts with some sort of objectives, well-defined or ill-defined (Rowe, 1987, p. 40), and ends up with an outcome that responds to them. This does not mean that the design process is bound to terminate definitely at a certain time. In most cases the process is carried forward to redefine or reshape the objectives and initiation of another cycle of design, but at each of these cycles there is normally something that could be called the design outcome.

The third commonly agreeable proposition here is that the urban design process involves some degree of problem solving or solution making (Jones, 1992; Kroll, 2001; Lawson, 2004, 2005). This is perhaps the natural consequence of the pre-vious two propositions. If we seek to respond to some objectives to produce a result through a series of actions, we have to think of different ways of achieving the results and responding to the challenges involved in each approach.

The fourth proposition, which might appear less apparent than the previous three, is that design cannot be an entirely logical or discursive process. Some forms of intuition, creativity or novelty, which are not entirely governed by logical, or scientific discourses, can be identified in some parts or the whole of the design process (Daley, 1984; Darke, 1984; Hillier et al, 1984). Considering the vast diversity of the design activities, which spans from very precise and technical processes such as industrial design to highly qualitative and creative activities such as


ornament or fashion design, it becomes a more persuasive argument if an unlikely parallel is used: science. Science is by any definition more logical and more deterministic than design, so if it is argued that even scientific processes are not entirely logical it would not be unreasonable to conclude that design process would follow the suit.

The contemporary reflections on the theory of science and scientific methods, such as the work of Karl Popper and others (Popper, 1959, 1963; Hacking, 1983, 1991; Stengers, 2000), tend to define a scientific process as more of a ‘con-jecture-refutation’ cycle rather than a pure deduc-tive or inducdeduc-tive process. In this interpretation of science, an element of ingenuity, intuition and even incidence can always be found in most scientific approaches. Sometimes a simple thing, such as the fall of an apple, which had not been contemplated before, could ignite a scientific conjecture, which suddenly brings together years of logical work: a Eureka moment. Now, if some stages of a scientific exploration are led by inspiration or intuition, it would be unreasonable to rule out that a bigger, or at least an equal share of them, takes place in the design process.

The ‘conjecture-refutation’ model in science gives rise to the concept of a ‘conjecture-test’ model in design, which is predominantly based on a cycle of creating design conjectures – or design ideas, concepts, generators – and testing them against certain criteria (Darke, 1984; Hillier et al, 1984). In this model, design is a non-discursive process that is assisted by analytical knowledge at some stages. This opposes the pure analysis–synthesis model, which defines design as appraised cycles of logical analysis and synthesis that lead to design decisions (Markus, 1969; Moughtin et al, 1999).Whereas the former recognises the non-discursive nature of design and tries to explain the design process as an interaction of intuition with logical thinking, the latter removes the element of intuition altogether and turns the design process into a deterministic process.

Accepting that design is not an entirely logical process gives rise to another equally important question: is (urban) design an entirely intuitive process? Intuition is normally considered as a form of knowledge created by instinctive feeling as opposed to deductive knowledge, which is based on conscious reasoning (Fitz, 2001). Explor-ing the operation of human intuition in design is truly beyond the confines of this article, but

perhaps the question could be turned into something for which we could find an answer: can any parts or stages of the design process be informed by non-intuitive actions, such as reason-ing, induction or analysis? In reality, it is very difficult to imagine that logical thinking cannot play a role in any part of the design process. Accepting design as a purposeful process of problem solving and solution making inevitably leads to conceding that some degree of rational thinking and reasoning has to be applied through-out the process. A design process needs to reflect on itself and assess whether the outputs at each stage respond adequately to the objectives of design, even if this reflection appears as an implicit form of reasoning (Lawson, 2004).

The Urban Design Process

The design process in general terms is seen as what happens between a problem – or a brief, a need, a demands - and a solution – or a result, an outputs, a product (Lawson, 2005, p. 49). What happens between these two ends comprises some form of an idea generation and some form of an idea development (Moughtin et al, 1999; Lawson, 2004, 2005). From the design of a tiny object such as a piece of jewellery to the design of a large entity such as a city, these stages, at least in their simplest form, are evident. Urban designers with the task of designing an urban project need to identify a number of questions that are either given to them directly, or arise from the brief and their own understanding of the tasks (Moughtin et al, 1999; Lloyed-Jones, 2001; Roberts, 2001a). Then they need to develop design ideas that would in their parts, or entirety, respond to those questions (Moughtin et al, 1999; Lang, 2005).

The important issue in this process is that the ideas and solutions have to be somehow eval-uated against a series of criteria that are intro-duced externally or internally. A part of this evaluation takes place during the idea-generation stage, which normally is a conjecture-test cycle (Figure 1). In a normal design process, conjectures are normally tested intuitively and the designers come up with their own judgement of whether or not a design conjecture would work. How-ever, when the design ideas are shaped, a more rigorous evaluation is needed to determine whether or not the design idea could potentially become the right design solution for the project.


Figure 2 is an attempt to explain the urban design process through a very simple, generic model that could encompass most types of urban design. The main structure of this model is based on two fundamental stages of the design process: design generation and design development. This structure in principle is not in any disagreement with a large number of other (urban) design models that have been introduced previously (Jones, 1992; Lawson, 2005). An important char-acteristic of this model is that it does not treat design as a linear process and presents it instead as a cycle of design generation and design development, which has a floating set of inputs

and outputs. The main two stages of the cycle are distinct but feed into each other re-iteratively. Another important point in the model presented in Figure 2 is that it links the end of the process to its starting point, creating a cycle that can be repeated infinitely to enhance the design output, as well as the design brief itself.

Somewhere in this cycle, normally in the begin-ning, a project brief is introduced. The full devel-opment of the design brief could shift to later stages of the process, but the cycle of idea generation and idea development normally starts from what the design process is meant to achieve (Punter, 1999; DTLR, 2000). In some cases, there is only a loose brief, and thus the full design brief and its objectives have to be defined through the process (Alan Penn, 2008), but even in those cases the design cycle normally starts with an acknowledgement of what is intended to be achieved eventually.

This cycle is influenced by wider issues such as political agenda, general social trends, economic conditions and technological restrictions, as well as the constraints or potentials specific to the project. These wider issues differ from project to project, but they influence the design decisions in a conscious or unconscious manner. The process is also influenced by some kind of a stakeholder input, which in its simplest form could be the designer’s own interpretation of the stakeholders

Figure 1:The conjecture-test cycle in creation of design ideas. A conjecture formed by non-discursive methods is tested by some means of logical thinking to shape a design idea. The test part of this process can still be led by intuition, but it is fundamentally distinct from the conjecture part.




Figure 2:A generic urban design process. Two main stages of ‘design generation’ and ‘design development’ create a cycle that is induced by a design brief, wider urban design issues and stakeholder consultations. The urban design output comes normally after the design development phase, but the entire process could be reiterated until a satisfactory output is obtained.


views, but normally in an urban design project the views of the stakeholders are brought in the process at certain times (Carmona, 2001; Roberts, 2001b). Finally, at the end of the design develop-ment phase, a design output appears. This output does not have to be a full product, but it needs to fulfil, at least partially, the requirements of the brief. After the production of the design output, it is either adopted or goes back to redefine the brief and start a new cycle of idea generation and design development.

The two main stages of the process also involve a set of sub-processes. An important sub-process in the idea-generation phase is the conjecture-test cycle that leads to an initial option generation and option testing. In its simplest form, this sub-process is about generation of just one con-juncture (design idea) and one test (intuitive acceptance or rejection). In its more sophisticated form, different options are generated and intuitive or objective methods are used to choose the best option (Cowan, 2002; American Planning Asso-ciation, 2006).

The design development phase involves genera-tions of more solugenera-tions to address specific aspects of the design, but the main focus of this phase is to turn the initial design idea to an implementable solution (Cowan, 2002). In some cases, this phase turns into a very pragmatic process of taking the initial design and modifying all its parts to pro-duce a whole that could fulfil the design objectives in the best possible way. Similar to the conjecture-test cycle in the idea generation phase, the design development stage also involves some degree of assessment to determine, either by the designers’ intuition or by other means, whether or not the developed design output is ready (Roberts, 2001b). If the design outcome is not satisfactory, it has to go back to the design cycle again and be fed into the generation of new solutions, or a revision of the older solutions, to reshape the final design output. The important question to be answered now is whether any form of analytical investigation could be applied to any part of the design process; and if so where it should be applied to make a meaningful contribution.

Analytical Urban Design: Can the

Design be Informed by an Analytical


Analysis is commonly understood as the process or method of dividing any complex entity to its

constituent components, study each component in detail and bring them back together to form, or synthesise, a better understanding of it (Blakey, 1850). Design is an inherently complex issue comprised of different components and facets. The subjects and outcome of the design process are often very complex too and include many parts and wholes. In principle, the design process can be divided into components to be investigated sepa-rately and then be synthesised within the general framework of the design (Lang, 1994; Moughtin et al, 1999; Carmona, 2001). In that sense, analysis is not only relevant to the process, but is an advantageous method when there is a need to build more rigour in the study of design compo-nents and evaluating them against certain criteria. An analysis of the brief, the wider socio-economic context, the site and many other issues in the beginning of the design process provides a better understanding of the problems, constraints and needed solutions (Roberts and Greed, 2001). Therefore, even before generating any ideas, the analysis can provide the designers with the information that they might not be able to obtain intuitively. Furthermore, during the conjecture-test process, the ‘conjecture-test’ part of the process could be enhanced by an analysis of the conjecture. It is conceivable that only intuition, or unconscious processing, could be applied at this stage, but human intuition is limited in many ways and a pure intuitive test could be inaccurate and biased (DePaul and Ramsey, 1998, p. 51). Whether any form of analysis could also influence the design ‘conjecture’ is a very interesting debate and a field of study in its own right (Goldschmidt, 1992; Kalay, 1992), but to maintain the clarity of argument this article will focus on the parts that are more transparently linked with logical think-ing and analytical methods.

After the formation of design ideas through a conjecture-test cycle, the design ideas could be tested more systematically using the same analy-tical techniques that are applied at the begin-ning of the process. The analysis of the design ideas would determine whether they respond adequately to the objectives of the design and whether they work as intended by designers. By applying analytical methods, a more reliable evaluation of the design ideas is expected, as it is not the mind of one individual (or a group of individuals) that determines whether or not the design ideas would work, but there is a method that could be repeated and applied by others to get the same results.


On the basis of the most generic form of an urban design process presented previously, Figure 3 shows how the process could be system-atically informed by analysis. In this diagram, two extra stages are identified before and after the idea-generation, or design development phases. In this model, in the beginning of the design process a set of analytical investigations, or a ‘baseline analysis’, is produced before the gen-eration of any ideas or solutions. The baseline analysis aims to clarify the brief, the context, limitations, particularities and other issues that are relevant to design. The design solutions are generated after the digestion of the analy-tical study, as well as the wider issues (social, economic, political) that exist and are relevant to the design.

Once design ideas or design options are shaped, analytical tools are used to evaluate them. More than being just a rejection-approval filter, this phase could critically determine what aspects of the design ideas or design options might not work. If the design idea is rejected fully, the entire phase has to be repeated again, until the design evaluation allows it to move to the design development phase. This stage is one of the most practical periods in the design process, which could benefit from stakeholder consultation; however, as argued before, it could take place in

the previous or next phases as well. The benefits of consultations are twofold: first, they add another layer of assessment from the viewpoint of outsiders; second, they provide further insights into the development phase of the design. If the results of stakeholder consultation reject the design ideas, the design process has to go back to the starting point again and respond until it is accepted by both internal analytical test and external consultations.

During the design development phase, where the design ideas are taken forward, analytical methods could still be used to assess specific aspects of the design. This could be achieved either by the analytical methods that have been developed at the earlier stages or methods that are developed specifically to deal with certain aspects of the design, in which case a series of conjecture-test cycles is likely to happen.

Space Syntax Methodology: A

Configurational, Analytical Framework for

Urban Design

It is inherently a difficult task to define the specifications for the methods that could be used directly in design process, but based on what has been discussed four important characteristics






Figure 3:Analytical urban design process. An analytical phase, or a baseline analysis, takes place before the design generation phase. The analytical tools are applied again after the formation of design ideas, or design options, to evaluate them and feed back into the process.


seem to be apparent. First, any analytical approach that could be used in design has to be a spatial one. Urban design is about creating and shaping spaces, and if analytical approaches cannot deal directly with this important aspect of the design they cannot be used in design. Second, a spatial analytical approach should be able to link directly space with people and users. Urban design, by definition, is about shaping spaces for the people and society. By analysing space or any attributes of it in isolation from how the space would be used in reality, or how its shape would influence the life of people, we just produce an abstract representation of the space. Third, such analytical approaches have to be capable of dealing with different scales. An urban system manifests itself in many scales: an urban room, a public space, a neighbourhood, a district, an entire city or even a region. Each of these scales has its specific characteristics and has to be dealt with accordingly, but these different scales are in continuous interaction with each other and are required to be seen in one single framework. Finally, a spatial analytical model should be able to investigate a system as a whole or in its parts. The parts are explored, used and perceived differently from each other and the entire urban system. The whole is made of its parts, but it also influences its parts when the system grows or transforms. It is quite apparent why the use of analytical methods in urban design has been fairly restricted: it is not very easy to find a methodology that could fulfil all these criteria.

In the pursuit of an analytical methodology that could be applied to urban design process, it is argued that space syntax, a set of theories linking space and society and a set of techniques for analysing spatial configuration (Hillier et al, 1983; Hillier and Hanson, 1998), can provide such a means.

Space syntax describes the logic of society through its manifestation in spatial systems: how spaces are put together – or the configuration of space – relates directly with how people perceive, move through and use spatial systems of all kind, ranging from small domestic spaces to large-scale urban settlements (Hillier, 1996; Hillier and Hanson, 1984; Hanson and Hillier, 1987). Generally speaking, space syntax is an overarching concept – or a paradigm – and a set of specific theories, such as the theory of order and structure (Hanson, 1989a, b), natural movement (Hillier et al, 1993), centrality as a process (Hillier, 2001), movement economy (Hillier, 1996) and

movement generated land-use agglomeration (Alan Penn and Alasdair Turner, 2004). Furthermore, there are analytical models and tools, such as axial analysis (Hillier and Hanson, 1984), visual graph analysis (Turner, 2003) and segment-angular analysis (Hillier and Iida, 2005), which are direct products of the main theoretical paradigm and its theoretical propositions.

The core concepts of space syntax can be explained through two fundamental propositions. The first proposition is that space is intrinsic to human activity, not a background to it. Space is shaped in ways that reflects the direct interaction between space and people, and through this the space we create, or the built environment, becomes humanised (Hillier and Hanson, 1984; Hanson and Hillier, 1987; Hillier, 2008). It is not intended here to discuss in depth why space and society are intrinsically linked, as it is fully documented in space syntax-related literature, but imagining the opposite would be a much harder proposition to compel. Human societies, from the least to most complex, create spaces that reflect closely what they do and how they live. A society without a built environment, or a built form without people, is beyond our normal experience of urbanism.

An important implication of considering space and society as inherently corresponding entities is that by analysing one we create a deep under-standing of the other. Analysis of the society, or social patterns, is admittedly a much more difficult task, as it involves dealing with the intri-cacies of humans and lack of tangible, measurable components or features (Bernard, 2000). On the contrary, analysis of space is a much more achiev-able task.

The second core proposition of space syntax is that space is fundamentally a configurational entity (Hillier and Hanson, 1984; Hillier and Penn, 1991; Hillier, 1996; Hillier, 2008). Configuration, simply defined as simultaneously existing rela-tions, is about the composition of the built form from the parts that are in a unique relationship with each other. Again, it is not intended here to prove the validity of this core proposition, as it is well documented elsewhere, but advocating for the opposite would not be an easy task. From the most primitive spatial forms to most advanced types, the built space is always divided into components, or sub-spaces, which play different roles or are used in different ways. Even within a simple convex space, such as a Bedouin tent, the occupiers differentiate various parts that are


designated to different purposes, such as places for work, rest, dining and storage (Bill Hillier and Julienne Hanson, 1984, p. 177). These parts, if studied carefully, create a defined pattern of relationships, namely, configuration, which is unique to any system (Figure 4).

The research has shown that there is a strong relationship between spatial configuration and how people move through the city (Hillier et al, 1993; Hillier and Penn, 1996). The spatial con-figuration is also associated closely with other important issues in the city, such as: the patterns of vehicular movement (Penn et al, 1998), cogni-tion and wayfinding (Conroy-Dalton, 2003), loca-tion of prominent urban elements (Hanson, 1989a, b; Karimi, 1998), land uses (Kim and Sohn, 2002; Penn and Turner, 2004), social segregation (Vaughan, 1997; Vaughan, 2007; Vaughan and Arbaci, 2011) and crime (Hillier, 2002; Hillier and Shu, 2000).

The generative association between space and society, as well as the inherent congruence between spatial configuration and human activ-ities or urban functions, make the use of space syntax in design a strong proposition. As there is a direct relationship between spatial config-uration and urban functions, analysis of the spatial configuration provides a powerful tool for designing, shaping, maintaining and altering urban functions. On the basis of this assumption, a series of representation and modelling techniques has been developed for analysing spatial config-uration. These techniques are primarily based on

fundamental concepts, such as movement, visual perception and human occupation, which link physical space with people directly (Figure 5).

The models use simple geometrical attributes, such as lines of sight and movement or visual fields, to create a network. This network is then turned into a pattern of relationships, or a graph representation, which can be analysed quantita-tively to determine the relative role that each space plays in the configuration of the system, as a whole, or in its parts (Figure 6). The output of the analysis is usually shown by a range of colours from dark red (most connected/inte-grated) to dark blue (least connected/inteconnected/inte-grated). A very important type of syntactic analysis for urban studies is the description of the network of public spaces by a series of ‘axial’ lines that represent the longest lines of sight and movement (Figures 5 and 6a). This is an efficient representa-tion of the spatial network described by a net-work of lines that can be analysed more easily. The advantage of this model is that it creates an uncomplicated model of the spatial network that corresponds directly with how the network is perceived (visibility) and navigated through (movement) by people. The direct association between how space is configured and how it is used by people creates an analysis that could be used and interpreted directly in the urban design process.

The lines in the spatial network could be treated as continuous entities, or they can be de-composed into segments. The relationship

Figure 4:Spatial configuration. The patterns of relationship between different components of a French house are translated into a graph, which could be justified from different places (Hillier et al., 1987). The properties of the graphs represent the topological relationship between different spaces.


between each segment and all other segments is

calculated by an analytical computer software,2

using various methods, such as metric distances (how far to travel), topological distances (how many changes of direction) and angular distances (what degree of angular shift). The second type of analysis is called an ‘axial analysis’ and the third, which has been developed more recently, is called ‘segmental angular analysis’ (Hillier and Iida, 2005).

By translating the network of lines into a graph that represents the topological relationships be-tween lines, a quantitative analysis of the system is performed by calculating how each space is connected with the other spaces in the system. The analysis can be based on the relative depth (or shallowness) of spaces from each other, which is a measure of ‘proximity’ or ‘to-movement’, or based on the possibility of being used in journeys throughout the system, which is a measure of ‘between-ness’ or ‘through movement’. The former measure of analysis in space syntax terminology is called integration and the latter is called Choice (Hillier and Iida, 2005). Each of these measures explains certain aspects of the urban structure and

is used in connection with specific questions that have to be answered in an urban study.

The analysis can also be performed for the entire system (the global network), or parts of it (the local network). In the global scale of analysis (Figure 7a), we take into account every possible relationship in the system (from anywhere to anywhere), whereas in the local scale of analysis (Figure 7b) the analysis is restricted to a certain local catchment, which could be topological (up to a certain number of changes of direction from each line), or angular (up to a certain degree of angular change from each segment), or metric (up to a defined metric distance from each segment). The local and global analyses are very useful methods of looking at different scales of a spatial system, but they could also be used to define how an entire system is understood by the percep-tion of its parts. The congruence between local and global spatial configuration determines how intelligible the system is to the people who navigate through it (Hanson, 1989a, b; Hillier and Penn, 1996). The intelligibility of the network is another set of analytical metrics that could be used in the process of urban design.

Figure 6:Two methods of spatial modelling: a line-based model of the City of London (a) and a visual field-based model of an office environment (b). Spatial structures of urban and architectural systems are represented by a colour scheme, using a colour scheme that ranges from the most connected (dark red) to least connected (dark blue).

People move in lines Perceive the built environment through 'visual fields'

Gather in 'convex' spaces


Analysis of different urban systems shows a remarkable degree of consistency in results. In most cities, the spatial structure is normally a ‘foreground network of linked centres at all scales, set into a network of largely residential space’ (Hillier and Vaughan, 2000). These centres range from very local centres, where you find very local functions, to major centres of large cities, where a specialised system of high perme-ability routes and smaller urban blocks facilitate a more complex urban system. The research also shows that the structure of the grid correlates consistently with the pattern of pedestrian and vehicular movement (Penn et al, 1998) and other issues such as the distribution of land uses (Penn and Turner, 2004) and social behaviours (Hillier and Shu, 2000).

Configurational analysis of the spatial network can be linked to other layers of data in the city to build more complex models. These layers include movements of all kind (pedestrian, vehicular, cyclist), human behaviour, land use, population or building densities, land values, social interac-tions, crime, fear of crime and many other layers of information. As long as the available data have the right earth coordination (geo-reference), they can be linked to configurational analysis of the spatial network on a GIS platform. By linking these layers to spatial configuration, through various method of correlational and regression analyses or weight-ing of the spatial model by different factors, more

complex models can be created, which are used for forecasting the implications of the changes that we make to the spatial system or to other features (Figure 8). For instance, Pedestrian Movement Models are created by taking into account not only the layout of the space, but other issues such as land use, proximity to transport hubs and even visual attractions (Ferguson et al, 2012). In the absence of sufficient or accurate data, the spatial configuration layer could be used by itself in most cases as a proxy for the other layers, but if the data are available the composite models could enhance the accuracy of the model and its sensitivity to particular factors in urban design.


Space Syntax Analysis Engages with

the Design Process

The Space syntax approach of applying analytical methods to urban design process is based on the same principles that were discussed before, with the main difference that the very foundation of the analysis in the baseline and evaluation phases is spatial configuration analysis (Figure 9). In the space syntax approach, a series of primary analyses – or a baseline analysis – informs the design process from the outset by detecting the problems and potentials that are identified by the analysis of spatial configuration. These strengths and weak-nesses directly reflect the performance of the urban

Figure 7:A segmental angular analysis of the city of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Analysis of the urban grid at the local level (a) picks up locally distinct areas, such as the historic centre and unplanned settlement, but in the city-wide analysis (b) a totally different pattern emerges. The historic core and unplanned settlements are excessively isolated urban areas within a super grid structure that is dominated by the modern traffic routes.


system and enable the design team to see them more clearly. Depending on the nature of urban design projects, further layers of information are linked with the configurational analysis to construct composite models that address more accurately specific issues that cannot be addressed simply by spatial analysis.

The baseline analysis informs the idea genera-tion phase in two ways. First, it enhances the general understanding of the designers about the project and impacts the formation of design ideas. As discussed before, the direct influence of the analysis on idea generation has not been estab-lished and needs further research, but the experience of practising space syntax methodol-ogy in real projects has shown that in some cases analysis could directly lead to generation of some design conjectures (see sections ‘Public space projects’ and ‘City-wide and regional scale pro-jects’). However, transformation of design ideas into design solutions is something that is directly impacted by the baseline analysis, as it involves some degree of testing to shape a solution or

design option. The second and more important role of the baseline analysis at this stage is about enhancing the test part of the conjecture-test cycle sub-process and adding more objectivity to it.

As soon as soon as the design solutions emerge, the configuration models created in the baseline phase are used to evaluate them in terms of their spatial and functional performance. Similar to the baseline phase, it starts with spatial analysis, but can be complemented further with composite models that are developed in the baseline phase. The analytical approach at this stage facilitates the selection of better design options, but it also informs the design development phase, where the next level of solutions and sub-solutions are to be developed. Similar to any urban design process, the idea generation is inevitably informed by wider socio-political and economic issue, as well as the views of stakeholders, which are fed into the process. The cycle of generating and evaluat-ing ideas can be repeated in different stages and at different scales until the most optimum solu-tion is reached.

Figure 8:Composite urban models. The analysis of spatial structure (left) has been combined with commercial density (middle) to create a composite model (right), which is sensitive to both factors.


The design evaluation phase informs the design development stage, in which further analytical models could be used to assess different aspects of the design. Similar to the previous phases, these models are developed on the platform of a spatial configuration model, but they will be linked with other issues as well to respond to specific aspect of the design development phase. Some examples of these models could be found in the following section.

Applications of the Methodology

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, when space syntax research was under development in University College London (UCL), an increasing demand emerged for using this approach in real-life urban design projects. The very early proj-ects undertaken by Space Syntax Laboratory, a research centre at the Bartlett, UCL, demonstrated a great potential for using the methodology in the urban design process (Hillier et al, 1992). The desire to use this approach was shared by various groups. Designers were interested, as they could build their designs on firm grounds and defend their work objectively. Developers and investors were enthused by it as they found it very helpful in improving their planning, creating more value

and demonstrating it more efficiently to others, in particular to local authorities. The public sector was also interested as they could assess objec-tively their projects and provide better feedbacks

to stakeholders and decision makers.3

Space syntax methodology has been used extensively in a wide array of urban design and planning projects, ranging from the scale of small

public spaces to the scale of entire cities.4 The

capability to communicate with a wide range of disciplines and the advantage of using a single methodology to deal with different scales of design have proved particularly valuable in urban design projects, where a multi-scale, multi-dis-ciplinary approach was needed.

There is no room in this article to discuss all these projects in detail, but a selective sample of them is introduced below in three categories of public spaces, urban masterplans and city-wide or regional strategic planning. These cases are used as evidential examples of how the analytical urban design process becomes possible by using space syntax methods.

Public space projects


Figure 9:Configurational approach to analytical urban design: space syntax methodology. In this approach, the foundation of the analytical baseline study and analytical design evaluation is spatial configuration analysis. Further composite models of evaluation could be built on the spatial layer to enhance the responsiveness of the methodology.


projects in the United Kingdom, such as Trafalgar Square in 1998-2000 (House of Lords, Science and Technology Committee, 2006, p. 37) and Millen-nium Bridge in 1997–2000 (Jenkins and Foster, 2008, p. 584) in London, to create an enhanced public realm. In a multi-award-winning scheme for the design of Nottingham Market Square, one of the most outstanding public spaces in medieval English cities, space syntax methods were used to establish the spatial and functional links between the inside of the square and its wider urban context, revealing a major deficiency of the design implemented in the 1950s (Figure 10a). Insensitive spatial segregation of the centre of the

square and the consequent functional sub-divi-sion of the public space were identified as major barriers to the success of the square (Space Syntax Limited, 2004).

Further observational study of people’s move-ment and behaviour confirmed that there was an imbalance in how people moved and used different parts of the square (Figure 10b). People generally hesitated to cross the square diago-nally and certain type of age groups, such as teenagers tended to occupy specific parts of the square. Clearly, the spatial layout of the square and how the square performed functionally or socially were interlinked. The findings from

Figure 10:Nottingham Market square. Spatial configuration analysis (a) and the analysis of people’s behaviour (b) were utilised to generate and develop the urban design. The analysis of intervisibility, using the Visual Graph Analysis method, inspired the main concept of the design and was used to assess design options. The project has been regarded a successful urban project and has won multiple awards in the United Kingdom (see Note 5).


spatial analysis and observational study were also consistent with the social evidence and reputation of the square at that time (Punter, 2009).

The analysis suggested that by creating

diagonal movement channels through the square and using the ‘shadows’ created by movement flows for stationary activities, the new spatial layout could enhance the performance of the square in terms of legibility and pedestrian flows and balance the urban buzz created by movement with stationary activities which happen in close interaction with movement flows (Figure 10c). This conclusion was fed directly into the urban design process where the design team, led by Gustafson Porter Landscape Architects, created a series of design options. This is a good example for the cases in which analysis could help generate design ideas or design conjectures. Arguably, the designers could have reached the same idea intuitively, but in this case analysis played a direct role in formation of the initial design idea.

The analysis was then applied to evaluate design options created by designers, which involved two diagonal movement corridors through the square. The most optimised solution was developed further to become the final design (Figure 10d). In this design, the centre of the square was opened to provide a smoother transition for people who intended to use or cross the square, and the areas that were less likely to be used by pedestrians were designed as places for stationary and leisure activities. In the design development phase of the project, detailed design ideas, such as an inno-vative use of water features and urban furniture, were developed and tested to shape the final design output.

A strong association between spatial configura-tion and patterns of activity is a fundamental base behind the subsequent success of this project (Figure 10). Nottingham Market Square has become a popular transitional space, as well as a destination for urban activities. The project has been praised for its contributions and success by multiple panels and experts after its

implementa-tion (Hillier, 2007).5

Urban masterplanning project

Space Syntax techniques have been intensively used in medium-scale urban design projects, such as urban masterplans, where macro- and micro-scales of urban space are in constant and simul-taneous interplay. A large number of these projects

have been informed by space syntax methodol-ogy, among which the master plans for King’s Cross and St Pancras (Hillier et al., 1988; Hillier et al, 1992), Elephant and Castle in London (http://www.london-se1.co.uk/news/view/843), St Botolph’s Quarter in Colchester (Colchester

City Council, 2005),6 Beijing CBD in China

and the new city of Masdar in Abu Dhabi, are prominent.

The engagement of space syntax methodology in the design of the City of Masdar in Abu-Dhabi is perhaps a good example of how the methodo-logy can be used in the middle of an urban design process, when there are concerns about the design and an analytical study could provide reliable evidence for designers and decision makers to enhance the design and rectify possible flaws. Masdar, which started as an urban design com-petition, has been widely introduced as a sustain-able, zero-carbon development (Heap, 2010a, b; Droege, 2012). In a review of the masterplan in 2009, space syntax methods were used to make an assessment of the masterplan and assist the team with further development of the design. Regard-less of the fact that the design process was well underway at that time, a baseline study based on spatial analysis was carried out. The spatial analysis was then linked with a series of urban layers, such as land use, density and transport network to create a series of composite models to further analyse the masterplan and help assess or modify the design (Figure 11).

The analysis of the initial design proposals revealed some deficiencies in the spatial layout, such as: lack of a strong City Centre or a city spine; unconsolidated wayfinding and pedestrian navigation patterns caused by a staggered urban grid, which reduced the correspondence between the global and local accessibility patterns; isola-tion of the residential neighbourhoods from each other and the city centre; over-integration of linear parks to the extent that they were compet-ing with the urban spine; and a relative mismatch between the spatial structure and distribution of land uses and densities. Following an analytical review of the scheme in 2009, most of the pro-blems identified by the baseline analysis were remedied by restructuring the spatial layout. The methodology was then used to test further a series of options that were created by the design teams, until an optimum design was achieved. During the subsequent design development phase, the same analytical techniques were used to advise the design team on the implementation stages and


phasing of the project. Each phase of implementa-tion was modelled separately, or in the context of the previous phases, to see how the system changes when it grows in different phases. The design team made their final decisions about permanent and temporary features of the project based on the analysis of different phases.

Finally, in the design development phase, more detailed analytical models were produced to look at the performance of the specific phases, public spaces and neighbourhoods. The model used in this phase of analysis was a combination of two methods: The visual graph analysis (VGA), which takes into account the possible visibility of any-where in the system to anyany-where else and shows the intensity of intervisibility in different locations (Figure 6b); and an agent-based model, in which the agents chose their path randomly by mimick-ing human’s field of vision and navigational characteristics through space (Figure 12). This model simulates the aggregate patterns of beha-viour, based on the individual paths (Alasdair Turner et al, 2002). To enhance the output of the model, it was weighted by the ratio of likely volumes of flows at origins and destination (Ferguson et al, 2012). The use of this model took the analysis to a micro-scale, where the impact of issues such as landscape features, urban furniture

and even shading could be accurately measured. The model was then used to fine-tune the final stages of the design development.

Masdar City is an ongoing project and there will be more re-iterations of the design since the economic and social parameters keep changing in its context. The methodology introduced above, however, provides a stable basis that can assist the design and decision-making teams to modify the design without compromising the efficiency of the urban layout.

City-wide and regional scale projects

Space syntax methodology has been used inten-sively in a large number of projects to contribute to city-scale urban design and planning projects, such as the city of Riga in Latvia, the city of Chung Chun in China, and the city of Derry in Northern Ireland. Prominent among these studies is a Spatial Planning Framework prepared for the City of Jeddah in Saudi Arabia (Space Syntax Limited, 2006). The work was undertaken in direct collaboration with the then Mayor of Jeddah, his deputy and head of planning, and the department of planning, to develop spatial strategies for the city. The Strategic Planning

Figure 11:The City of Masdar, Abu Dhabi. A spatial configuration model was used to help optimise the spatial structure of the city. Furthermore, the spatial model was linked with land use distribution (a), residential densities (b), employment centres (c) and transport nodes (d) to create a composite model of urban evaluation, which is sensitive to all these factors. The model is also an accurate Pedestrian Movement Model, which could be used to forecast pedestrian flows.


Framework, and subsequent urban design pro-jects have arguably been influential pieces of work which informed many strategic and detailed projects, such as the recently adopted Jeddah Strategic Plan(Municipality of Jeddah, 2009).

The baseline study was initiated with the development of a segment-angular analysis of the entire city of Jeddah. This model was further linked with the distribution of population density, land uses, vehicular traffic and socio-economic conditions (Figure 8) to create composite urban models. The analysis of the city at the global level revealed major problems of the urban structure, among which were: extreme isolation of the historic core; lack of a proper City Centre; excessive shift of the centre of urban structure to the north of the city; imbalanced urban growth and sprawl; negative impact of the undeveloped mega-scale sites in the heart of the city on their surroundings; and spatial segregation of un-planned settlements, which were rapidly turning into urban slums (Figure 13). These results were compatible with the other studies that had been undertaken before the Strategic Planning

Framework, the views of the city’s expert expressed in stakeholder workshops during the course of the project, or the qualitative observa-tions by the project team.

The analysis of city’s status quo then was compared with the analysis of the city’s Local Plan (Figure 13b). This comparison showed that the proposed Local Plan would only aggravate the above-mentioned problems. The integration core of the city in the Local plan shifts to east, where an intercity motorway appears to take the role of the main urban spine. The historic centre of the city becomes much weaker and the east-west major streets appear as the linear centres of the future city. The segregation of both central and peripheral unplanned settlements, as well as the extensions to the north, south and east, is excessively intensified.

Through a series of analytical investigations, strategic solutions were developed for each of the identified problems. These solutions were tested, their impact was assessed and proposals for optimisation of the spatial system were devel-oped. The individual and aggregate impacts of all 450 People Per Hour

700 People Per Hour 150 People Per Hour

Pedestrian movement

People per hour

400+ 0-25 25-50 50-100 100-200 200-400

Figure 12:One of the implementation phases in the City of Madar. A visibility-based agent simulation of one of implementation phases gives a detailed picture of pedestrian activity. The colours represent levels of pedestrian flow that correspond to certain urban characters generated by people’s presence (images are from other cities to help understand the analysis). Designers can visualise the character of public spaces and evaluate the likely impact of the changes that they make to urban layout.


these urban transformations were measured by the spatial model on local and global scales. The analysis showed major city-wide improvements compared with the existing city as well as with the proposed local plan, adopted previously by the Municipality (Figure 13c).

The project then continued further to develop more specific urban design solution options, or assess the impact of the other masterplans developed for different parts of the city, including a masterplan for the vacant Old Airport Site, a masterplan for the Historic core and waterfront, and a series of regeneration and area action plans for the unplanned areas of the city (Karimi et al, 2007; Karimi and Parham, 2012). In all these projects space syntax methodology was used in the baseline study phase, as well as analytical evaluation phases. In the most recent study of this kind in 2011, a composite model, which takes into account spatial structure, land use, density and road capacity, was used to assess the impact of all masterplans developed for the City Centre of

Jeddah on the definition, boundary, movement flows and vehicular traffic of the City Centre (Figure 14). This is a highly advanced tool that could feedback into the design process for each of these projects, as well as to the main strategic plan of the city.


Contemporary urban design confronts multiple challenges, which are only going to be more complex in future. These challenges and the necessity to reduce the risks of failure demand new methods of urban design, capable of inform-ing the design process by evidence, analysis and rigorous investigation. Without contradicting the traditional, intuition-based approaches to urban design, which are still applicable, this article has argued that urban design as a process can be informed by analytical methods

Figure 13:Space syntax models of the city of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. These models have been used as the base layers to inform the Strategic Planning Framework. The spatial structure of the city as exists now (a), is compared with what it would be like if the old Local Plan is implemented (b), and what it would become if all strategic transformations proposed by the Strategic Planning Framework are implemented (c).


To establish this approach, the article argued that there are certain stages in the urban design process that could be assisted more directly by logical thinking and analytical methods. Whereas generation of ideas and design conjectures are predominantly led by intuition, the evaluation of the ideas and assessment of the design solutions can be effectively led by analytical methods. It was also argued that the application of analytical methods in urban design is most effective if they are based on a theoretical framework that could link directly the spatial aspects of the built environment with people and society.

The article further argued that an analytical approach to urban design based on spatial configuration can provide a powerful vehicle to achieve a more enhanced urban design outcome. The proposed methodology is based on space syntax theory, which treats space as an intrinsic entity to society, shaped through a series of relations and patterns, or spatial configuration. The analysis of spatial configuration provides an efficient method of analysis to explore the functionality and efficiency of urban systems, which becomes an integral part of an analytical urban design process. This process begins with a baseline study that comprises spatial configura-tion models, but it could also be linked to other important issues to create composite models of urban assessment. The analytical model will then be applied to evaluate design options and help transform design ideas further to become

applicable design solutions. This entire process has similar intuitive or non-intuitive inputs and outputs, which are involved in a normal urban design process, but it uses analytical methods at certain stages to effectively inform and enhance the design.

Finally, through a series of real-life examples, the experience of applying these methods and outcome of the process was discussed for differ-ent scales of urban projects, from public space to an entire city. These projects, such as any other real projects, have their limitations and con-straints, but the benefits of the methodology are evident in the initiation, progression and final output of each case.


1 Albeit considered as an analytical approach sometimes, Parametric Design is more about a tool for manipulation and representation of certain parameters.

2 One of the main software for this kind of analysis is open source software called Depthmap, which has been devel-oped by the Space Group at Bartlett, UCL (Turner, 2001). 3 In response to the increasing requests of the professional

sector, a consultancy firm, Space Syntax Limited, was set up by UCL to utilise space syntax methods and modelling techniques in urban design projects (Hillier 2007).

4 The records of Space Syntax Limited show that more than 1500 projects have been undertaken between 1995 and 2012. 5 Among these awards are: First ever RIBA CABE Public Space Award, 2008; The Civic Trust Awards in three categories of Outstanding Contribution to the Public Realm, Figure 14:A composite model that combines space syntax analysis with land use and population density to measure the extent of the existing City Centre as it is now (a) and in future (b). The model also measures the impact of each urban development (spatial layout, land use, density) on the shape of the city centre and issues such as movement and traffic.


Hard Landscaping, and a Special Regeneration Award, 2008; Commendation for Regeneration, RICS East Midland Awards, 2008; Best Public Realm & Open Space Award and Overall Winner, Lord Mayor’s Awards, 2007; Design Excellence Award, East Midlands Property Awards, 2007. 6 The St Botolphs Quarter Master plan Planning guidance

was adopted as Council policy by the LDF Panel on 30 June 2005 (http://www.colchester.gov.uk/article/4100/ St-Botolphs-Quarter-Master-plan).


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