Historico-geographical approach – EPUM Platform

Historico-geographical approach


1.‘Historico-geographical approach’, by Vítor Oliveira

This 2018 film prepared under the framework of the EPUM project offers a ten-minutes introduction to the historico-geographical approach. After defining urban morphology as a field of knowledge and its relevance for different aspects of life in cities, the film provides a brief overview on the disciplinary history of urban morphology since its origins in the end of the nineteenth century, in central Europe, in a number of works on urban geography. It then addresses the historico-geographical approach and some fundamental questions for understanding its prominent role in the debate on the physical form of cities: what are the main theories, concepts and methods of this school of thought grounded on the work of MRG Conzen and JWR Whitehand (?); what common aspects does it share with other approaches – such as the process typological, space syntax and spatial analysis – and what is specific of it (?); how does it deal with the different elements that make up the physical form of cities (?); and, finally, is it only focused on description and explanation or does it also lead to prescription and action?

2.‘Historico-geographical approach to urban morphology’, by Vítor Oliveira

This four-pages’ briefing paper prepared under the framework of the EPUM project – authored by Vítor Oliveira – complements Resource 1 offering a first insight into the historico-geographical approach to urban morphology. The paper offers an overview of MRG Conzen’s research work, particularly on the book ‘Alnwick, Northumberland – a study in town-plan analysis’ published in 1960. The paper highlights two key ideas in the historico-geographical approach: i) the analysis of the urban landscape can be framed by a tripartite division including the town-plan (streets, plots and the block plan of buildings), the building fabric and the land and building utilization; and ii) the process of development of an urban landscape can be structured around some key concepts, namely the fringe belt, the morphological region and the burgage cycle. Each of these concepts is explained in the briefing paper, as well as the following methods: town-plan analysis, morphological regionalization and metrological analysis. Finally, a number of fundamental texts for further reading are identified.

3. ‘An interview with Professor MRG Conzen’, by Terry Slater and JWR Whitehand Film

In 1986, Terry Slater and JWR Whitehand had a conversation with MRG Conzen, in which Conzen made a ‘retrospective trip’ on the most important aspects of his life. During this conversation, Conzen acknowledges some key influences on his work, namely: Herbert Louis’ concept of fringe belt, Walter Geisler’s classification of building types (direct); Albrecht Penck classes and Herbert Fleure (indirect); and his father (who as a sculptor taught MRG ways of seeing forms and shapes, colour and textures). He talks about his childhood and adolescence, and about literature. Regarding his main ideas, ‘Alnwick, Northumberland: a study in town plan analysis’, inaugurated a way of looking at the urban landscape, offering a number of concepts on the process of urban development, such as the burgage cycle, the fringe belt and the morphological region. In order to strengthen urban morphology as a discipline, Conzen points out the need for international and interdisciplinary cooperation on relevant issues, thus creating a universal benchmark for comparative studies (indispensable for future development and further conceptual thinking in this field). He also reminds that for someone to become ‘the ideal researcher’, he/she needs to see both the individual and general.

4. ‘An interview with Professor JWR Whitehand’, by Vítor Oliveira

In 2016, Jeremy Whitehand was interviewed by Vítor Oliveira at the University of Birmingham. The contents of this interview can be divided into three parts: influences, contributions, and a reflection on the past, present and future of urban morphology. In terms of influences, Whitehand identifies the fundamental influence of MRG Conzen, but also of RW Brooker (one schoolteacher, who made the subject geography alive to him) and two tennis partners, doing research on geography. In terms of contributions, the interview addresses: i) Whitehand’ s PhD dissertation on settlement patterns; ii) his research work, proposing and developing morphological theories, concepts and methods (particularly the fringe-belt concept); iii) his professional career as a teacher; iv) his books, namely ‘The urban landscape’ (1981), ‘The changing face of cities’ (1987) and ‘The making of the urban landscape’ (1992); v) the formation of the International Seminar on urban Form (ISUF), as a space of debate for different morphological schools; and, finally, vi) the journal ‘Urban Morphology’. To conclude, similarly to Conzen’ s interview, carried out by himself and Terry Slater, in 1986, Whitehand reflected on the main challenges that urban morphology will be facing in the near future. Whitehand highlighted the need to: i) develop comparative studies (taking into consideration different cultures and bringing together different approaches) and promoting integration, ii) find interrelationships / interconnections between different methods, and iii) develop more courses on urban morphology.

5. ‘British urban morphology: the Conzenian tradition’, by JWR Whitehand

This 2001 paper, published in the journal ‘Urban Morphology’, complements the four resources identified above, offering a concise (seven pages) introduction to the historico-geographical approach, describing its origins, developments and main characteristics. After considering the early influences of the German geographers Otto Schlüter and Walter Geisler in the work of MRG Conzen, the paper addresses some of the concepts that the latter has formulated to describe and explain the process of urban development. These include the burgage cycle, the fringe belt (a concept that was originally proposed by Herbert Louis and later developed by MRG Conzen and, particularly by JWR Whitehand over the last five decades), the morphological frame and the morphological region. In the second part of the paper three strands of examples of current research are presented: the sub-field of micromorphology, where analysis of the spatial relationships between physical changes is carried out at the scale of the individual plot; the relationship between morphological periods and the typological process – one concept proposed by the historico-geographical and another concept formulated by the process typological approach; and, finally, the link between decision taking and urban form, illustrated with the fringe-belt concept and with the way in which numerous separate decisions combine to create regularities on the ground.

6. ‘Urban Morphology Research Group’

Website: https://www.birmingham.ac.uk/research/activity/urban-morphology/index.aspx

The Urban Morphology Research Group (UMRG) web pages are part of the University of Birmingham website. They offer information on the Group’s research, members, events and publications, as well as on the MRG Conzen Collection. There are two major subdivisions of the Group’s research: the first concerns the processes shaping twentieth and twenty-first century urban landscapes; and the second concerns the planning and development of the medieval and early modern town, especially using techniques of town-plan analysis. Further insight on the group’s research is given by the annual research reviews. Biography, research interests and publications of each of the different members is also provided by the website. It also identifies the main events of the group (open to all) including discussion papers, seminars, guest lectures and excursions. Information on publications (of the group as a whole) is given in three sections: the journal Urban Morphology, the Urban Morphology Research Monograph Series and introductory bibliography. A list of sites of interest to urban morphologists is also included. Finally, the UMRG website includes information on the MRG Conzen Collection (held in Birmingham, except for records of a more personal and domestic nature that are held in Chicago) namely a number of details on the collection and a set of maps and photographs.

7. ‘Planning for character: an urban morphological concept in planning practice’, by JWR Whitehand and Susan Whitehand

Website (Interactive Map): http://www.urbanform.org/images/BarntGreen_large_map.html

This interactive map on the ‘Character Areas of Barnt Green’, included in the ISUF website, offers the possibility of further understanding the concept of morphological region, proposed by the historico- geographical approach and used by JWR Whitehand and Susan Whitehand in the preparation of a plan for Barnt Green, a mature suburb near Birmingham. Through the control panel of this map, the user can decide on what to reveal in each part of Barnt Green – the main areas (morphological regions), from Hewell Road to the Peripheral Community Spaces and Utilities (order 1), and the sub-areas (orders 2 to 4). The information offered by the satellite map can be complemented by Google Street View and by the report ‘Planning for Character’ included in the website. Each of these areas (morphological regions) has a degree of unity, though most of them contain within them distinct sub-areas. The character areas have been delimited according to four principal criteria: ground plan (including site), building form, land use and vegetation. These characteristics are readily observable on the ground. The character areas are an important consideration in assessing proposals for change.