Measuring City Form, Advanced Seminar / MIT

Seminar description

The Advanced Seminar in City Form invites a group of 8-12 students every Friday to research and discuss themes about the form of cities in an attempt to relate formal theory and design knowledge. Previous seminars have focused on "Memory and Form", "Forms of Interactivity", "The Form of Urban Grids", and other topics. This seminar examines the topic of "Measuring City Form".

Measurement of the urban built environment is of interest to multiple fields of study, including architecture, urban design, planning, transportation research, geography, and psychology among others. There is little consensus, however, on which descriptive methods capture the most meaningful qualities of city form. Some authors have described the study of city form as a blind man‘s investigation of an elephant, different parts of which are studied by different blind professionals, with no coherent understanding of the whole available across disciplines (Song, Knaap et al. 2005). Even within the field of urban design views on whether and how to describe city form diverge.

This seminar will investigate a number of qualitative and quantitative techniques that have been developed to measure and assess the performance of city form as a host to the activities of its users. A brief history of the geometric analysis of settlement patterns is followed by a series of seminars on different urban form measurement techniques. These techniques include graph theory-type measures, morphological measures, aggregate measures, and qualitative measures of urban form. Students are invited to investigate and discuss the advantages and shortcomings of each type of measure, with three students presenting a reading each week.

A number of hands-on assignments, case studies, and design tasks will challenge seminar participants to test the application of different measures on real-world urban settings. A successful completion of the course requires reading course materials, an active presence and participation in seminar discussions, presentation of reading materials, and the completion of all five assignments. Participants can sign up for either 9 or 12 graduate (H) credits, depending on the level of effort. Students signed up for 12 credits are asked to write a final paper on a chosen topic addressing the course material at the end of the semester.


Knaap, G.-J., Y. Song, et al. (2005). Seeing the Elephant: Multi-disciplinary Measures of Urban Sprawl, National Center for Smart Growth Research and Education.

Download Syllabus