Currently the Group’s research includes studies of changes to suburban environments, methods of development control, techniques for evaluating satisfaction with the built environment, the influence of individual residents and property ownership on the urban landscape, medieval urban landscapes, urban fringe belts and theories of residential development and change.

The Group plays a major role in co-ordinating international research, in conjunction with The International Seminar on Urban Form (ISUF). Sponsors of the Group's research include the NERC, the ESRC, the Leverhulme Trust, the British Academy and the Sasakawa Foundation.

Research Review of 2019

The Group’s work has continued to have an international emphasis. Most research was undertaken in Europe, Eastern Asia and Australasia, much of it entailing collaboration with members of the Group based overseas. Prominent topics of investigation were fringe belts, morphological regions, building types, the typological process, morphological periods, and the role of agents and agency in the urban landscape. The application of urban morphological research in planning practice included urban landscape management, heritage conservation, and the detailed design of residential areas. Contributions were made by several members of the Group to a book on the historico-geographical approach to urban morphology which drew on experience gained over many years.

Research and practice

Research on urban landscape units, urban design and conservation provided a basis for applications in planning practice. Drawing on previous reports prepared for Historic England and CABE on the use of characterization studies in planning, further work was undertaken on ‘character areas’ in both the UK and China. Work on the development of the Zhishanmen area in Beijing has drawn on Conzenian analysis previously undertaken by the Group in that area. It is part of the growth in the application of this approach in the conservation planning of historico-cultural areas in China. Related studies are being undertaken in Shenzhen in southern China. Continuing work on the Post-Socialist Urban Form project, sponsored by ISUF and Belgrade and Kraków universities, has provided the basis for conference presentations and publications. Research is progressing on green belt urban growth patterns, past, present and future. Draft conservation area management plans for parts of Birmingham have been completed and are now being written up as examples of how to increase public participation and the use of concepts of urban morphology in the conservation planning process. Work is in progress on the gap, and possible bridging of the gap, between local-government decision-making in the UK and the Conzenian approach. A session was organized at the Association of American Geographers Conference at which findings of the ESRC-funded project on planning education in South Africa were presented. 

Practical applications and comparative research

The application of Conzenian methods in Eastern Asia was aided by further visits to Birmingham by researchers from China. The filip provided by the translation into Chinese of M. R. G. Conzen’s classic study of Alnwick has further underpinned Sino-British comparisons. Conzenian thinking, which has maintained a most important place in the Group’s work, has until recent years been developed primarily on a European basis, whereas the urban landscapes of China have been formed, and generally investigated, in the context of very different social and cultural settings. Bringing together the two perspectives has continued to be a key endeavour and one in which visiting Chinese researchers have played an important part. This work is adding significantly to the growing collaboration of the Group with the World Heritage Research Centre in Peking University. Links also continued with kindred groups in South China University of Technology, Nanjing University, Xi’an University of Architecture and Technology and the University of Porto. In the latter case, comparative studies of different approaches to urban morphology have proved especially rewarding. In addition there has been a continuing commitment to the development of computational tools for application in urban planning and the compilation of an international repository of urban tissue as a resource for research, teaching and practice. Various extended visits by academics and research students from overseas have been hosted in Birmingham.

Fringe belts

Further research was undertaken on fringe belts in the UK, China, New Zealand and Turkey. This involved collaborations with Peking University, Nanjing University, South China University of Technology, the University of Auckland, the University of Chicago, and the Centre for Mediterranean Urban Studies in Mersin University. Research was published that was begun 3 years ago on the fringe belt related to the medieval wall of Visby, Gotland with invaluable assistance from the World Heritage Manager, Hanseatic Town of Visby and the staff of the Gotland Museum. Two papers on the relationship between urban morphology and ecosystem services were published in the international journal Urban Morphology, one stemming from a recently completed PhD thesis on the historico-geographical study of fringe belts and urban green spaces in south-west Birmingham. It is encouraging that past consultancies, including for UNESCO, have provided opportunities for fundamental research. Work in Nanjing has underlined the implications of the changing spatial structure of fringe-belt landscapes for the management of urban forms in ways sensitive to historico-geographical development.

Historical urban morphology

The publication of a book on the historico-geographical approach to urban morphology, which encompassed a wide geographical span, gave rise to presentations by several members of the Group at the Twenty-Sixth International Seminar on Urban Form in July. This brought together researchers worldwide, many of whom had maintained links with the Group over long periods. Participation has continued in the production of the international European historic towns atlas series. An increasing emphasis is on the use of digital media, for example in the Irish Historic Towns Atlases, where the most recent fascicle to be published, for Drogheda, is the first to have atlas mapping created using GIS. Another innovation has been the employment of a typomorphological approach in a study of the towers built in India for the Great Trigonometrical Survey: analysis of the fjorm of surviving towers in West Bengal by field survey revealed for the first time how surveyors, including George Everest, influenced the development of their architectural design during the nineteenth century. In geographical and historical contrast, a book has been published that explores reconstruction projects in Birmingham and Coventry after the Second World War. Historical cross-cultural connections have continued in a Sino-British comparison that is being made of suburban historical areas with emphasis on green spaces and having particular reference to parts of Birmingham, UK and Zhengzhou, China.


For further information please contact Jeremy Whitehand.