Urban morphology is defined as the study of the form and shape of settlements. To mention a few, urban form refers to the primary physical features that structure and define the city, such as roadways, squares (public spaces), street blocks, plots, and buildings. The term “morphology” was coined by Goethe, a German writer and thinker who dedicated a portion of his work to biology. Goethe utilized the term “morphology” to define the study concerned with the essence of forms. Although it was suggested as a part of biology, the generic and abstract character of morphology facilitated its use in many different domains, and it began to be utilized in the study of cities around the end of the 19th century in central Europe.

It is vital to highlight that the figure-ground diagram is a simple yet effective tool for studying and analyzing the city’s overall morphology. Such diagrams are considered a mapping technique used to depict and illustrate the relationship between unbuilt and built spaces in cities. Buildings covering Land are typically visualized as solid mass (figure), whereas public areas such as streets, parks, and plazas are portrayed as voids (ground). One of the most well-known examples of a figure-ground map is Giambattista Nolli’s 1748 “Pianta Grande di Roma”. “Nolli’s map of the mid-eighteenth century reveals the sensitive and complex connections between public and private space in Rome. Private buildings are shown in gray crosshatching that is carved into by the public spaces, exterior, and interior. These spaces, open or roofed are shown in minute detail through darker poché. Interiors of churches read like piazzas and courtyards of palaces, yet a variety of qualities and scales is articulated,” says Robert Venturi, an architect and founding principal of the firm Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates. 

An overview of Urban Morphology-Sheet1
Nuova pianta di Roma Data in luce da Giambattista Nolli l’anno MDCCXLVII, known as La Pianta Grande di Roma_© The Cleveland Museum of Arts

That said, how can urban designers use urban morphology to plan or build an area?

Urban Morphology and Urban Design 

The discipline of urban morphology investigates the physical structure of cities, including the arrangement of buildings and open spaces, as well as the activities that influence them. Urban design and urban morphology are two closely related fields concerned with the physical form of cities, with urban morphology providing the analytical framework for urban design and urban design engaging urban morphology when the questions of where and why are paramount – that is, where and why a building needs to be designed, or a landscape needs to be enhanced.

An overview of Urban Morphology-Sheet2
Figure-ground Diagrams_© Geoff Boeing

Understanding morphology allows urban designers to be aware of local growth and change trends. Morphologists were able to investigate evolution and change in traditional urban areas. Moreover, it attempts to understand a city’s spatial structure and character by evaluating the patterns of its component elements, as well as ownership, control, and occupation. Physical form analysis often focuses on a variety of factors, including building patterns, as well as blocks and street layouts. Beyond physical characteristics, urban morphology studies how social forms are manifested in city layouts and how physical form impacts social structures. In other words, urban morphology assists in looking at the city as a whole and understanding how all of its systems function together.

Urban Morphology and Urban Design Principles  

Urban design principles, which are a set of guidelines, can assist in the creation of a more unified and functioning urban morphology by giving a framework for the design of various components such as buildings and public spaces, based on community requirements. One example of an urban design principle that works closely with urban morphology and mass layout is the “Return to Squares and Courtyards: Good Enclosures” principle, which necessitates maximum space containment, that pushes to aim for better mass layout and arrangement to satisfy societal demands. Furthermore, given that there is a strong link between the built form and the “Enhancing Walkability” principle, urban morphology addressed the issue by taking density, mass pattern, and mass connectedness into account.

An overview of Urban Morphology-Sheet3
“Return to Squares and Courtyards”, The South Courtyard, Connecting Riads Residential Complex _© AQSO Arquitectos


  1. Carmona, T. Heath, T. Oc and S. Tiesdell (2003). Public Places Urban Spaces. Gillingham.

The figure-ground diagram (2019) MORPHOCODE. Available at: https://morphocode.com/figure-ground-diagram/ (Accessed: 18 February 2024).

  1. Oliveira (2020). Urban Morphology. 

Dima is an architect who is currently pursuing a master's degree in urban planning at the American University of Sharjah while working as a graduate teaching assistant. Her undergraduate thesis project, "Rethinking the City and Nature," was exhibited in the MENA Grad Show 2021, and featured on FastCompany and CNN.