The commonest of all urban forms in the world is the city. The city has been in documented existence since the times of the Harappan Civilization, and it has developed over the course of history to suit the necessities of the reigning powers, the public, and the geographical conditions. Over the years, each city has come to house within itself, in varied scales, the functions of,

  1. residential structures for the citizens,
  2. marketplaces and other commercial activity spaces, including units of production,
  3. recreational activity areas, and
  4. the seat of power, actual or metaphorical.

Spaces, where these functions take place within a city, tend to adapt themselves into an identity of their own. Cities usually get their forms from an amalgamation of these several smaller units, clustering, or localities. Along with the major function they may or may not cater to, these areas develop due to the influence of several factors, some of them being:

  • Religion
  • Occupation
  • Language
  • Environmental preferences
  • Places of origin of people
  • Culture – customs & values
  • Class
  • Family size & lifestyle
  • Geography
  • Demographics
  • Historical Events
How to study a city and its elements? - Sheet1
Variety in urban morphologies_©Martin Fleischmann

Let us take a detailed look at how each of these factors can become a lens for us to view and study cities with.

Geography and Environmental Preferences

The physical positioning of any city is a significant factor in determining the urban fabric and morphology of that city. The geographical elements that are a part of the city, or act as boundaries for the city, are what the city is usually identified by. These elements can vary vastly in terms of area or size, and this size is usually directly proportional to the influence held by that particular relief feature on the urban settlement that develops around it. Two of the most influential geographical relief features are,

  1. Forms of natural land modulations like mountains & hills, and
  2. Water bodies, examples of which can be rivers, lakes, and seas.

Closely related to the geographical layout of the city is the factor of environmental preferences. This is usually based on personal inclinations and physical space needs. Individuals may prefer living, working, or traveling for leisure to a space with a particular environmental condition, like a river-side or on top of a hill. This geography-based environment selection leads to the creation of cities on the basis of bias toward physical space.

How to study a city and its elements? - Sheet2
A city placed in the valley of a mountainous range_©Forbes

Culture, Religion, and Language

In a secular country such as ours, people from different religious backgrounds come together amicably to settle within single large urban forms. Most cities in India see this variety in population in terms of religion, and the functioning of the city is neither hindered nor accelerated due to this trend. There is a tendency, however, of religiously like-minded people to settle in close proximity to each other. Religion-based settlement occurs out of the need for familiarity. Some other factors that may come into play are social communication and, in some cases, proximity to places of worship.

Languages known to a person can be few and far between, but every individual tends to gravitate toward their mother tongue. Closely related to religion, language-based modification of the urban morphology occurs similarly. Familiarity in terms of communication patterns and the ease of sharing information are usually the reasons that language-based settlements occur.

Another factor that stems from the larger umbrella of religion but is not directly related to it is culture. A combination of customs and values, culture talks about the social counterpart of the activities that are carried out in a locality. The cultural identity of a city may begin as an influence of religion, but it develops into a space-based language of conducting oneself socially. Every locality identifies its own customs, traditions, and values.

The study of religion, language, and culture as influencers of a city’s development can easily open up the timeline of events that have led to the establishment, growth, and settlement of this large urban space. Going hand in hand, these factors have been the primary reasons for settlement since the Vedic Ages.

How to study a city and its elements? - Sheet3
The Vatican – an example of religion-based settlement_©Getty

Occupation, Lifestyle, and Class

If religious familiarity is necessary for social communication within a city, occupational familiarity stands to be gained at the other end of the spectrum – by professional commonality. In a society where people coexist with each other on the basis of overlapping interests, occupation comes in to play a strong part. Popularized by the Industrial Revolution in Europe and the USA, urban settlement according to occupation has seen implementations in India. As history suggests, this form of settlement begins around industries, with industry workers. 

In some places, companies allot quarters to their workers, clustering them in one locality, usually near the industry. Sometimes, the clustering may occur due to mutual decisions and proximity from the workplace. On the other end of the professional range, professionals like doctors, lawyers, architects, and so on sometimes tend to find residences next to each other. This helps them seek familiarity in their daily routines, social commitments, and non-professional communications within their city. A similar congregation is seen in the housing typologies, services layout, and other urban factors, leading to an overall tight-knit area. The workplaces of these professionals need not necessarily fall in the same locality.

Class, a socio-economic factor that heavily influences the identity of a formed city, is a factor that influences the creation as well. When we talk about class, we talk about the sense of status a person holds themselves up to, stemming from their financial, economic, and societal stability & influence. Cities that are considered to be of a higher ‘class’ tend to have higher real estate rates, influential retail spaces, and commercial development with a taller morphology, along with other beneficial urban infrastructures, such as wider roads and greener avenues. On the opposite end of the spectrum, places that are considered ‘low-class’, for example, slum developments and government-built low-income-group housing societies, tend to be lacking in basic services like drainage, electricity, and built roads, and are usually lower and more clustered in terms of urban morphology. 

A number of factors lead to the creation of the ‘class’ symbol of a city. Primarily, the residents and users of the locality, who have risen to financial stability and status, mold its identity. Another possibility is when a builder group or a combination of builder groups identifies a locality to be developed only as a high-society space, for example, Navi Mumbai. This leads to an unnatural rise in real estate prices, the influx of upper-middle classes families into the locality, and the eventual identification of such an area as a class and status symbol.

Navi Mumbai in its glory_©Aswini Kumar

Slightly branching from the factor of class, the factor of lifestyle stands as the influencer of the creation of residential localities – focusing mainly on the availability of utilities, commercial spaces, services, and a developed urban form. Families tend to look for spaces of living closer to other families that share a similar structure & size as theirs, come from a financial background comparable to theirs and have a lifestyle & daily routine matching theirs. This clustering of families with similar lifestyles and family sizes creates lifestyle-based segregation, leading to the eventual development of cities and localities within them.


A city is never built on a singular cause – there are always several factors that go into its growth and development. Geography & Environment, Economy, and Religion & Culture – these three broader prongs pull and push at the city constantly, leading to its constant transformation. Considering the study of each of these factors, and using these factors as different lenses, can help us identify what built a city – and how each of the factors has either helped accelerate or stagnated its advancement.


  1. ‘Cities within a City’, Nupur Pabari, 2022
  2. Human Aspects of Urban Form, Amos Rapoport, 1977
  3. Image of the City, Kevin Lynch, 1960
  4. Right to the City, Henri Lefebre, 1968 – Chapters 2–17 from Writings on Cities, Selected, translated and introduced by Eleonore Kofman and Elizabeth Lebas (https://

A young architect turned to the world of writing through poetry, Nupur looks to bring together science and creativity at its core – through architecture. She believes that the built environment is the primary influencer of every person’s life, and the un-built, in-between spaces are where humankind grows as a species.