Urban Form and Liveability: Towards a Socio-Morphological Perspective

About this issue

Issue number
Volume 48 – Number 3


As inferred by Pacione (1990, p. 21), all ideal city models, from Plato’s early Utopia to its modern counterparts like those of Ebenezer Howard (1902) and Goodman and Goodman (1960), embed an intrinsic search for a liveable human environment and community albeit in different ways. Though the significance of liveability was historically conditioned by the development and transformation of the modern city, the introduction of the concept as an exclusive plan as a part of contemporary planning and design is relatively recent.

Contemporary cities, however, face a series of problems that require particular strategies. These problems, such as the privatization of public space, socio-spatial fragmentation, gigantism by large-scale developments, and the loss of identity in the living environments, highlighted the need for a new urban agenda (Jacobs and Appleyard, 1987, pp. 114–115). Urban contexts such as sprawling peripheries, leftover spaces, lifeless housing estates, and declining city centres have been the sites to be converted into liveable environments by design (Girardet 2004, pp. 163–164). Urban policies supporting renewal projects that destroy the social fabric of cities and planning practices prioritizing vehicular traffic and functional zoning produced numerous instances that require time and appropriate strategies for recovery. The process has frequently ended up with the destruction of the compact (walkable and vibrant) traditional urban fabric serving as a model for liveability (Lennard and Lennard, 1995, pp. 1–3).

Liveability: A Conceptual Framework

As Kashef (2016, p. 240) suggests liveability is an ambiguous term used in various connotations by different disciplinary fields. In its wider use, the term implies socio-economic, environmental, and political conditions that involve: job security; healthcare; educational standards; recreational and entertainment opportunities; clean air, soil, and water; biological domains; civic engagement; and equitable access to local and regional public services (ibid., p. 250). Covering an extensive realm of wellbeing and quality of urban life, the concept has been used to index and rank the world’s cities according to their capacity to provide institutional, physical, and environmental amenities to citizens. Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) metrics provide one of the most comprehensive frameworks to measure urban liveability. The ranking system assesses 140 cities for over 30 qualitative and quantitative factors across five broad categories: stability; healthcare; culture and environment; education; and infrastructure (EIU, 2021, p. 6). 

The term liveability (leefbaarheid) was initially coined by Dutch geographers and sociologists investigating the conditions of rural communities facing rapid urbanization after World War II. The concept was then urbanized by social movements reacting against the urban renewal and revitalization projects enacted in many European and North American cities during the 1960s and 1970s (Kaal, 2011, pp. 534–537). Since the mid-1990s, the notion has gained institutional legitimacy, especially following the United Nations Conference on Human Settlements (Habitat II) held in Istanbul in 1996. The conference manifested communities’ aspirations for liveable human environments as the guiding principle for the future practices of urban design and management (p. 19). Then in 2017 those aspirations were preserved in the ‘New Urban Agenda’ (United Nations, 2017). 

For Girardet (2004) liveability is a critical issue for both developed and developing countries and one that requires adoption of strategic frameworks appropriate to the context (p. 15). Yet, in general, the main policy objectives of liveability include:

  • making places of beauty, diversity, and easy contact;
  • developing vibrant communities and diverse living choices; 
  • integrating a diverse range of economic activities; 
  • enhancing the benefits of climate, natural setting, and architecture;
  • facilitating cycling, pedestrianization, and public transport. (ibid., pp. 165–166)

Following a comprehensive review of the literature of the concept, Higgs et al. (2019) suggest a definition of urban liveability as the quality of:

the communities that are safe, attractive, socially cohesive and inclusive, and environmentally sustainable; with affordable and diverse housing linked by convenient public transport, walking and cycling infrastructure to employment, education, public open space, local shops, health and community services, and leisure and cultural opportunities. (Higgs et al., 2019, pp. 1–2)

As seen in the definition, liveability entails an enormous range of aspects, mostly corresponding to human settlements’ social, economic, environmental, and health-related features. Within such a broad context, apart from the utilitarian view that reduces liveability to primary consideration of public amenities and health (Newman, 1999; Ghasemia et al., 2018; Alderton et al., 2019), there has been a robust humanistic perspective privileging the interaction between city dwellers and the urban environment. For Pacione (1990), liveability cannot be revealed without examining the relationship between the behaviour, perception, and actions of people and space (pp. 1–2). Likewise, for Southworth (2003), liveability has to deal with the experiential and sensory quality of the built environment (p. 344). Van Kamp et al. (2003) also designate the relevance of the liveability issue at the intersection between the environment and community. In contrast, the involvement of economics implies the overarching notion of quality of life (p. 11).

A Praxis of Urban Liveability

The emergence and development of discussions of liveability represent a kind of praxis, the process by which the theory and conception are enacted and settled while being transformed by practice. Since the social theory of cities emerged, the indispensable relationship between society and space has been considered a norm. For Wirth (1945), physical factors of social life are ‘at best, conditioning factors offering the possibilities and setting the limits for social and psychological existence and development’ (p. 487–488). In this regard, early studies of environment and behaviour set an initial framework for further liveability research without an explicit (normative) focus on the issue. Among them, Porteous (1977) suggested a multi-scalar perspective on human-environment through a micro (personal), meso (home-base), and macro (home-range) space hierarchy. Altman and Wohlwill (1976) questioned the extent to which the built environment influenced how people act, feel, and think in space in terms of human perception. Michelson (1970) pioneered the sociological outlook on the relationship between the form of cities and social life regarding the dimensions of lifestyle, stage in lifecycle, social status, and personality. He argued that the cultural values of different socio-economic groups frequently transform the type and the use of urban spaces (p. 194). Porteous (1977), in this regard, discusses the frequent ‘mismatches between human behaviour and the built environment’ in the form of personal anonymity, crowding, lack of privacy, identity, and flexibility in/of urban space (pp. 9–10). Those could be considered the shortcomings of the everyday urban environment calling for an integrative perspective on society and space.

In the planning literature, Wilson (1962) was one of the first studies to use the term liveability, with a particular focus on wellbeing and satisfaction. In his paper, the author specified neighbourhood factors as more important than the city-wide factors in the definition of the relative liveability of the environment (p. 381). That could be considered the early indication of liveability as an issue of community at the local level. 

Although critical of the modern ‘science of city planning and the art of city design’ (p. 14), Jacobs (1961) provided a very operational perspective of the ‘liveliness’ of the cities in the name of convenience, safety, variety, and interest (pp. 153, 210). In the same vein, Alexander et al. (1977) paved the way for developing a critical humanistic perspective of spatial design by creating a multi-scalar vocabulary on the interaction between people and the built environment. Later, Whyte (1980) and Gehl (1971) elaborated on the perspective by suggesting a systematic outlook, focusing on public space for designing spaces for a vital social life. Without utilizing the notion of ‘affordance’, which was initially argued by Gibson (1979, 127–137) regarding the capacity level of the environment to provide for human perception and action, the emerging literature tended to reveal how spatial quality could support lively public life in cities. 

Later, Lennard and Lennard (1995) elaborated on the issue in a comprehensive framework comprising both built and social environments. Looking closely at the lively historic centres of selected European cities, the authors suggest the principles for restoring historic centres, restructuring mass housing, reshaping suburbia, and designing new neighbourhoods in liveable ways (pp. 231–235).

Liveability has become one of the core issues discussed in urban design literature since the early-1980s as it appeared to be a growing concern in the popular literature (Kashef, 2016, p. 243).1 In this context, Appleyard (1981) explicitly used the term in his comprehensive analysis of the American residential streets. He investigated the factors that would turn the streets into a safe, healthy, pleasant community environment. With the rejection of the imposed modern planning standards that seriously damaged the urbanity of the cities, Jacobs and Appleyard (1987) manifested liveability as the primary goal of urban design practice and research. In the same genre, Tibbalds (1992) reinterpreted liveability with the notion of ‘people friendliness’ (p. 27). Accordingly, he called for a return to the essential spatial characteristic of traditional towns and cities consisting of rich, vibrant mixed-use and activity environments. 

New Urbanism has suggested a strong operational track combining the liveable community ideal with urban design (Duany et al., 2000). In the name of ‘repair’ or ‘retrofit’, transforming the modern peripheral (suburban and edge city) developments lacking habitable cohesiveness and identity into compact, walkable, mixed-use precincts has been a prominent planning agenda of the New Urbanist literature (Lukez, 2007; Dunham-Jones and Williamson, 2009; Tachieva, 2010). The design codes and solutions in those studies essentially provide robust morphological know-how for the liveability policies aimed at improving walkability and connectivity in suburban environments.

Urban Form and Liveability

The concept of urban form covers location, shape, geometry, and relationships of/between the spatial elements (i.e. streets and roads, plots and buildings, public spaces, and green areas) within the built environment. It varies in scale from the building block to the urbanized region (Hack, 2012, p. 33). In the literature of urbanism, there are two approaches to defining urban form. The first conceptualizes the form of the city with its microscopic qualities such as type, quantity, density, grain, organization, and pattern of the spatial elements (Lynch and Rodwin, 1958), and their collective composition and assemblage called the fabric or tissue (Caniggia and Maffei, 1979; Kostof, 1991; Habraken, 2000; Panerai et al., 2004). In contrast, the second approach is constructed on a macroscopic framework considering the higher-level pattern and structure of the cities. Such a view tends to see the built fabric as the surface of the housing or employment densities in relation to transport links and nodes (Newton, 2000). The macro perspective is also defined by Lynch (1981) with the concept of ‘city form’. Using the term interchangeably with ‘settlement form’, Lynch (1981) refers to the form of the city as the spatial pattern of the large, inert, permanent physical objects in a city (i.e. buildings, streets, utilities, hills, rivers) (p. 47). That implies the overall form and structure of the city rather than its partial textures called the ‘fabric’. Such a view, essentially, conditions the way the physical form of the city is considered through the indicators of density, size, amount of open space, and compactness that are primarily discussed within the literature on urban planning and geography (Haughton and Hunter, 1994; Banister et al., 1997; Frey, 1999). In that view, metropolitan form is frequently characterized not by the physical fabric but by the population’s size, density, distribution, and centrality over the settlement system (Tsai, 2004, pp. 143–45). The archetypal models of, for instance, the core, star, ring, and polycentric net (Lynch, 1961) do not necessarily inform the internal quality of urban form, which primarily conditions the perceived liveability of the built environment.3 

The relevance of discussing liveability in consideration of urban form is because the physical features of a built environment significantly contribute to the long-term performance of a place (Southworth, 2003, p. 345). It affects the choices of individuals in organizing their lives, delimits or provides opportunities for the societal allocation of resources and amenities; facilitates human movement, therefore, conditions social interaction, learning, and enjoyment (Hack, 2012, pp. 33–35). 

For Bosselmann (2008) liveability is a measurable quality since it focuses on the perception of concrete physical elements (p. 143). Following the early study of Smith et al. (1997) that assessed the life quality of the physical form of the neighbourhoods, there have been few studies which explicitly questioned the measurable relationship between urban form and liveability (Southworth, 2003; Ewing and Clemente, 2013, Topcu and Southworth, 2014; Estévez-Mauriz et al., 2017; Martino et al., 2021). 

Focusing on the socio-spatial dimension of the issue, it is possible to delineate the significant aspects of liveability in relation to urban form. Accordingly, one could delineate sociability, integrity and cohesion, vitality, accessibility, diversity, equity, and safety as the key issues within this framework. These could also be considered the primary indicators for measuring the liveability of urban form.


Sociability, in this context, refers to people’s behaviour patterns and the built environment’s intrinsic capacity to enable social contact and interaction in public space. Physical comfort, safety, convenience, territoriality, and control on the street as the prominent place of social life in the urban fabric, are considered the preconditions for successful public spaces regarding sociability (Mehta, 2013). The Project for Public Spaces, a non-profit organization promoting successful public spaces in the United States since the 1970s, addresses sociability as one of the significant goals of placemaking (Project for Public Spaces, 2000). Following the theoretical track of Gehl (1971) and Whyte (1980) on the affordance of public space for effective sociability, the emerging literature on the issue widens the scope to the alternative typologies of public space that increase the social potential of the city. In this regard, notions such as ‘play in public’ (Stevens, 2007), ‘personalization’ (Mehta and Bosson, 2010), and ‘in-betweenness’ (Simões Aelbrecht, 2016) stand out as the behavioural aspects to be addressed to support social interaction in space. From this point of view, Palaiologou and Vaughan (2014) signified the street network configuration, plot layout, and façade organization as the basic properties of the built form generating street liveability.

Integrity and Cohesion

As a prerequisite of social peace, integrity and cohesion represent the other set of criteria for liveable urban environments. The notions similarly imply the co-presence of different social groups by spatial proximity or through interaction and encounter. In this regard, they represent the counter-condition of segregation preventing cultural tolerance and mutual learning. Having worked with her colleagues (Vaughan et al., 2005) on Charles Booth’s poverty map of London (1889), Vaughan (2007) has been the precursor in relating urban morphology to socio-spatial segregation by configurational analysis showing a consistent correspondence between the pattern of poverty and that of syntactic segregation within the urban fabric. In the same vein, Legeby (2010a, 2010b) elaborated on the issue of segregation by looking at the spatial relations of different neighbourhoods through public space. Raman (2010) revisited the notion of social cohesion concerning the number and strength of social integration regarding the density and layout characteristics of the housing environments. More recently, having re-framed the original conception of Freeman (1978), segregation as a form of ‘restriction on contact’, Netto (2017) analysed the city as ‘a system of encounter’. In that view, the lack of co-presence of the different groups within the spatial network fabric of the city is considered the main factor generating social segregation.


Vitality is a term that is used almost interchangeably with liveability. In Good City Form, Lynch (1981) defined vitality as ‘the degree of support offered by a settlement for the biological and survival requirements of a society’ (p. 118). That suggests a condition for a healthy life with access to natural and urban amenities. In contrast, Montgomery (1998) offered a more sociological interpretation of the term with a clear emphasis on the capacity of urban space to support public life and cultural activities across different times of the day and over the year, respectively (pp. 98–100). We can define social vitality as the capacity of a place to facilitate the exchange of information, knowledge, and services generated by local interaction and contact. Accordingly, vibrancy and conviviality become the essential features generating urban vitality. For Jacobs (1961), vibrant communities benefit from social networks provided by high human interaction. Accordingly, she addressed urban diversity, the property of having urban spaces with different land uses and activities enabling socially and culturally vibrant urban environments. Then, Shaftoe (2008) discussed conviviality as a consequence of effective public spaces and argued that size, shape, and type as the key spatial quality factors in attracting more people to a joyful and socially interactive environment. While vitality frequently refers to the spaces that feel lively to people, viability, more specifically, considers the extent to which they have a capacity for commerce to live in it (DoE, 1994, p. 55 cited in Balsas, 2010, p. 103). Altogether, they indicate the liveability performance of the city centres (Balsas, 2010; Ravenscroft, 2000).


Ensuring the vibrancy and viability of space, accessibility is another key feature of liveable environments. Without characterizing it necessarily as a liveability factor, Hillier et al. (1993) initiated the idea of network configuration as the main generator of the movement patterns that condition the accessibility of the retail and public facilities located in the city. Frequently, the accessibility of a spatial network is discussed in terms of walkability as an indicator of health and wellbeing that is highly conditioned by urban form through, for instance, typological diversity and density of plots and buildings (Davern, 2020). Having addressed wide-ranging strategies for the (trans)formation to a more walkable city, Speck (2018) revisits spatial accessibility as an indicator that supports social equity and community by providing people with more affordable mobility options (i.e. biking and walking) through higher ability to engage in the social and cultural life (pp. 8–11). Further, Bosselmann (2008) argued that the proximity of built forms to the transit stations is a liveability factor of accessibility together with the frequency of entrances to the properties in the block for a walkable environment (pp. 177, 207).


Since it provides the freedom of choice to groups and individuals for alternative lifestyles and affordability (Smith et al., 1997, p. 230), (spatial) diversity is considered another prerequisite of urban liveability. It is discussed either in socio-economic or socio-cultural terms. In this context, Jacobs (1961) addressed a close-grained variety of uses, a dense concentration of population, and the availability of buildings of different ages as four primary conditions to ensure economic (and social) diversity (pp. 143–222). Recently, Yoshimura et al. (2022) revisited Jacobs’s (1961) claim of the importance of diversity by quantifying the indicator as the level of economic activity at the neighbourhood scale and confirmed the positive correlation between the local economic prosperity and functional diversity in urban form. 

Likewise, Sung et al. (2015) and Rosner and Curtin (2015) measured the significant effect of Jacobsian urban diversity on pedestrian activities and retail investments, respectively. Within this framework, Low et al. (2005) stated that the contemporary planning and design policies had already acknowledged cultural diversity in the public realm as an objective besides the comfort and vitality of space (pp. 165). In this sense, the layout of the space with the different living fabrics is a crucial concern for the inclusivity of public space for different social classes and ethnic groups of varying income and educational status (ibid., pp. 203–204). Talen (2008) widened the scope of the issue to generate socially diverse neighbourhoods and suggested supporting the mix of housing typologies, maximizing connectivity, and ensuring security as the urban design strategies (pp. 113–175). More recently, following a spatial analysis, Oliveira (2021) argued a correlation between the network integration, block size, plot density, the so-called (building and plot) frontage coincidence, and social diversity (in education, employment, and income).


Since the publication of The Defensible Space by Newman (1972), the safety of a built environment has been a core issue for liveability. Without disregarding the role of the social structure of communities at the crime level, environmental design literature has discussed the effect of urban form and configuration on the sense of safety in space. Having introduced territoriality as the significant design aspect, Newman’s (1972) socio-physical theory provided a counter argument against the open (permeable) model of environment championed by Jacobs (1961). This approach to safety has been criticized as responsible for the exclusive modern housing environments at the cost of more vital human–environment interactions found traditional urban fabric (Steventon, 1996). In response to the criticism, Hillier and Sahbaz’s (2008) evidence-based research provided a perspective on both (open vs. closed) approaches. They emphasized the presence of dwellings and the patterns of network integration in creating safe and civilized streets. As argued by Leby and Hashim (2010), natural surveillance which is supported by all the approaches, is the fundamental condition of the safety ofurban form. In addition to crime prevention (Oc and Tiesdel, 1999; Wheeler, 2001), traffic reduction and control is another aspect of liveability and vitality and the creation of safe environments (Dumbaugh, 2005). As Appleyard (1981) discussed, traffic is a factor affecting the social behaviour of the people living on the street and the liveability dynamics of the neighbouring community (pp. 20–24).


Finally, equity could be considered the last liveability indicator discussed in the literature. As suggested by Sharma and Lee (2020), rapid economic growth and urbanization have resulted in inadequate technical and social infrastructure along with increased vulnerability of a large portion of the population, the so-called ‘urban poor’. That inevitably brings concerns about social equity and justice onto the agenda of urban liveability. These mainly include social activism for better community features (Herrman and Lewis, 2017, p. 8). Reviewing the emergence and transformation of the conception of liveability through urban social movements in history, Kaal (2011) discussed the notion based on democracy and justice. Then, with Covid-19, the question of density and its obvious effect on the vulnerability of communities to the pandemic turned the issue of spatial form into a liveability issue (Hamidi et al., 2020). Further research related the topic to social justice in the way equitable access to urban services and green infrastructure was as a factor in reducing risk in the epidemic (Maroko et al., 2020; Teller, 2021). This confirms Hankins and Powers’s (2009) early call for a renewed understanding of liveability through repairing social inequality through better access to the basic amenities (i.e. safe streets and public institutions). In their recent ‘Manifesto for The Just City’, Rocco et al. (2021) defined the relevance of spatial form with the indicators of compactness, connectivity, and coherence of the fabric for a just provision of access, safety, and livelihood (p. 85).

There are, however, insufficient studies to obtain an accurate idea of the relationship between urban form and liveability, and there is a need for further research which cross-checks the effects of morphological indicators on specific aspects of liveability. In their study, Martino et al. (2021) addressed the need for a bidirectional outlook when considering the social forces that affect urban form, and for the studies that correlate the physical attributes of cities with socio-economic quality indicators (p. 238).

The Need for a Socio-Morphological Perspective for Liveability

Following its theoretical transformation in history, Paul and Sen (2020) criticize the current conception of liveability dominated by physical (infrastructural) and financial aspects and emphasize the need for the involvement of more socio-cultural dimensions in assessing the cities (p. 91). 

In contrast to the notion of sustainability having a broader and long-term motivation, Gough (2015) and Van Kamp et al. (2003, p. 11) emphasize the local nature of liveability through a narrower spatial scale relevant to the daily life of communities within geographically smaller areas. For Ruth and Franklin (2014), while sustainability refers to a long-term global perspective on social and environmental issues, liveability is about the ‘here and now’. In other words, it is more immediate and tangible through the achievable aspirations of a safe and healthy environment and reliable provision of public amenities (p. 19). On that basis, Gough (2015) asserts that liveability gives priority to local activities and, preferably, assigns context-dependent differential weights to measure the performance of a locality (p. 148). 

The key aspects of liveability discussed above reveal the need for a research agenda which combines sociological and morphological perspectives. In this sense, the point about the temporal and spatial scale of liveability reveals the relevance of urban morphology in that it focuses on the micro relational structure of urban form with a high resolution, mostly from the plot to the fabric. Moreover, Higgs et al. (2019) asserted that the current liveability indices were mainly applied at city-level and failed to reveal the spatial variation within cities. This point should be considered another reason why the liveability issue requires further study via urban morphology that often investigates the partial characteristics of city fabric. 

Since the 1970s, the so-called ‘spatiality of social life’ has come to be seen as one of the core issues of social theory (Sayer, 1985, p. 59; Soja, 1985, p. 90). Nevertheless, it would not be wrong to claim the dominance of the highly abstract notion of ‘space’ within social theory, without giving systemic attention to the form and structure of city fabrics. Therefore, it can be argued that because social interactions occur within the physical settings of the local community (Urry, 1985, p. 40), there is a key role for urban morphology in elaborating on the relationship between the spatial structure and societal formation. The focus within urban morphology on local fabrics (at various scales) should be considered the facilitating factor for such a theoretical linkage. 

According to Marcus (2007), the dominance of the typological discourse in urbanism results in weak ties between design and the socio-spatial characteristics of urban life (p. 9). Such critique would be valid in the context of the descriptive theory of urban form based on the typological perspective that focuses on taxonomies rather than a performative examination of spatial fabric. 

Given the overall tendency to reveal the relationship between the built environment and social life (in terms of liveability) reviewed above, one could claim the emergence of a new track in morphological research focusing on the social performance of urban form and fabric. In this sense, we can revisit the concept of social morphology (morphologie sociale) originally coined by Durkheim (1898) as a sub-field of sociology. While its original use implied the study of the physical (material) form of societies through the spatial (geographic) structure of populations, i.e. its volume, density, and disposition in space (Durkheim, 1898, pp. 520–521 cited in Duncan and Pfautz, 1960, pp. 9–10), within the current context, the so-called socio-morphological perspective connotes to studies of urban form with direct reference to the social and cultural structure of communities, their (re)productive interaction with or in the built environment. In this sense, while the former (original) interpretation takes population as the principal subject of research (Halbwachs, 1946, p. 31–41), the so-called socio-morphological perspective would focus mainly on the spatial form of the environment by acknowledging the critical role of social phenomena (i.e. demography, relationships, behaviours, and culture) over urban morphology. 

This perspective has been discussed by Griffiths and Von Lünen (2016), with a particular emphasis on ‘spatial culture’ at the intersection of the material infrastructure of the cities and everyday social life. The authors call for developing a transdisciplinary field including human geography, history, sociology, and anthropology (ibid., pp. xxi–xxvii). In our context, more specifically, we seek to open a discussion on the possibility of developing an alternative (social) track within urban morphology. As Liebst (2016) discussed, although so-called Durkheimian sociology initially provided a basis for the development of space syntax theory,2 there has been no systematic linkage with sociology to develop a school of social morphology within the field of sociology (p. 224). Then, one could argue the possibility of such an amalgamation with the lead of urban morphology. Yet, in the current context, the new perspective has to embrace the other (i.e. typological, historico-geographical, and morpho-metric) approaches in addition to the configurative methods (i.e. space syntax) within studies of urban form. 

Thus the revised interpretation of social morphology (with a specific focus on liveability) requires a composite methodology coalescing sociological and morphological research. Such a programme, doubtlessly, requires a systematic study to develop a linkage between the established research methods in sociology (Neuman, 1991; Della Porta and Keating, 2008) and those of spatial morphology (Oliveira, 2016; Kropf, 2017). 

For Kashef (2016), considering the need for coordinating socio-economic and physical development for culturally responsive and just environments, ‘urban liveability must consider urban morphology as an “incubator” of social and economic functions’ (p. 252). The basic assumption behind the point is that urban space envelops the day-to-day life experiences of city dwellers and affects the overall societal quality of urban life (ibid., p. 250). Though such a perspective sounds relevant regarding the relationship between cities and people, in general, it disregards society’s active role in the (re)production of physical space and form. The alternative perspective would, essentially, add another dimension to approaching urban form from the point of view of societal dynamics and capacities for liveability, as well. That would also provide a better spatio-temporal insight into urban morphology, focusing more on formation and experience rather than form and perception. 

Despite the emerging interest in the sociological aspects of urban form in relation to liveability, the journal Urban Morphology’s review of literature over the last 25 years reveals the influence of the sociological outlook on the research field. Accordingly, only 10 per cent of the publications are devoted to either social or cultural issues worldwide.4 Such a review makes the claim of the so-called French school of urban morphology, which is associated with a robust sociological perspective (Moudon, 1997; 1998: 145), questionable. Developing an international and multi-disciplinary research convention bringing the sociological question back into urban morphology more strongly in this regard should be set as a new mission statement within the emerging agenda of the ‘need for change in the study of urban form’ (Larkham, 2022).

This Issue

From this perspective, this issue of Built Environment discusses the aspects of liveability with a specific focus on urban form. In doing so, it aims to explore the possible ways to inject a sociological perspective into urban morphology. To that end, the seven papers in the issue cover different dimensions of urban form and liveability. 

First, Vinicius M. Netto (2022) considers vitality in relation to the economic viability of an urban fabric. He investigates the intrinsic relationship between the architectural form and pedestrian behaviour, which, in turn, affects the diversity of local retail and services in a fabric. Developing an archetypical perspective by reducing the building typology into two categories (i.e., detached versus continuous type), the author correlates the building configuration and the architectural features at the block level with the social and economic variables in the case of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He addresses the superior capacity of compact city blocks over the detached building fabrics along with the supporting micro-spatial features that support the micro-economic diversity at the street level. The study’s findings suggest considerable significance, especially in the rapidly developing and transforming countries such as China, Brazil, and Turkey, where the real-estate sector relies heavily on high-rise tower-block residential typologies and their variations. Typological design guidance still has a critical role in generating resilient settlements with a strong local economic performance. 

In the following paper, Abeer Elshater et al. (2022) visit vitality from another perspective of conviviality: the liveliness of an environment enabling individuals to interact and satisfy their needs comfortably. The paper problematizes the deep-down effects of the urban infill projects on an existing neighbourhood’s conviviality. Learning from the relative successes of the project(s) via spatial and ethnographic research conducted in Cairo, Egypt, the authors emphasize the criticality of integrating the public space that includes services and facilities promoting convivial liveability within the revitalized urban fabric. The research also indicates the significance of the proximity civic/commercial places and the surrounding residential fabric in achieving the desired socio-economic impact of the infill projects. 

Next, Şevik and Çalışkan (2022) explore the relationship between social encounters and spatial form in terms of integrity and cohesion for liveability. Following a review of the social and spatial theories of coexistence and urban threshold, we discuss the issue in the case of Bursa, Turkey, an exemplar context of social segregation within an open fabric. Based on the theoretical construction developed, the paper suggests a holistic (multi-scalar) perspective on the concept of encounter as a critical condition of cohesion within a social fabric. In addition to the (macro) configurational analysis, we provide an index involving the micro-morphological features and settings for possible urban thresholds, the so-called ‘micro-publics’. The morphological analysis and explorative research, thus, tend to reveal the multi-layered characteristics of the issue that would inform responsive design strategies for liveability. 

Gerhard Bruyns et al. (2022) then investigate the impact of the compact morphology of the commercial fabric of Hong Kong on the socio-behavioural patterns of people in public space. The authors discuss the sociability dimension regarding the privatization and interiorization of the public realm through the specific typology of podium development. Introducing ‘volumetric urban compaction’ (VUC), the paper exposes the social externalities of hyper-density urbanism in East Asian cities. With a snapshot analysis parallel to the 3D-visual representation of the complex spatial pattern, the authors demonstrate the stratification and distancing within the public interior and withdrawal of social programmes from the urban area outside the commercial complexes. The paper implicitly questions the supposition of density in support of sociable urban life and liveability. 

In this respect, the paper by Anna Kovács-Györi et al. (2022) contributes to the issue (of urban density) from another perspective and in a different context. Running a GIS-based analysis, the authors discuss the subtle relationship between access to greenery and walkability and densification processes. With the metric indicators of connectivity, greenery, and urban form complexity, the paper suggests an accessibility assessment of urban density in the case of Salzburg, Austria. In this context, the authors emphasize the implications of densification (i.e. the possible loss of amenity spaces, increased pollution, and traffic) that would harm the liveability conditions in cities.

In the next paper, Yun Han et al. (2022) provide a complementary perspective on accessibility with a different conceptual and methodological framework. The authors elaborate on the issue of urban liveability with the conception of ‘living convenience’: the number and diversity of facilities within a 15-minute distance. For this purpose, they introduce a comparative city-wide analysis in the case of Beijing and Shanghai, China. They incorporate demographic and socio-economic structure (population density and housing prices) and some selected morphological metrics (i.e. network integration, FAR, block size, building density, and height) to map their correlation with living convenience. In this way, an objective assessment of liveability as a decision support system for planners could be achieved. 

To Herrman and Lewis (2017), social justice and equity are the most neglected categories in the current literature on urban liveability (p. 10). Elaboration of the issue concerning urban form is less well covered in contemporary literature than the other aspects mentioned above. In this context, discussing the role of urban social movements, the paper by A. Burak Büyükcivelek et al. (2022) supports the development of that specific literature from a dual (socio-political and morphological) perspective. In the article, the authors consider urban social movements as the communities’ claim for liveable environments, then investigate the areas of movements regarding their scalar and locational character with respect to living fabrics. The spatial analysis of İstanbul, Turkey, shows that uncontrolled capital investments in urban land are the prominent factors challenging the perceived liveability of rapidly developing and transforming cities. That implies the need to assess any urban project regarding its possible consequences for the living fabrics and the settled social life embedded within them. 

Considered together, the papers provide a wide coverage of the issue based on five (out of seven) dimensions of urban liveability that we identified above. Indeed, each paper could be considered an exemplar to elaborate on the issue within a given thematic orientation. Such multiplicity in discussing urban liveability could provide a robust conceptual framework on which in which to apply alternative methodologies in different contexts. 

As Kashef (2016) discussed, measuring urban liveability in an international context is difficult with the absence of cross-cultural research on quality of life (p. 249). In this sense, including eight cities from five countries, this issue offers a prolific basis for further studies revisiting the liveability factors within different cultural contexts. ‘Prolific’, in this regard, implies a more objective and integrated outlook (Han et al., 2022) that could be employed in various socio-cultural environments while, at the same time, being open to political re-interpretation (Büyükcivelek et al., 2022) in particular socio-economic contexts. 

All the papers focus on the performance of the morphological setting rather than solely discussing the form itself. In this sense, we could argue that the notion of liveability calls for urban morphology to develop a better understanding of urban form on a performative basis. Due to the nature of urban liveability, such a perspective has to be constructed with the conceptual and methodological support of the social theory. The issue, in this sense, is less a claim of a fully accomplished attempt to that end than the indication of a long-term research agenda.


  1. Acting as a platform that gathers decision-makers, design and planning practitioners and academics, in this regard, the conference series, International Making Cities Livable (IMCL) has been the most influential and long-lasting campaign on the issue of urban liveability since the first meeting held in 1985 in the United States. See: https://www.livable-cities.org/about-us.
  2. As the root of such theoretical outlook from a historical perspective, see Blumenfeld, 1949. 
  3. For an explicit argumentation, see: Hillier, 1989, p. 6.
  4. According to the literature review, the overall thematic distribution of the 172 papers involved in the journal Urban Morphology is as follows: 60 physical/spatial; 28 academic (i.e. schools and traditions); 24 practical (i.e. design, planning and management); 16 epistemological/methodological; 12 cultural (i.e. building and utility codes of conducts); 9 political/ideological (i.e. production and control regimes);7 functional (i.e. use, utility and performance of form); 6 legal/administrative (i.e. land systems, control and property); 5 social (i.e. publicness, place experience, typological processes); 3 ecological (i.e. landscape ecology); 2 economic.


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We would like to thank all the contributors to the issue, the reviewers who provided critical insight that improved the overall quality of the papers, and Stephen Marshall, who guided us with the other journal editors to frame the issue at the very beginning of the editorial process.