Skip to main content

Urban transformations: a history of design ideas


“One superordinate question facing planners today is integration versus segregation”

This paper explores some configurational ideas that were first put together during the late 1970s, whilst ‘space syntax’ was still in gestation. They are part of a larger project to use space syntax analysis to retrieve a structured history of design ideas. Through the study of samples of real cases, the ability of space syntax to extract common ‘genotypical’ themes or ‘design paradigms’ from the built record will be used to show the shift in design paradigms over time. The ultimate goal will be to link these paradigm shifts into an account of changing social ideas.

The case study that will be presented in detail will examine the morphological changes that have taken place in the design of housing in a small Inner London neighbourhood, Somers Town, over a timespan of about a hundred years. In essence, the change is from ‘streets’, which seem rather similar to one another, to housing ‘estates’, which seem very different from one another. Yet although the various housing schemes that have been studied in detail look very heterogeneous, it is possible to detect a consistent line of development in their spatial layouts that is so strong and generic as to be genotypical. It will be argued that the origins of this genotype can be traced back to assumptions about social class, gender and ethnicity that took many years to develop and which have now been obscured by more recent debates.

Architecture has moved on and now, in the UK at least, we try design things that are very different from the estate layouts of Somers Town. The paper will try to explain ‘how’ and ‘why’, by unfolding the story that lies behind the design ideas and by bringing it up to date. The argument will be consolidated in two ways; by providing a more complete and quantitative syntactic analysis of the 1970s examples, and by showing how the changes in the way we think about housing in the 1990s have had an impact on contemporary housing in Somers Town, and in what has become the paradigm for the latest generation of design ideas, Hulme in Manchester. Finally, it will be argued that it is essential for architects and urban designers to understand how social ideas about inequalities in power and control get built into our frameworks and assumptions, and why, in the final analysis, architecture cannot be divorced from politics.

The answer to Robert Sommer's question “one superordinate question facing planners today is integration versus segregation” used to be thoroughgoing and uncompromising ‘segregation’; now it is ‘integration’. Today, permeability, integration and constitutedness are like ‘motherhood and apple pie’. As design principles, it is assumed that they can ‘do no wrong’. This ought to be a good thing for ‘space syntax’ since it was syntax that first drew attention to the importance of these properties in the first place. However, even if we grant that today's political agenda has indeed changed for the better, unless designers and critics understand that all of these properties, even when applied at the neighbourhood scale, are global not local, there is a danger that, with the test of time, some of today's radical, new designs might be judged to have ‘got it wrong’ once again, and that would be a disaster not only for the people who have to live there but also for architectural theory.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Julienne Hanson.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Hanson, J. Urban transformations: a history of design ideas. Urban Des Int 5, 97–122 (2000).

Download citation

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: