Metropolitan spatial anatomies – decoding the morphological structure of the city-region

Miguel SERRA *1

*1 The Bartlett School of Architecture


The rise of the city-regional scale has brought with it the recognition of the inadequacy of urban morphology’s traditional analytical methods to cope with the territorial extent of contemporary metropolitan phenomena. Indeed, those methods were devised for the study of small, contained and well-defined urban formations – typically, historical towns which had changed little since pre-industrial times – and not of entire city-regional urban systems. Despite some brave attempts to apply such methods to wider territorial scales, this general state of affairs resulted in an increasing perplexity regarding contemporary metropolitan form, and therefore in a lack of substantive knowledge on its physical and spatial characteristics.

We propose that the analysis of urban spatial networks – a different field of urban morphological enquiry, of which space syntax is the leading manifestation – is capable of providing a way out of this deadlock. Using Oporto’s Metropolitan Area as testbed, we show how urban spatial network analysis, coupled with unsupervised classification methods, makes possible the study, discovery and summarization of a metropolitan region’s fundamental morphological structure – its particular ‘anatomy’, as it were – easily dealing with its entire territorial extent, while providing precise descriptions at all spatial scales (from the very local to the regional levels). Such anatomy is then summarized as a taxonomic classification of metropolitan ‘places’ and ‘paths’, derived only from the actual physical properties of the urban object itself. We conclude by arguing that this new type of morphological description may constitute the basis of a novel, form-led approach for metropolitan spatial planning.