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The Concrete Jungle: Study of Urban Landscapes as Environmental Science

Many universities in North America and in Europe now offer studies of the urban environment BAs/BScs MAs/MScs in such subjects as Urban Studies and Urban Archaeology. The growing importance of our towns and cities means they are now a subject of major academic study - an area that is only expected to grow as we face the issues of a growing population while reducing carbon emissions. Most of the world's population now lives in urban centres and they provide problems and challenges of their own. There are many issues that an Urban Studies Master's student may look at - from concepts of design, social studies in poverty, health and environment, strategic planning and management, or even the history and importance of urban development in order to better provide for our future. As well as looking at individual cities as an environment in itself, studying urban centres as a network can help us understand our social evolution. Graduates in Urban Studies and related subjects go on to work in town planning, GIS and mapping, resource management, non-profit, conservation, building management and infrastructure related roles, as well as sustainability.

When we talk about the environment, we tend to think of our green spaces, waterways (lakes, rivers and seas), forests, mountains, hills and valleys, glaciers, the deep ocean and the natural wonders around us. Yet there is a major component of our environment that many of us take for granted and we cannot get away from them. They have caused and been the cause of massive change to the natural world around us. Some have evolved and some are the result of a planned landscape. We are, of course, talking about our urban centers.

What Do We Mean By an Urban Environment?

When we talk about the urban environment, and especially when talking about it as an environmental science, we mean everything that makes up our towns and cities (6).

  • We mean the buildings - the largest element of the urban environment. They are roughly broken down into four broad areas: Residential, industrial, commercial and civic
  • We mean the people that use the buildings and how the buildings are used by people
  • We mean the street pattern. This has been a source of major study, particularly for the historic environment when looking at the philosophical and functional differences between organic development and planned development
  • We mean the infrastructure: how the town or city works as a “machine”, how the parts function and how they interact with each other and with other towns and cities
  • We mean the public spaces: areas that appear to fill no actual function, but are attractive to look at and improve desirability of the urban environment. Here we means parks and garden, trees and shrubs, open spaces such as town squares and pedestrianized areas
  • We means the transport network: with potentially hundreds of thousands (or even millions) of people in a concentrated area, the transport network such as roads, rail and trams, cycle ways, footpaths etc is a vital link in the chain
  • We mean the utilities: Provisions for sewage, water supply, electricity, telecommunications other forms of power that provide what the urban centre needs to function
  • We mean the wildlife: Often an unintentional consequence of urban development is how wildlife interacts with elements of the urban landscape. Rats, urban foxes and even the pigeons of many European cities are all consequences of the urban environment. Biodiversity loss is also a serious environmental problem under examination (7, p183)

There are other considerations too. Many scholars study the attractiveness of a city from the perspective of its environmental policy, its public lighting and its “roof scape”. Some of these elements provide function, others are more about the attractiveness. At the human end of the spectrum are the planning concepts such as social deprivation and employment, healthcare and infrastructure (such as whether the transport network is optimal). These days with a desire to reduce carbon emissions and promote green spaces, this also includes conservation planning and the air quality. Even more recently, it has expanded to include such modern study methods as spatial analysis (8, p103-104).

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How Do We Study the Urban Environment?

There are several divisions of how we study the urban environment and they broadly cover the following:

  • Urban archaeology: A subsection of archaeology concerned with all manner of urbanism and urban development throughout human history (1). This is broken down into two broad subjects - the form and function of each individual town and its make-up and how it works, and urbanism as a concept and practice of human development. This would include looking at towns as a network, concerning trade and access, urban landscapes for function and statement (landscapes of power and control)
  • Urban Studies: A discipline concerned with most aspects of urbanism except the history of the town (2). It includes economics (including employment, health and social deprivation), planning and logistics, ecology (including how wildlife interacts with the urban environment), society and social science, philosophy and political science. Urban studies is far more concerned with how our urban centers work now whereas Urban Archaeology is more concerned with how they developed
  • Urban morphology: Arguably part of the other two forms of urban study, it concerns how the parts of our towns and cities function as a human habitat (3, p3). Therefore it is far less concerned with the human aspect, slightly less concerned about the historical aspect, it combines elements from human geography, anthropology, landscape archaeology, planning, architectural studies and cartography (4, p71), though in some European countries there is no distinction between modern urban morphology and historical urban development (5, p1).


When looking at how our towns and cities are designed and built we will generally describe them in one of two forms - organic and planned. What do we mean by these?

Organic Development: Some of the oldest towns and cities in the world have grown organically. By this we mean that the settlement has grown piecemeal, often around a major landmark. In English towns such as York, this would have been inside the walls of the old Roman fortress. When Saxons and then Vikings took over the town, the settlement expanded outside of the walls. There is a degree of planning in the city centre, but these followed the streets of the Roman fortress. What started as a planned military camp, first respected these boundaries and then altered and outgrew them (9).

Planned Town Development: Far more of a feature in North America (11, p3), and later in Europe since the end of World War II, are the planned towns. Arguably, their history in Europe goes back a little further to the industrial revolution (10, p109-100) with the need to build lots of new towns, redesign those that were heavily bombed, and to build and redesign quickly for economic development and with efficiency of transportation in mind. With the expected increase of population in the post war ravaged Europe, and with many countries inviting immigrants from the former colonies, a massive plan of housing development took shape.

Both forms of urban development have their critics and their supporters. Proponents of organic development point to the attractiveness of the progression of hundreds or thousands of years, opponents point to its inefficiency and difficulties with development outside of their urban boundaries - including the slowness with which such towns develop, making it unviable in the modern era. Proponents of planned towns point to the careful selection of the site and distribution for maximum usage of the space, opponents refer to planned towns as soulless, lacking in character and offering little in the way of urban studies merely beyond their status as an economic machine (11, p4).

As History

Undoubtedly, our towns and cities are not just about their function and perhaps some researchers lost sight of this. With older towns such as those fortified medieval towns of Europe, it is not quite so easy to forget especially where the older fabric remains extant. City walls speak not just of a need to defend and protect, but a desire to impress and impose; a castle does very much the same thing and in some cases, the castle dominated the skyline of the town. In the early 1980s, Dolores Hayden launched a non-profit organisation to promote and study the power of place in her native Los Angeles. Her book that was years of research (12) was a multidisciplinary approach with research relevant to the fields of gender studies, environment, ethnic studies, urban planning landscape architecture and art history.

Towns and cities are an indication of the changes that go on around us, not just from an economic point of view (town and city building and expansion are clearly indication of economic affluence and an increase in the number of towns is clearly an indication of an aggressive pursuit of trade), but also theoretical and philosophical. These changes are rarely purely about economic change - with any revolution, the new king or leader would put a stamp of authority on the place (16, p32-34). Unlike the natural environment, buildings never change on their own - people change them and this is as much about presentation as it as about function. Urban studies in terms of history and archaeology is one of the largest areas of investigation.


There have been many studies on the economic impact of organic towns, in terms of their internal morphology as well as how they function in an economic network and this is a major source of study across all sub disciplines of urban related subjects. Much of the studies of economics has focused almost entirely on the market economy of the late Renaissance, particularly from the industrial revolution and to the 21st century. Economic historians have argued that the market economy has been important for much longer than this and there are many studies focussing on the economic models of the medieval town - both as an economic model in themselves and as part of a wider network. Contrary to popular belief, despite that many medieval towns are built organically, they were not planned this way and where heavily focused on the economic potential of their placement (13, 019:1-2).

Urban morphology is a discipline arguably the brainchild of a single man: M.R.G. Conzen when he came up with the Town Plan Analysis; the method has now been applied to many British medieval towns (13). It has proven vital in understanding how a town relates to its network - in terms of military and economic strategy of the 12th century and onwards (14) and how it functions as an organic unit. It is thanks to Conzen that we understand a town or cityscape as made up of the three basic parts of street plan, building fabric and building utilisation (15). His core concepts have influenced most major disciplines concerned with urban study.

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The town or city you live in is every bit part of the makeup of your environment as the forests and open pasture, the lakes and rivers, hills and mountains, ice fields and deep oceans. The fact that they are artificial means that many people overlook urban centres as a subject of environmental study - in terms of wildlife, impact on the wider environment and human geography. A large part of the human environment, their construction and maintenance often means that we have made considerable changes to the landscape and that in itself, makes urban centers worthy of study as an environmental science in itself rather than as a subset of human geography.


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