Talking sustainable cities

Form and function and can we do it ecologically?

Our living room is arranged such that the television is the focal point of the room. When you sit down on the couch or the armchair, you can conveniently rest your snack on the coffee table and reach the remote control. Form informs function, which means that from a design and planning perspective, the desired functioning of a city – or living room -- should be elaborated before infrastructure design – or furniture arranging – occurs. But a tension can occur when there’s a lack of adaptability in the form of a physical space. Maybe I don’t want to watch television every time I sit in the living room. Maybe I don’t want to get into the car to drive everywhere I need to go in the city. But there are times when these actions are the default mode of the physical space, and we can find ourselves trapped into a functioning defined by the form instead of functioning in a way that enabled by the form.

Oswald and Baccini describe a city’s form as the combination of its morphological and physiological characteristics (Oswald and Baccini, 2003). The morphological characteristics include features like building density and the physiological characteristics encompass the flow of material and energy consumed in the development and operation of the city. Oswald and Baccini argue that these characteristics are tools to be modify the form and thus functioning of the city. Their conception of the ideal functioning of the city is high-level: nourish and recover, clean, reside and work, and transport and communicate.

In comparison, Todd and Todd integrate precepts of ecological thinking in their framework for the redesign of cities (Todd and Todd, 1994). Todd and Todd provide 9 specific precepts for ecological thinking, but generally the framework promotes a design of cities that operates within the surrounding ecology. When possible, the built environment should mimic processes already embedded in the local ecology. The emphasis is placed firmly on the sacredness of ecology. This valuation of ecological embeddedness is echoed in Lynch’s Good City Form in the description of a city’s performance dimensions.

Lynch describes there being five performance dimensions of the city: vitality, sense, fit, access, and control (Lynch, 1981). These dimensions, as well as the two meta-criteria efficiency and justice, can be used to understand a city’s quality, and indirectly its functioning. For example, one of the dimensions is “vitality,” which includes the city’s capacity to provide sustenance, safety, and the stability of the ecological community. A second performance dimension, “control,” refers to the capacity for a place’s users to be responsible for that place in a way that is congruent with both the structure of the place as well as its problems. Aspects of these dimensions are sometimes in conflict, and the two meta-criteria are used to prioritize action when there is conflict between the dimensions. For Lynch, these dimensions are all directly related to the spatial nature of cities i.e. the functioning of the city is following the form.

Similarly, Jacob emphasizes the relationship between a city’s spatial characteristics and its functioning (Jacob, 1961). Specific examples are given, and there is an emphasis on how a diversity of functioning can be enabled through spatial design. This emphasis follows from Jacob’s belief that “a good city is one that is constantly in use,” where cities are safer, more economically active, and inclusive when they are consistently in use. A consistent use is enabled by a city form that enables a diversity of functions. Jacob’s specific examples for creating this ideal city form include a variety in architecture, population density, and at least two primary functions of an area. There is an interesting conversation about the use of cars where Jacob describes how the use of automobiles (i.e. the erosion of cities!!!) may be selfish or, alternatively, could be reactive to whatever socioeconomic or design pressures may have existed already. Jacob allows that “in the absence of city diversity, people in large settlements are probably better off in cars than on foot. Unmanageable city vacuums are by no means preferable to unmanageable city traffic.”


Lynch, K. (1981). Good City Form.

Jacob, J. (1961). The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

Todd, N. and Todd, J. (1994). From Eco-Cities to Living Machines: Principles of Ecological Design, North Atlantic Books.

Oswald, F., and Baccini, P. (2003). Netzstadt: Designing the Urban, Birkhauser.