Debate and positions
There’s an ongoing debate on whether urban design can be considered a science. Scholars agree that the domain is characterized by the uncritical application of various unrelated theories (Klaasen, 2004; Cuthbert, 2007; Marshall, 2012). From these studies follow that the challenge is to strengthen the theories themselves, improve the coherence between them, and to open up the self-referential nature of the domain. There are several ways to change this situation. Positions vary, from strengthening the domain from within (Marshall, 2012), to replacing the core of urban design (Cuthbert, 2007).

Complexity and urban design
In recent years, the relation between urban design and complexity theory has drawn significant attention. Complexity theories are about open systems, systems that exhibit phenomena such as self-organization, emergence and non-linearity. Classical works are evaluated from a complexity theory point of view, such as the works of Christopher Alexander (Batty & Marshall, 2012, Bettencourt, 2015), Jane Jacobs (Batty, 2008) and Patrick Geddes (Batty & Marshall, 2012). These studies show that the classical works (re-)gain relevance in the context of complexity theory. They also show that the domain of urban design might hold interesting questions and answers for scientists studying complex systems in general.

Cognition and urban design
The relation between urban design and cognitive science has drawn much less attention. Cognitive science is an interdisciplinary field of researchers from psychology, neuroscience, linguistics, philosophy, computer science, and anthropology that seek to understand the mind (Thagard, 2005). The key starting point is The Image of the City from Kevin Lynch, which poses interesting questions related to environmental cognition and designing at a large scale, and their interrelations (Lynch, 1960, 1985). His work, which represents an early cognitive theory of the city, inspired several others to use cognitive science for understand the urban environment (Tzonis, 1992; Haken & Portugali, 2003; Portugali, 2011). These studies show that a classical work (re-)gained relevance in the context of recent developments in cognitive science. It also shows that the domain of urban design might hold interesting questions and answers for scientists studying cognition in general.

Position and contribution
My position is that a transdisciplinary perspective of complexity theory and cognitive science has the potential to deal with the abovementioned challenges, and can strengthen the core of urban design.

A complexity-cognitive framework for urban design
The complexity-cognitive framework I developed is based on three main questions, representing three domains of urban design, and their interrelations (see Figure 1):

  1. How do we design urban environments?
  2. How do we behave in urban environments?
  3. How do we understand the dynamics of urban environments?
  4. What are the relations between these questions?

The questions are explored in my PhD-thesis (Stolk, 2015), and the various conferences (Portugali et al, 2012Portugali & Stolk, 2016). These answers are by no means complete. As such, the framework is an agenda for future research.


The relation between questions 1 and 3 are explored in my PhD thesis. Relations to question 2 were not researched. A systematic exploration of the relations between these questions are part of my future research and collaborations.

Relation to practice
My goal is to develop theories and methods based on academic insights and observations in practice, and to offer insights to both the scientific community as well as to practitioners. I consider urban design practitioners as experts, although implicitly, in dealing with the three domains of urban design. Out of the interaction with these groups, possible improvements for practitioners might emerge.

In general, I aim to make the urban design process, in its widest sense, more explicit and reflective: ‘When [urban designers] do not have explicit views about the methodological issues concerning theories, explanations, and evaluations, it is not because they do not have any views, just that the views they hold are usually implicit and unreflective.’ (Stolk after Thagard, 2009, p. 240)


  • Batty, M. (2008). The size, scale, and shape of cities. Science, 319(5864), 769-771.
  • Batty, M., & Marshall, S. (2012). The Origins of Complexity Theory in Cities and Planning. In J. Portugali, V. J. Meyer, E. H. Stolk, & E. Tan (Eds.), Complexity Theories of Cities Have Come of Age (pp. 21-45). Berlin, Heidelberg: Springer-Verlag.
  • Bettencourt, L. M. A. (2015). The Complexity of Cities and the Problem of Urban Design. In M. W. Mehaffy (Ed.), A City is Not a Tree: 50th Anniversary Edition (pp. 45-62). Portland, Oregon USA: Sustasis Press in association with Center for Environmental Structure.
  • Cuthbert, A. R. (2007). Urban Design: requiem for an era – review and critique of the last 50 years. Urban Design International, 12, 177-223.
  • Haken, H., & Portugali, J. (2003). The face of the city is its information. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 23(4), 385-408.
  • Klaasen, I. T. (2004). Knowledge-based design: developing urban & regional design into a science. (PhD), Technische Universiteit Delft, Delft.
  • Lynch, K. (1960). The image of the city. Cambridge, Mass.: The Technology Press & Harvard University Press.
  • Lynch, K. (1985/1995). Reconsidering The Image of the City. In T. Banerjee & M. Southworth (Eds.), City Sense and City Design (pp. 247-256). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Marshall, S. (2012). Science, pseudo-science and urban design. Urban Design International, 17(4), 257-271.
  • Portugali, J. (2011). Complexity, Cognition and the City. Berlin: Springer.
  • Portugali, J., Meyer, V.J., Stolk, E.H., & Tan, E. (2012). Complexity Theories of Cities have come of age. Heidelberg: Springer.
  • Portugali, J., & Stolk, E.H. (2016). Complexity, Cognition, Urban Planning and Design. Heidelberg: Springer.
  • Stolk, E.H. (2015). Een Complex-Cognitieve benadering van Stedebouwkundig Ontwerpen. (PhD), Technische Universiteit Delft, Delft.
  • Thagard, P. (2005). Mind : introduction to cognitive science (2nd ed.). Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
  • Thagard, P. (2009). Why Cognitive Science Needs Philosophy and Vice Versa. Topics in Cognitive Science, 1, 237-254.
  • Tzonis, A., & Lefaivre, L. (1992). Kevin Lynch and the Cognitive Theory of the City, Design Book Review (Vol. 26). Cambridge: MIT Press.